Remembering Joe Straley

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.



I never met Joe Straley, but your description of him is so compelling: "warm, easy-going and down-to-earth, with a depth of compassion and a big heart that drew people to him and his projects"
This reminds me of an Einstein quote: "The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible."
Einstein is a little harsh... but you get my drift...

"He saw UNC travel from the vaunted liberalism of Frank Porter Graham to the callow corporatism of James Moeser."

Wow! What exactly is the meaning of "callow corporatism?
Was that Dr. Straley's perspective?

What more can we say? We will miss you, Joe!

Thanks for writing this, Dan. You expressed the immense depth and breadth of Joe's work and expressed the feelings that a lot of us have for him.

I first met Joe Straley in the Fall of 1969 when I took his physics for non-majors class. (then listed as Physics 20) I also knew Joe through many anti-Vietnam war activities in Chapel Hill, but my main memories were the fall of 1979 when we spent many weeks on the campaign trail together, he in a successful campaign for Town Council, me in an unsuccessful run for Mayor. I learned a lot from Joe in that campaign.

Joe was a tireless advocate for the causes he believed in.
Joe also taught me the practical side of Physics in his course. I remember "Occam's razor", that the simplest answer to a question is the most likely the correct one. That maxim has helped me solve countless other problems!

Dan mentions how much Joe Straley had done in the 20 years since he met Joe. My memory of Joe is frozen at 20 years ago when I left Chapel Hill (though I did speak with him this past summer)

We have all lost something in Joe Straley's passing.

You're right Gerry. Part of Joe's stature (and the extent of our loss) is that no one person has walked with him through the full breadth of his accomplishments. Diana McDuffee and I were discussing yesterday how, for example, Steve Dear wrote to the paper on Joe's support for the death penalty moratorium, Jerry Markatos on Joe's involvement with BAJ, Dan Pollitt was quoted in the Herald on Joe's civil rights activism... you get the picture. We could not think of anyone who'd shared all these involvements with him.

I think that Chapel Hill should have a Peace Monument right outside the Post Office. Maybe something on the edge of the traditional gathering space, maybe fence-like so it doesn't dominate the space.

It should be dedicated to the many, many peace activists who have lived in Chapel Hill, prominent among them of course is Joe. Also Charlotte Adams. And so many others. A lot of people we all know. Plus many down through the years.

Anyway, it would be inspiring to have a Peace Monument in this society of war and violence. And since we've got art money made available by the 2% program, we should be able to find the dough.

“He saw UNC travel from the vaunted liberalism of Frank Porter Graham to the callow corporatism of James Moeser.”

Dan, I get "vaunted liberalism" but could you tell me what you mean by "callow corporatism ?"

Fred, I think the words speak for themselves. If you need further explanation perhaps you should refer to a dictionary.

I'd personally appreciate it if we don't turn our remembrance of Joe into an ideological debate. Thanks.

Joe would have relished still being controversial ...

Joe Straley did not write those words, the author of the column did. I have asked three very knowledgeable and highly educated people what they thought it meant, given what the two words alone mean, and all three had different answers. Hence, I asked the source what he meant.

Ruby, why the dual standard that you seem to apply to me? How is asking what a writer what an "ideological debate?" After all, who used the remembrance to make his feelings clear about the current chancellor? Not me.

We all have memories. My wife's family has theirs, as Joe Straley was one of the few who welcomed her double-cousins when they entered UNC in the 50s after winning the lawsuit.

And Ruby, sarcastically referring me to a dictionary, like calling people stupid, does nothing to elevate your reputation as a person who lives the beliefs that you claim to hold.

Is there any fund people are encouraged to contribute to to honor Joe's memory?

The family requested that donations be made in Mr. Straley's name to the CITCA/ Witness-for-Peace Youth Delegation Support Fund, care of CITCA, P.O. box 1188, Chapel Hill, 27514.


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