James Peck (pacifist)

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James Peck
Born December 19, 1914
Manhattan, New York
Died July 12, 1993(1993-07-12) (aged 78)
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Known for Civil rights activism

James Peck (December 19, 1914 – July 12, 1993[1][2]) was an American activist who practiced nonviolent resistance during World War II[3] and in the Civil Rights movement. He is the only person who participated in both the Journey of Reconciliation (1947) and the first Freedom Ride of 1961,[4] and has been called a white civil rights hero.[5]


James Peck (usually called "Jim") was born in Manhattan to Samuel Peck, a wealthy clothing wholesaler, who died when his son was eleven years old. He attended Choate Rosemary Hall, a private boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. Even though Peck and his family had converted from Judaism to the Episcopalian Church, Peck was still considered a social outsider at Choate. Peck preferred the fellowship of scholarly intellectuals and in their company he developed a reputation as an independent thinker and at the same time adopted idealistic political doctrines. He enrolled and studied at Harvard in 1933. While studying at Harvard, Peck polished his skills as a writer and engaged in radical acts that ended up shocking his classmates and forcing him to become the outsider once again. Peck wrote that his mother "referred to Negroes as 'coons'" and he chose to defy her and his classmates by asking a black girl to be his date at the Freshman dance. He dropped out of school at the end of his freshman year when "his alienation from his family and the American establishment was complete". In the labor movement in the 1930s he helped found what later became the National Maritime Union. He was beaten during a 1936 strike.[6]

During World War II he was a conscientious objector and an anti-war activist, like his friend Bayard Rustin, and consequently spent three years in jail at Danbury Correctional Institution in Connecticut (1942–1945). While in prison, he helped start a work strike that eventually led to the desegregation of the mess hall. Also during this time, he participated, as did many other conscientious objectors, in medical experiments, especially a yellow jaundice experiment which permanently damaged his liver. Peck viewed it as volunteering to help discover a cure for the disease and for humanity.[7]

He assisted the War Resisters League, and edited the Worker's Defense League News Bulletin. He also wrote a labor column for The Conscientious Objector.[6]

After the war he became a "radical journalist",[8] and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1946, where he worked as the publicity officer. He became increasingly consumed by the race issue especially after discovering and joining CORE. He was arrested with Rustin in Durham, North Carolina, during the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947 which was an interstate integrated bus journey through the South, which was also Peck's first undertaking with CORE and a precursor to the later Freedom Rides of the 1960s.[6]

Peck was married to the former Paula Zweier for twenty-two years.[9] She was a teacher of cooking and author of The Art of Fine Baking (1961) and Art of Good Cooking (1966).[10][11][12][13] Paula Peck died in 1972. They had two sons, Charles and Samuel.[1]

1961 Freedom Ride[edit]

Before the Freedom Rides began, 16 volunteers, including Peck, traveled to Washington, D.C., at the beginning of April for two days of intensive training in nonviolent activism. Peck recalled that the orientations left the riders tired but ready for what lay ahead when they would start the ride down to the Deep South. Peck was a part of several of the violent occurrences including going from Chapel Hill to Greensboro, North Carolina. Here Peck and several other Riders had to switch to a Trailways bus because Greyhound line did not go between these two stations. Peck and the others boarded the first bus but it never left the station because after the driver asked several of the black members to move to the back, they were promptly arrested. Peck followed the police officers to the station and arranged bail. After arranging bail for two of his colleagues, Peck walked back and forth between the bus station and the police station, making sure the others were safe as they waited for the bus and that their baggage was not being vandalized. A few angry, white cab drivers who were watching the incident began to circle Peck. One of them punched Peck in the side of the head and warned him to mind his business. Peck was also arrested in Asheville for sitting in the "wrong" section of the bus. The bus went on to Knoxville while Peck and his companion Dennis Banks were detained in Asheville. On May 14, Peck was on the second Trailways bus leaving Atlanta, Georgia for Birmingham, Alabama. The first bus, a Greyhound, left an hour earlier and was burned in a firebombing in Anniston, Alabama, seriously injuring the passengers. An hour later the Trailways bus pulled in at the terminal in Anniston[14] and eight Klansmen boarded and assaulted the Freedom Riders. Peck, a frail, middle-aged man at the time, was severely injured in the beating[8] and required fifty stitches.[15]

Later, in Birmingham, Peck and Charles Person (a black student from Atlanta[16]) were the first to descend from the bus, into a crowd of Klansmen who, with the organizational help of Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, were waiting for the Freedom Riders. Howard K. Smith, reporting on-the-scene for CBS, described the ensuing violence on the radio, in words cited by John Lewis in his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: "Toughs grabbed the passengers into alleys and corridors, pounding them with pipes, with key rings, and with fists. One passenger was knocked down at my feet by twelve of the hoodlums, and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp." Lewis adds, "That was Jim Peck's face."[17] Peck was severely beaten and needed 53 stitches to his head.[18] [19] Peck was taken to Carraway Methodist Medical Center, a segregated hospital, which refused to treat him; he was later treated at Jefferson Hillman Hospital.[20][21]


Peck was removed from CORE in 1965, according to him as part of a purge of whites from the movement then under the control of Roy Innis.[16] He continued his activism by demonstrating against the Vietnam War.[1] In 1966 he signed a vow of tax resistance in protest against the Vietnam War.[22] On February, 23, 1966, Peck attended a dinner that honored President Johnson with a "Peace Award" at the Wardolf-Astoria hotel in New York City. Peck painted on the front and back of his shirt, "Peace in Vietnam," but was covered by his coat. When Johnson was about begin his speech, Peck took off his coat, stood on his chair and yelled: "Mr. President, Peace In Vietnam!" Before he could say anything else he was seized from behind by four detectives and was handcuffed and carried out of the ballroom. While he was dragged out he managed to announce his plea three more times.[23]

In 1975, Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. testified that he was a paid FBI informant in the Klan, and that on May 14, 1961 the KKK had been given 15 to 20 minutes without interference by the police. Peck filed a lawsuit against the FBI in 1976, seeking $100,000 in damages.[24] In 1983, he was awarded $25,000,[25] and by this time was paralyzed on one side after a stroke.[citation needed] Peck had been working for Amnesty International until his stroke.[25] By 1985, Peck had moved into a nursing home in Minneapolis, where he died on July 12, 1993, at age 78.[1]

Selected works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Pace, Eric (July 13, 1993). "James Peck, 78, Union Organizer Who Promoted Civil Rights Causes". The New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2010. 
  2. ^ "James Peck (1914-1993)". Washington University Film & Media Archive. Retrieved August 24, 2009. 
  3. ^ Day, Samuel H. (May 29, 2000). "Remember the Non-Violent as Well". Lakeland Ledger. pp. A13. Retrieved April 10, 2010. 
  4. ^ Harris, Jr., Robert L.; Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn, eds. (2006). The Columbia Guide to African American History Since 1939. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 362. ISBN 0-231-13810-5. 
  5. ^ Prier, Elmon (February 18, 2007). "Civil rights movement had white heroes, too". The Middletown Journal. Retrieved April 10, 2010. 
  6. ^ a b c James Peck", Library of America, Reporting Civil Rights.
  7. ^ Bennett, Scott H., Radical pacifism : the War Resisters League and Gandhian nonviolence in America, 1915-1963, Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8156-3003-4. Cf. pp.86, specifically, and various on Jim Peck.
  8. ^ a b Arsenault, Raymond (2006). Freedom riders: 1961 and the struggle for racial justice. Oxford UP. ISBN 978-0-19-513674-6. 
  9. ^ "James Peck, 78, Union Organizer Who Promoted Civil Rights Causes". The New York Times. July 13, 1993. 
  10. ^ Ephron, Nora, "Critics in the World of the Rising Souffle", New York Magazine, September 30, 1968
  11. ^ Bittman, Mark, "THE MINIMALIST; Pudding For Purists, The New York Times, December 8, 2004
  12. ^ Peck, Paula. The Art of Fine Baking, New York : Simon and Schuster, 1961.
  13. ^ Peck, Paula. Art of Good Cooking, New York : Simon and Schuster, 1966
  14. ^ Gross, Terry (January 12, 2006). "Get On the Bus: The Freedom Riders of 1961". NPR. Retrieved August 24, 2009. 
  15. ^ Williams, Juan (1987). Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York: Viking. 
  16. ^ a b "Interview with James Peck". Eyes on the Prize. October 26, 1979. Retrieved April 10, 2010. 
  17. ^ Lewis, John; Michael D'Orso (1998). Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Harcourt Brace. ISBN 0-15-600708-8. 
  18. ^ http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=_8ksAAAAIBAJ&sjid=fhMEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6956,6893063&dq=james-peck+civil+rights&hl=en
  19. ^ According to Raymond Arsenault, this was actually a misidentification; the man beaten, he says, was George Webb, a bystander. Arsenault, Raymond (2006). Freedom riders: 1961 and the struggle for racial justice. Oxford UP. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-19-513674-6. 
  20. ^ Arsenault, Raymond (2006). Freedom riders: 1961 and the struggle for racial justice. Oxford UP. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-19-513674-6. 
  21. ^ Branch, Taylor (1989). Parting the waters: America in the King years, 1954-63. Simon and Schuster. p. 423. ISBN 978-0-671-68742-7. 
  22. ^ http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=%2FSC_Ephemera&CISOPTR=1585
  23. ^ Peck, James. "Underdogs Vs Upperdogs." Canterbury, New Hampshire: Greenleaf Books, 1969.
  24. ^ "Civil rights rider keeps fight alive". Star-News. June 30, 1983. pp. 4A. Retrieved April 10, 2010. 
  25. ^ a b "James Peck, 78, Union Organizer Who Promoted Civil Rights Causes". nytimes. July 13, 1993. Retrieved November 17, 2013. 
  26. ^ Tant, Ed (February 4, 2005). "Tant: Great books detail contributions, history of African Americans". Athens Banner-Herald. Retrieved April 10, 2010. 

Further reading[edit]