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A fond farewell to Joe Straley

He was one of Chapel Hill's leading activists for more than 40 years, starting with the Civil Rights movement and later against U.S. military involvement in Central America.


When Joe Straley received the 2003 Peace Award from North Carolina Peace Action, he told a story from his childhood that helped his friends understand the source of his passion.

Straley was 7 years old as his parents washed dishes together. "My father was expressing remorse, anger, regret about something awful that was happening to the Armenians," Straley said. "I saw a great tear fall from my mother's eye into the dishwater. I suppose that that tear did more to make a peacenik out of me than anything that ever happened in my life. I'll never forget it. I will not be able to forget it, and I don't want to forget it. Emotion will carry the day at times and emotion, at times, is exactly what we need."

Two years later the tears of many are falling as the Triangle peace and justice community mourns the death of Straley, 90, who died Sept. 21 at UNC Hospitals. Born in Paulding, Ohio, in 1914, Straley taught physics at UNC-Chapel Hill. His local activism began with the Civil Rights movement, and expanded to include opposition to war, the death penalty and U.S. imperialism, especially in Latin America.

Chapel Hill community and civil rights activist Fred Battle says Straley was a person who won the trust of African Americans. Battle was in high school when he first met Straley during efforts to desegregate Chapel Hill's lunch counters. Battle would meet with Straley and the late Rev. Charles Jones at the Community Church of Chapel Hill, a congregation that Straley and his surviving wife, Lucy, helped found more than 50 years ago.

"Joe Straley was a man that really stood up for what he believed in, and his legacy was that he stood up for people's human rights and civil rights, and he was a champion for the disenfranchised people of the community as well as the nation, because he went over to Nicaragua and everything. He was a man that was committed to helping people."

Regardless of the struggle, "you could always count on Joe to be present and involved, and I don't think we will see that again," Battle says. "He leaves a legacy and some shoes that will be hard to fill."

UNC law professor emeritus Daniel H. Pollitt, a Community Church member and longtime friend of the Straleys, said Joe should also be remembered as an accomplished scholar.

"What everybody has forgotten is that he was a physicist," Pollitt says. "Joe taught physics to high school physics teachers, which was a very significant endeavor. Nobody ever thinks of him as a professor, and I do. He was far more than an activist and he was far more than a professor. Among his many other virtues, he was a scholar and a professor and a teacher of the young."

Pollitt says Straley's death leaves a void in the peace community.

"Somebody will step forward eventually, but it will be quite a while before we have anybody with Joe's dedication and his energy," Pollitt says. "Joe's been ill for two or three years, and he's had shingles, which is very painful, but despite all that he kept going. It's hard to find anybody with that combination of energy and drive."

Raleigh activist Gail Phares, founder of the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America (CITCA), worked closely with Straley. It was Phares who introduced Straley the night he received the Peace Action award. Phares says Straley built a local CITCA mailing list in Chapel Hill and Carrboro that included close to 500 people.

"He's one of the most extraordinary people that I've ever known," Phares says. "He was not only a good organizer, but he was just a very dear, loving person. He's one of our elders. I was so grateful he was focused on Central America. He could have focused on anything, but for the last many years that's what he did, and he was clear-thinking right up to the end. It's a big loss."

At the Peace Action awards dinner, Straley acknowledged his wife, Lucy, as "my absolutely best friend." And he answered the boilerplate question: "What's the first thing you'd do if you were president?"

Before giving his answer, Straley asked a friend to "check and see if the coast is clear" and free of FBI agents. Told it was all clear, Straley said his first act as president would be to "get rid of the Star Spangled Banner. Do away with our national anthem; right away--today--not wait till tomorrow.

"And why? Well, folks, I'm tired of singing about the rocket's red glare. I'm tired of hearing about how wonderful is the bombs bursting in midair. I'm tired of the suggestion that I'm going to get down in my Sunday pants and look up at a piece of cloth on that old pole in awe and wonder. I'm tired of 'conquer we must.' I'm tired of having Mr. Bush tell me that the cause is just."

Despite a recent hospitalization, his speech that night was vintage Straley. His wiry hair in a constant state of dishevelment, his hands in motion as he spoke, the always professorial Straley offered up a delightful mix of personal journey, humor and sentimentalism along with his hard-core political message. His enthusiastic delivery kept the audience rapt.

Unlike some rough-edged political activists, Straley's message always came across more as pleading than paternalistic. He always left his listeners with a desire to do good, and ended his speech with a solo performance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Pollitt said if Straley were here now, he would quote the immortal labor organizer Joe Hill: "Don't mourn for me, organize."

Straley is survived by his wife, sons, David and Joe Jr., and daughter, Lesley. Also surviving are his sister, Miriam Smith, and his brother, Huston.

A memorial service is scheduled Oct. 29 at the Community Church. Friends are invited to contribute brief essays or other mementos to a book of testimonials honoring his life. To contribute, contact Diana McDuffee at Diana_McDuffee@unc.edu or at 2226 Pathway Dr., Chapel Hill, NC 27516, phone 929-3476.

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