Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday September 24, 2005
Remembering Joe Straley
This week, Chapel Hill lost it's great icon of progressive activism of the past half-century. Since the 1950s, Joe Straley, who died last Wednesday at age 90, has been a continual force in Chapel Hill politics, one whose range of concerns was truly global.
From civil rights and anti-war activism in the 1950s and '60s, to a stint on the Town Council in the 1970s, to leadership of the Carolina Interfaith Taskforce on Central America in the 1980s and into the 21st century, Joe Straley did it all. He was an unflinching advocate for racial justice, civil liberties, solidarity with oppressed peoples the world over and for peace. In this age of self-congratulatory American empire, Joe was an anti-imperialist and an internationalist.
But beyond the issues and the activism, Joe was a special kind of person. Not a great orator, Straley was always on point and well-spoken. By no means a charismatic leader, he was warm, easy-going and down-to-earth, with a depth of compassion and a big heart that drew people to him and his projects.
Some time ago, a reporter told me of asking Joe who "the next Joe Straley would be." It struck me as an absurd question. If Joe had disappeared from public life at age 70 having only been a bastion for civil rights, peace and justice, and an indefatigable public servant for the previous 30 years, it might have been true, as Ruby Sinreich wrote earlier this week, that Joe was merely "one of [our] most dedicated, inspiring and historic leaders." Another 20 years of unrelenting activism have placed him on a plateau by himself.
Joe's political involvement spanned the dark years of McCarthyism to the bleak reign of George W. Bush. He saw the abuses of the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and the racist and class-based neglect revealed last month by Hurricane Katrina. He saw the Cold War expire in a brief moment of hope that was soon to be dashed by the evocation of an endless war on an amorphous enemy, terrorism.
He saw UNC travel from the vaunted liberalism of Frank Porter Graham to the callow corporatism of James Moeser. Through it all, Joe stood against those who insisted that freedom must be curtailed, justice denied or peace sold short.
Sure, there are others who have stood out over that half century but none with the breadth of interest, intensity of commitment and length of service of Joe Straley.
Straley's activism was not the sort that grabbed headlines. But consider the following selection from newspaper articles in which Straley appears over just the past decade:
April 1994: speaking out on ethical issues in local politics. September 1995: joining protesters demanding better pay and conditions for UNC and town workers. November 1997: supporting student protest of Nike labor practices. February 1998: organizing buses to a protest of Bill Clinton's Iraq policy. December 1998: helping coordinate aid efforts for victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America. August 2000: criticizing, in his role as AARP vice chairman, David Price's position on national healthcare policy. June 2002: speaking at a celebration of the creation of the International Criminal Court.
That is just a sampling of Joe's work since his 80th year. To have been active in so many areas, to say nothing of the ability to serve as a leader and spokesperson, is mind-boggling.
It will take a biographer, not a columnist, to do justice to Straley's lifetime of contribution and accomplishment. But even in the 20 years or so that I've known him, Joe's activism was virtually unparalleled.
As important as Joe's leadership has been, he was a stalwart of the rank-and-file as well. His was an unflagging presence at rallies, picket lines, marches and vigils over the decades. If the cause was just, Joe would be there.
Those who knew him will remember his laugh, easy and infectious. To succeed as an activist for as many years and with the commitment of Joe Straley requires a strong sense of humor.
On the occasion of his receiving the 2003 Peace Award from N.C. Peace Action, Joe said, "Every century is very much like the last century. Does that mean the 21st century is going to be as bad or maybe worse than the most terrible century in human history? Well, it's up to us to prevent that from being the case. Our work is cut out for us. We must make this century better than the last century."
Indeed, our work is cut out for us and will be that much harder without Joe Straley. We will need many more of his caliber. They will be hard to find.