I have not read a book that comes closer to making me relive my own experiences! Ed Peeples wrote Scalawag: A White Southerner's Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism to tell
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.I will not "review" the book here, but may write about it again. Meanwhile read on below for I want to share some thoughts with you.
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.
Ed was born in 1935 and I in 1936. We were both working class with racist parents and both were able to get an education and become colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University, often fight the same or similar battles.
Ed opens up a broad spectrum of views into the Virginia culture I still am struggling to understand. He sheds light on parallels between the racism of the South and that I experienced growing up in Chicago.
He expresses well the feeling of being "outside" a culture that is supposedly yours yet one which you somehow manged to escape from. The scars of the racist hate are still in your brain for you never get rid of them. The way the issue separates you from family and others is clearly expressed in this book. I can feel the pain all over again as I read his words.
What I want to focus on now is Virginia. We have had lot happening here in recent times, not a small amount of which somehow was due to the struggles described in this book.
My first encounter with this brand of racism was in the summer of 1954 when I got off the train in Norfolk to board ship for my Freshman Midshipman Cruise. I was regular NROTC at the Illinois Institute of Technology in my home town of Chicago. Before I describe my reaction let me give you a glimpse of what the neighborhood my college was in was like: the days of "Urban Renewal"
Major institutional interests on the South Side, such as the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Michael Reese Hospital, also faced the daunting prospect of surviving within rapidly deteriorating neighborhoods. Even before World War II, they had recommitted themselves to the area, and, in 1946, they joined other local interests to create the South Side Planning Board (SSPB). Staking out a planning interest of seven square miles from Cermak Road south to 47th Street and from Michigan Avenue west to the Pennsylvania Railroad, their efforts—along with those of their Loop counterparts—enticed the New York Life Insurance Company to finance the Lake Meadows development. Michael Reese Hospital soon followed with its own Prairie Shores complex; IIT expanded its campus from 7 to 110 acres; Mercy Hospital decided to remain and grow in the area; and South Commons was developed as a middle-income housing enclave.Please focus on the phrase:
also faced the daunting prospect of surviving within rapidly deteriorating neighborhoods.For this was what the term used for a poor black community in those days.
Back to my experience as I detrained in Norfolk in 1954. I was not new to racism, yet I encountered a form of it I had only heard about until then. The segregated toilets and drinking fountains were symbols of an overt form of racial separation we in Chicago could only do with our catchy slogans like "Urban Renewal".
I came back to Virginia in 1957 to the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico for my nine month basic training as a newly commissioned officer. We were pretty isolated there so I had little taste of real Virginia "culture".
I came back in 1973 to my Associate Professorship at the Medical college of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University. Sometime after that I met Ed. We crossed paths often for we both were activists fighting on different fronts.
I missed the earlier struggles Ed describes in his book. I was busy fighting my own version of those battles in Buffalo and at Harvard.
Now we are both retired. I resisted the George Allen buy out and waited until 2000 to retire. I now live in a small, "rural" county (Mathews-about 75 due East from Richmond, on the bay. Not even one stop light). Where the people around me are also products of the culture Ed describes. Teabaggers and KKK are not that scarce today. I gained a lot of insight reading this book, but I also had my own activism put into a new perspective. The fight is everywhere and there is never any rest. Ed Peeples I salute you! Thank you for this book.