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Working for the underdog

Peggy Misch retired years ago: Now shes working harder than ever


This week, Margaret (Peggy) Misch attended a meeting on Monday, a vigil to protest the war in Iraq on Friday, and a walk in Greensboro to support the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Project on Saturday. She missed her meeting on Tuesday night because she is moving out of the Chapel Hill house she has called home for more than 40 years. But in between packing boxes, Misch found time to field numerous calls and e-mails, connecting people and groups throughout the community. At the age of 74, Misch calls this "slowing down."

But, there is no detectable change of pace. Her friends say she has a boundless amount of energy and dedication. Since Misch moved to Chapel Hill in 1963, she has been using this energy to fuel Chapel Hill's activist community.

"I try to work for the underdog," Misch says, "and I try to let people know about unsung heroes ... I've been concerned about everyone's representation for decades."

Her resume reads like a networker's dream. She has helped bring speakers like Ray McGovern and Noam Chomsky to the area; established organizations such as the Orange County Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Orange County Peace Action; co-chaired the local chapter of the ACLU; and worked tirelessly for organizations such as the Charles M. Jones Peace and Justice Committee, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Coalition for Peace and Justice, and the Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East.

Most recently, Misch started the Orange County Bill of Rights Defense Committee. The group is part of a nationwide initiative to pass local resolutions opposing the USA Patriot Act. The organization has succeeded in passing resolutions in three of Orange County's four jurisdictions. Hillsboro has not yet passed a resolution. But, on July 4, 2002, Misch stood alone with a table and a petition at Carrboro's Fourth of July festival. She passed out fliers and talked to people about the corrosive powers of the act and the importance of the Bill of Rights.

"This effort to protect local residents is an educational process," says Misch, a former teacher, with a laugh. "People need to know the Constitution doesn't just protect citizens. When people say, 'Oh, that protects me,' then you have a chance about education."

At the State Fair this year, she was once again out with a petition against unconstitutional aspects of the USA Patriot Act. She said they got 1,412 signatures, a record number.

Misch's commitment to helping the underdog began at young age. Her first political memories are as a young girl standing in a field listening to a political stump speech with her parents and sitting at a neighbor's house listening to a radio broadcast of the McCarthy trials. But Misch says her passion for activism began as a high school student in American-occupied Germany. At the age of 16, she went with her military father to Furth, in Nuremberg. Her new school's football field had only, months before, hosted Hitler's infamous rallies. Misch says her German peers only understood the model of fascism, and she took it upon herself to teach them how to hold democratic student government elections and create democratic club bylaws.

"It's been a long time I've been on the edge of doing things," she says.

The memory of war and the power of the democratic process fueled Misch's desire to protest the war in Iraq. Every week she joins members of the Orange County Peace Coalition and Silk Hope Catholic Work to wave flags of peace and hold protest signs such as "U.N. IN, U.S. OUT!"

"Protest has an important role to play," Misch says. "It energizes the people who are protesting. It lets them realize people have concerns similar to their own."

Looking back on years of activism, Misch insists her most prized success came after she lost a school board election in 1971. She had three young girls in the recently integrated school system and was infuriated by the white, middle-class elitism of the PTA board. She began holding alternative meetings at the Presbyterian Church of Reconciliation to help motivate and mobilize the so-called "welfare mothers." As a result, she ran in the school board election to get the black community's voice heard. She said she lost the election but gained valuable networks.

With the ground work already laid, Misch took on the role of campaign manager for Richard Whitted's run for county commissioner in 1972. Whitted was a black male running against historically conservative white incumbents. According to Misch, he needed her valuable networks to overcome the staggering odds. And with her help, Whitted won the election and became the first black county commissioner in Orange County.

"I feel so very happy that he made a dent," Misch says, looking at a framed newspaper clipping of a Whitted event. "There were five county commissioners with at least three 'good ole boys.' This election had the first black male and had a white female. Since then, the county commissioners have been fine."

Misch's underlying mantra is: It all comes down to hard work. Her close friend and fellow community activist Lucy Lewis said the Orange County community relies on this unwavering dedication.

"When there is a peace vigil in the community," Lewis says, "Peggy will be there. When there is a program where they speak out on justice in the Middle East, Peggy will be there. If there is a community event about a moratorium on the death penalty, Peggy will be there. She has a wide range of concerns and works unbelievably hard on a number of them."

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