A White Southerner's Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism
Edward H. Peeples, with Nancy MacLean. Afterword by James H. Hershman Jr.
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.
Peeples gives us a remarkably intimate account of a youth misspent learning how to be white and therefore how to ignore the miseries caused on both sides of the color line by segregation, poverty, and violence. Just as important, he brings to life a maturity devoted to putting aside such childish things in order to fight against such miseries. This is an arresting personal and political account of the transformative power of freedom movements.
White southerners have long had ‘a rage to explain,’ but only a few have told about the South from a white working-class point of view. Scalawag is a riveting coming-of-age tale: the first-person story of a poor boy’s moral education. Overcoming the injuries of class and the crippling lessons of white supremacy, Edward Peeples went on to become a foot soldier in a long struggle for human rights. We are in his debt, and in the debt of his historian collaborators, for a memoir that illuminates a whole landscape of local activism too often eclipsed by a popular narrative focused on a few iconic events and individuals.
A dazzling first-person account of a lifetime in the civil rights struggle, as a white southern boy grows up in Richmond, Virginia, grows out of his Jim Crow upbringing, and becomes a 'race traitor' scalawag.
You can’t get out of your moment of history unless you get outside your comfort zone. Ed Peeples definitely got out of his comfort zone and into a new moment of history. And we are all the better for it.... [He] gives each of us hope that our actions, however small they may seem, really can make a difference and change the course of history.
For those of us committed to social justice, Peeples's life and work remind us that the journey can start, and often should, right in our own backyard.
Edward H. Peeples is Associate Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. Nancy MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and the author of Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. James H. Hershman Jr. is on the faculty of the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Georgetown University.