A White Southerner's Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism
Publication Year: 2014
Scalawag 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. That message came with an equally cruel one—that, as the child of a wage-earning single mother, he was destined for failure.
But by age nineteen Peeples became what the whites in his world called a "traitor to the race." Pushed by a lone teacher to think critically, Peeples found his way to the black freedom struggle and began a long life of activism. He challenged racism in his U.S. Navy unit and engaged in sit-ins and community organizing. Later, as a university professor, he agitated for good jobs, health care, and decent housing for all, pushed for the creation of African American studies courses at his university, and worked toward equal treatment for women, prison reform, and more. Peeples did most of his human rights work in his native Virginia, and his story reveals how institutional racism pervaded the Upper South as much as the Deep South.
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.
Published by: University of Virginia Press
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It was a blistering hot summer day in 2011 at a Richmond suburban strip mall. Reading in our dentist’s waiting room while my daughter was being treated, I happened to look out the full- length window. On the covered walkway was a plump grandmotherly white woman with bleached- blond hair...
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This is the story of a lifetime of human rights activism outside the spotlight. For the half century since he was a college student, Ed Peeples has been trying to make a difference in the world. But unlike the social movement leaders seen on the evening news and featured in weighty biographies, his have been...
Part One: Learning Whiteness
1: The Arrival of Another Birthright Segregationist
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My mother picked a helluva day for me to arrive on this earth: April 20, 1935, the same birthday as Adolf Hitler, who at that very moment was engaged in the violent creation of his Aryan empire. This proved to be a strange coincidence, because I contended all my adult life with some of the...
2: Learning God’s Primary Colors
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While we often visited South Carolina, the preponderance of my whiteness education took place in Richmond, and the basic message was the same. I can recall sensing as early as about age fi ve how much race mattered to adults. They impressed upon me that there were two kinds of...
3: Boys Will Be Boys
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Unfortunately the Jesus of my faith proved to be no match for the malicious white kids from my Southside neighborhood who lured me into some of their racist acts of cruelty. In my time, much of the white South observed a proud tradition of hypermasculine truculence, and we had...
4: Out of the Family Tempest
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When I was 13 we moved to Northside Richmond, much closer to the beauty shop where my mother, our breadwinner, worked. It was a more middle- class neighborhood with fewer miscreants and enticements for juvenile delinquency. I am sure my mother had this in mind when she managed...
5: Receiving My Class Assignment in High School
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Having left my father standing on the stoop at our Richmond house in February 1952, my mother, Steve, and I headed for Jacksonville to start a new life. We moved into my Aunt Mamie’s spare room for a few months until we found a two- room apartment near our schools. My mother...
Part Two: Encountering a New World
6: The Hillbilly Blues
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In 1953, a couple of mornings aft er graduating 330 out of 424 seniors from Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, I was headed north to Cleveland, Ohio, to look for work. I was travelling with a seventeen- year old named Dick who was the son of my mother’s friend. Dick and I had never...
7: Dr. Alice Recruits Another Justice Seeker
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My reinstatement at RPI began a process of transforming a provincial, naive, and bigoted southern white boy into a young man with a budding passion for racial justice and human rights. One person who made a huge difference for me and many other students was a sociology professor...
8: Boot Camp for Human Rights
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By the end of my sophomore year at RPI, I was struggling with a torrent of questions about my upbringing. New ideas and experiences and reading were showing me that much of our precious “southern way of life” was a preposterous and cruel fabrication. I felt betrayed by my family, my...
9: Some Shipmates Are More Equal than Others
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Uncle Sam insisted that my quest for democracy in America would have to wait. He needed me in his “Power for Peace” military force to help spread “freedom” across the world. My fantasy that the navy would give me a billet somewhere like the South Pacific proved to be just that — a...
Part Three: Battling the Hydra
10: Reconnecting with the Struggle on the Home Front
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Back in Richmond aft er my discharge in September of 1959, I longed to meet other committed people and get into the justice struggle. My unwillingness to hide my liberal racial and religious views made it difficult to find work as a teacher and coach. But I finally landed a job as a caseworker...
11: Sit- ins Come to the Old Capitol of the Confederacy
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When I went to work at the city welfare department, I had only undertaken small personal acts against segregation. But by 1960 many of my new Richmond friends and I were looking to widen our involvement in the fight for civil rights. Our generation of activists was determined...
12: “They Closed Our Schools”
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In the fall of 1959, as I was leaving the navy, I learned that offi cials in Prince Edward County, Virginia, were closing the public schools to circumvent court- ordered desegregation. I was outraged and ashamed of my home state. I pledged to myself to get involved. In my fi rst months at the welfare department...
13: The Bridge over the Mason- Dixon Line
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During the summer of 1961 I finally figured out the career I wanted and how to train for it. I applied to graduate programs in human relations, an interdisciplinary social science field that centered on the study of racial, ethnic, and religious intergroup encounters. With a fellowship from...
14: A New Career and Maybe a New Virginia?
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The summer of 1963 had me scrambling: traveling back and forth between Washington for consultations on the Prince Edward issue, Pennsylvania for the camp job, and Richmond to look for a place to live before I began my new job at the Medical College of Virginia. It was my fi rst college...
15: Communists, Sex Fiends, and Half- Breeds Take the Struggle to Appalachia
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My two years of teaching at MCV proved to be a turning point in what heretofore had been a happenstance career path. The exposure to the inner workings of a big teaching hospital; the education of physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, and all the other health professionals; and...
16: Confronting the Racism of the“Baron” of Kentucky Basketball
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Over the years I learned a lot of different ways to stick it to segregation and white supremacy. One unique opportunity came aft er I returned to the University of Kentucky from Barbourville and resumed my PhD studies. The work was intense and spare time short. But I managed...
Part Four: Combating Old Injustices in New Finery
17: An Activist Professor in a New University in the Old Capital of the Confederacy
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When I left MCV for graduate school in Lexington, Fred Spencer and I both assumed that I would likely return to take a position in his Department of Preventive Medicine. At that time Virginia Commonwealth University was little more than a glimmer in the eyes of those who...
18: If the Hurricane Don’t Blow You Away,the Government Will
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In August of 1969, a year aft er our return to Richmond, I got a call from the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia asking me to lead a research team to the hurricane- devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast. They wanted us to document the response of the federal, state, and local government...
19: Guilty of Pushing Racial Justice Too Fast
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In the months aft er my return from Mississippi, there was much to please me. The student responses in my classes were better than I could have ever hoped for. The university was making significant progress in its facilities, faculty recruitment, curriculum, and reputation. And my good friends Bob...
20: New Human Rights Struggles in the Era of Stealth Racism
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In the early seventies the civil rights movement we once knew in Richmond evolved into something different. It had to because, where previously the targets had been clear and bald- faced segregation laws and customs and those who exercised and protected them, in the seventies white supremacy...
Epilogue: Finally a Kinsman with Whom I Am Not a Stranger
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By the late seventies the tension between my parents and me regarding race lessened somewhat. The demise of legal segregation made me fi nally seem a bit more mainstream and them more the outliers. With part of the uneasiness gone, my mother and I were able to revive some of the early devotion...
James H. Hershman Jr.
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Ed Peeples’s memoir reminds us that it is human beings, not abstract concepts, that create social change. Individuals like Peeples who challenge dominant powers by standing up for justice and human rights play a crucial role. Their seemingly marginal voices and actions trigger a larger social conscience...
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Many have stood with me in what I have done with my life, and so they are all in some way coauthors of this book. But these thoughts would have never become a book had I not had the good fortune of Nancy MacLean showing up on my doorstep. Until then they were nothing but an idle stack of...
Further Reading onVirginia Civil Rights History
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Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 17 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2014