We interviewed Ed Peeples, alum 1957 New York, and Encampment Program Director, 1966 Kentucky, just as his memoir is about to be appear in bookstores. Scalawag: A White Southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism, “tells the surprising story of a white working-class boy who became an unlikely civil rights activist. Born in 1935 in Richmond, where he was sent to segregated churches and schools, Ed Peeples was taught the ethos and lore of white supremacy by every adult in his young life. . . . Covering fifty years’ participation in the long civil rights movement, Peeples’s gripping story brings to life an unsung activist culture to which countless forgotten individuals contributed, over time expanding their commitment from civil rights to other causes. This engrossing, witty tale of escape from what once seemed certain fate invites readers to reflect on how moral courage can transform a life.” (University of Virginia Press)
A couple of chapters in the book are devoted to Ed’s Encampment for Citizenship (EFC) experiences and provide engrossing reading. In the meantime, Ed shared a sneak peek with us of some of his Encampment memories.
Ed, what was your first impression of the EFC? I loved it. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a bunch of liberals and I hadn’t seen any in their natural habitat. I had a lot of time to ponder—360 miles—as I drove up from Virginia in my ’48 Chevy. At that time, I was so isolated and alone, painfully alone. Family and friends had rejected and harassed me. I was longing for good company of the mind. I drove across the George Washington Bridge and into the Bronx where I first saw Fieldston School. I went to the dining hall where people were gathering. And they were all so erudite, informed, eloquent—White and Black youth. It was a powerful experience coming from my segregated South. My first thought was that, “I don’t measure up” and I felt inadequate, scared about getting the bum’s rush. But no one was unkind or unwelcoming.
At our first official meeting, I was so honored to meet Al Black (co-founder of the EFC) and Bill Shannon. Al gave an inspiring speech and I thought, “I’ve got to learn to speak extemporaneously like this man.” We then introduced ourselves. There were great stories. And there were also people like me—who had been raised to be more passive, retiring, humble—Native Americans and Blacks and White Southerners—people just like me who didn’t express themselves much at first. There was a charge made to the group from Al Black that I thought is really what the EFC is about— an obligation to take it all in and take it home and do something with it.
Tell us about a memorable experience. There were so many. We went to the U.N. where we heard Ralph Bunche and many other distinguished speakers. But one memory that really stands out for me was the night of our banquet. Alice K. (Nanny) Pollitzer (co-founder of the EFC) was about to give a speech. The podium was near a large glass window behind us that faced the parking lot below. As she stepped up to the podium, we heard repeated shouting and racial epithets from outside. Then a stone crashed through the window and hit Nanny on the back of the head. Nanny, who was about 86 at the time, pitched forward. She righted herself, ignored what had happened, and went on to give an inspiring talk urging us “Go forth and right the world!” When she finished, we all stood up and screamed and clapped. It just turned on the buttons inside of everyone. We thought, “I will never retreat from this again.” We wanted our commitment measure up to her example!
What did you learn at the Encampment? I learned that I deserved to think more of myself—maybe I am somebody. That was the principal effect and lesson and that I was never alone again. I now had a reference group that I was a part of no matter where I was. I could refer to the Encampment experience, its attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Also, I learned a lot about different ethnic groups. Encampers came from all over the country and world and I came to feel the sense of justice resounding around our country. I saw that my views were not my sole property but part of a world communion. We were charged to “Go forth!” It doesn’t matter about lack of support. You are speaking up for the rights of people throughout the world. You are a local agent of a world community. Get on with it! And, I was never alone again.
How has the Encampment influenced your life? Never being alone gave me a sense of self-certainly about the righteousness of standing up for justice. Even when I was in the Navy, I stood up for things—challenged racism, engaged in sit-ins and community organizing. I had become more forceful, less cowardly. I wrote a LOOK magazine letter-to-the editor about the failings of the military. I was not a pacifist when I went in. I felt obliged to serve and protect our country but that’s not what they use the military for and I spoke up about it. Sometime after I left the military, I wrote my master’s thesis on the fight for desegregation of the schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Later, as a university professor, I agitated for good jobs, health care, and decent housing for all, pushed for the creation of African American studies courses at my university, and worked toward equal treatment for women, prison reform, and more.
The Encampment gave me the support and tools at exactly the right time to become the civil rights and human rights activist that I have been for 56 years. One reason why I was persuaded to write this book is that real change, the kind that occurs over time, like desegregation, is not solely dependent on iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, they inspired us but the people who desegregated the South were ordinary, usually unnamed, people (often women) who stood up for what was right day after day, got beaten up and disparaged, for years until it was done. I’m talking about segregation here, not racism. Often a historical account of a social movement focuses on iconic figures but I am talking about a culture of activism that anyone can embrace and participate in right now in their home community. The EFC prepared us and charged us to “Go forth and right the world!”
Ed, in 1966 you were Program Director for the first Southern Encampment. I understand this was a harrowing experience. Can you tell us something about this?
It would be impossible to give you a quick answer to the events of that six weeks and I do cover it in the book at length. Very few in the county, including well-meaning local whites, suspected the virulent white supremacy that lay just below the surface of Barbourville life. I can say that the repeated verbal and even physical assaults made on the Encampers actually ended up validating several of the EFC main principles. First, the geographically, racially and socio-economically diverse group bonded into an integrated community breaking down psychological barriers and building trust between people who society would have assumed were fundamentally dissimilar. Second, these young people had witnessed a visionary prospect—they had “been to the mountaintop”—and knew they had become the special bearers of this message as they left for their hometowns. They had become part of a world communion of witnesses to what can be. Third, by their work in the community, Encampers were making lots of local friends. They did things that ranged from clearing creek beds to reading to young children to organizing a neighborhood newsletter and activities associated with promoting greater citizen activism.
Ed, you were instrumental in EFC’s re-launch in Richmond in 2013. I was delighted that the EFC Board chose to push the Encampment re-start button in Richmond. I was also grateful and proud how Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) stepped into a major supportive role. We could not have pulled it off without John Ulmschneider and his remarkable staff at the VCU Libraries. My great hope is that the Richmond rebirth demonstrates that the Encampment is back and can once again fill more generations of youth with the strengths and fire it left in us Encampers in its first fifty years. Go forth! To Chicago!
Ed’s book is available from the University of Virginia Press. You can also find it on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble. Or order from your local bookstore. If it sells 1000 copies, it can made into paperback and used in classrooms to inspire a new generation of social justice activists.
Ed Peeples is Associate Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine & Community Health at Dept. of Preventive Medicine & Community Health, Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the recipient of the Riese-Melton Award for “Outstanding Contributions to Cross Cultural Relations”, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1983. He is the father of four daughters: Suzy, Katy, Cecily, and Camille. He lives in Richmond, VA with his beloved life partner of over 30 years, Karen Wawrzyn.