The Unlikely Activist

The odds were against Ed Peeples growing up to be an activist who would inspire countless others. Raised in what he describes as a systematically racist South, Peeples transcended his roots to become a committed soldier in the Civil Rights Movement. This fascinating and unlikely story is the focus of his new memoir, Scalawag: A White Southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism. Peeples recently answered a few questions about his beginnings in activism and the changes he has seen over a half century.

Q: You were born and raised in Richmond—the capital of the Confederacy—in 1935 and went to segregated churches and schools. Considering the very conservative nature of the city, what motivated you to pursue civil rights activism?

A: It was an evolutionary process. Until age eighteen I had never known anything but white supremacist ideology as the explanation for the racial relationships I saw all about me. So that is what I and “my people” considered “normal.” Leaving home introduced me to a number of experiences which little by little led me to challenge that “normal,” which in turn ultimately made a commitment to civil rights action an inescapable moral obligation. The early chapters of my memoir follow this transformation.

Q: The recent celebration of MLK Day and then the passing of Pete Seeger brought an outpouring of memories and appreciations of the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. Do you think these strong emotions suggest a nostalgia for something that is gone from our society?

A: Some may see these celebrations as merely exercises in nostalgia for long-gone heroics. But I see them as necessary for reassuring today’s Civil Rights Movement successors of the fact that they are organically part of a long, enduring, world-wide communion of justice seekers and thus are never alone. So I am not so much impressed with those who volunteer or celebrate only on MLK Jr’s birthday as I am by those who make advocacy of human rights a way of life.

Q: You were raised by a wage-earning single mother. How was your upbringing influenced by her situation, as well as by other adults around you, including your teachers?

A: The Southern culture I grew up in was a schizoid milieu. I was taught many of the social niceties and personal virtues which for so long whitewashed the South’s reputation. But when it came to race, ethnicity, social class, gender identities, the handicapped, immigrants, foreigners, etc.—it was all-out bigotry. Some of these lessons were delivered with bombast and rampage, but more were passed to me through gussied up apologetics and deft examples. My mother and my school teachers were of the later pedagogical school.

Q: What was your experience like in the Navy, and how did your challenging racism impact your relationships while on duty?

A: I entered active duty in the Navy at age 22 as a college grad and already had a number of experiences dealing with justice seeking, so I was bit better prepared for push back against racism than many others there. Moreover, my actions were always carefully calculated, and so I seemed to have created something of a reputation as the military equivalent of a jail-house lawyer. I once had a letter to the editor published in Look Magazine “constructively criticizing” the Navy. It appeared right under a letter written on the same subject by Adlai Stevenson. True, I was occasionally put on report and lost liberty on cooked-up charges in retaliation for my activism. But my reputation among the officers as no push-over, and cover provided by my loyal cadre of shipmates, appears to have been enough to keep me out of the brig, the frequent fate of other such malcontents.

Q: Do you recognize qualities in our current society that remind you of the forces, both good and bad, that you encountered as an activist in the ’60s?

A: Oh yes. Those who object to protections of voter rights, equality of educational and economic opportunity and health care accessibility for all Americans today use nearly the identical schemes and sophistry that we faced in our battles with the segregationists in the 1950s and ’60s. But one thing that was always encouraging to me back then was the fact that while white bigotry gave the appearance of being a solid front, wherever I went in the South, I could always somehow find white brothers or sisters in racial justice. There were not many of them and the media rarely acknowledged the humblest among them, but they often courageously fought alone behind enemy lines in the white sanctuaries of racism. They played no small part in the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement.

Q: You had a long teaching career. What changes did you see in your students’ awareness over the course of your career?

A: I taught students in many different majors and professions, mostly in the fields of science and medicine, during great periods of change in race relations. Of course, in subjects where race was a significant element, conditions have turned upside down from 1963 when, for example, I was dropped from teaching any further introductory sociology courses because I invited a black man to speak to my class on race relations. Again in 1964 white supremacy reared its pointy head when some unidentified individual showed up in my class in Ku Klux Klan garb, presumably calculated to intimidate me. A few weeks later, in our team-taught class, a number of our medical students hurled their paper coffee cups at Senator Hubert Humphrey advocating the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the lecture hall TV monitor. But as years passed—time, compelling data, and the living testimonials of victims of racism progressively softened resistance. So today formal analysis of social stratification of all sorts in our society is found in some form or another in a preponderance of the disciplines in our state’s universities and colleges.

Q: What’s the most special moment to you in the course of your activism, and (aside from your memoir) where to you plan to go from here?

A: There have been many highlights I might mention here. One which was among the most gratifying was the day I learned that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed and signed by president Johnson. We had learned that the threat of the truth revealed in our report on the Prince Edward County school closing to the US Civil Rights Commission may have figured in the negotiations with the segregationists in Congress for its passage. It was a thrilling and proud moment for me and I finally saw a concrete result of my years of work in and about Prince Edward County, “The Story Without An End.”

As for what is next for me: Now almost 80, I will continue to push other unheralded activists who struggled alongside me during this last half century to record their story much as I have in my book, Scalawag. For it is these testimonials that show what had to be done in behalf of justice after Martin Luther King left town.

Scalawag: A White Southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism is available now. The book also has its own web site.