by Miles Rapoport, Encampment for Citizenship, Kentucky ’66
It is almost impossible to overstate the impact that the Encampment for Citizenship had on my life and the lives of about 50 high school students in that summer of 1966. I attended the Encampment at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky, along with two friends from my white high school in Great Neck, New York.
All of us were already politically aware, liberal and active in our high school on civil rights issues and the war in Vietnam, but the experience I had in Barbourville changed my entire way of looking at the world.
It was a moment in our country’s history. It was the moment of the War on Poverty, and we went out into the “hollers” to paint mailboxes to encourage people to participate. It was the summer of the Watts rebellion, Stokely Carmichael and Black Power. It was a moment of youth rebelling against the tight social morés of the 1950s, and all of that swirled around us.
Ed and his team did a magnificent job of assembling a remarkable group of 50 students from around the country. We were an amazing mix of geography, race, class and social experiences. Ed and the staff did an equally magnificent job of holding the group together, turning conflicts into learning experiences, balancing the nurturing of experimentation with the responsibilities of supervision. We struggled, we argued, we learned, we understood worlds more about other people’s life experiences, and we formed bonds that have lasted a lifetime. And we became life-long fighters for social justice, imbued with a far-stronger sense of commitment than when we came.
It was only later, when I read Ed’s autobiography, Scalawag, that I learned how dangerous a moment it also was externally. Ed dealt with deep community opprobrium, threats of violence and even death, a drive-by shooting, and decisions about whether to shut down the Encampment, all of which we Encampers were only vaguely aware of. We stayed open, we stayed positive, and Ed’s vigilance and courage saw us through.
Ed is gone now, but the lives he changed just in that one summer, added to the infinite examples of his courage and compassion, constitute a powerful legacy, and an enormous contribution to the clearly-still-unfinished struggle for equality, justice and peace.
Thank you, Ed Peeples. You changed my life forever, and I love you for it.
Miles Rapoport is a senior practice fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. He is a former president of Demos and of Common Cause, as well as serving in public office for many years where he was a strong advocate for economic and racial justice, and a fully inclusive democracy. In his current role at the Kennedy School, Miles works to connect the faculty and students at the school to the ‘field of practice’ of democracy reform, including issues of expansion of voting participation, gerrymandering, and campaign finance reform. He writes frequently on democracy issues for The American Prospect magazine, and serves on the Boards of State Voices, Everyday Democracy, The American Prospect, and the Scherman Foundation.