Peter Irons

SNCC, CORE, NAG, 1960-65, Washington, Virginia, Maryland
Current Residence: San Diego, CA
Phone: 530-310-3903

I began my involvement with the Freedom Movement in 1958, as a white, middle-class student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I was raised in a family that abhorred racism, and in the Unitarian Church, where I learned about struggles for religious and racial freedom. At Antioch, I was greatly influenced by Eleanor Holmes, a black student from DC, who is now Eleanor Holmes Norton, the DC delegate in Congress. She headed the Antioch student chapter of the NAACP, and led a group of Antioch students to a march in DC for school integration in 1959, on the 5th anniversary of the Brown decision. This was my first demonstration and I was inspired to see thousands of students from around the country at this march and rally.

I moved to DC in 1960 to work at an Antioch co-op job at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, where I lived with several Howard University students, including Henry (Hank) Thomas. He brought me to some of the early meetings of the Non-Violent Action Group (NAG) where I met Dion Diamond, Lawrence Henry, and Stokely Carmichael, among others. I took part in several DC-area picketings of segregated movie theaters and restaurants, and was arrested for the first time at a "bowl-in" in September 1960 at a segregated bowling alley in suburban Maryland; about 20 of us were jailed overnight (in segregated cells).

I dropped out of Antioch in 1962 and moved back to DC, where I resumed working with Howard students and volunteered in the DC office of SNCC; I had attended the first national SNCC conference at Morehouse College in Atlanta in October (I think) 1960. I had a job with the Auto Workers Union (UAW) in their DC office, and helped organize the March on Washington in August 1963, at which John Lewis spoke for SNCC; the UAW contributed money to bring people from the South to DC, and I was the liason between the UAW and SNCC.

I left DC in 1965 to serve a three-year federal prison term for refusing military service, having sent my draft card back to my local board in Cincinnati after the SNCC conference in Atlanta, telling the board I would not serve in the army of a country that still practiced segregation and apartheid. After leaving prison in 1969 I went to Boston University graduate school in political science, working with Howard Zinn, who had been fired from Spelman College in Atlanta for supporting his students who took part in the Freedom Movement. After grad school, I was accepted (much to my surprise) at Harvard Law School in 1975 and became a law professor after I graduated in 1978. I've remained active in civil rights struggles since then, including initiating the successful effort in the 1980s to reverse the convictions of Japanese Americans who resisted the mass internment during World War Two.

I think often of my friends and compatriots in the Freedom Movement, and honor them for enduring hostility, jail, beatings (like Hank Thomas in the Freedom Rides), and even death. There's much left to do, and the struggle continues. But those days in the '60s shaped my life forever, and I'm proud to have played a small role in that struggle.


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