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Joe Straley, back on the wire

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Late last month, local activists received some welcome news when they downloaded their e-mails. Back on line were those informative, cajoling messages from none other than Joe Straley, the 88-year-old retired UNC professor and peace activist who underwent heart surgery in July.

Flat on his back in the ICU at UNC Hospitals and barely able to speak, Straley went for almost three months without sending out an e-mail. Friends prayed that Straley would recover well enough to get back on the picket line. Those prayers were answered last month when Straley was strong enough to come to a dinner in his honor at Chapel Hill Community Church Unitarian Universalist, a congregation that Joe and his wife, Lucy, helped found 50 years ago.

Selected to receive the 2003 Peace Award from North Carolina Peace Action, the state chapter of the Washington, D.C.-based peace organization, Straley gave a rousing acceptance speech. Straley was introduced by his friend and fellow activist Gail Phares as a man of action with "a wonderful, generous, warm spirit, who is always affirming of people."

Although he's moving a little more slowly since the operation, Straley's speech showed that his sense of humor--and his sense of purpose--was as sharp as ever. First, Straley turned to his wife, Lucy, who was sitting at the head table, and recognized her as "my absolutely best friend."

Straley also recounted a story from his childhood, when, at age 7, he observed his parents "washing dishes the old fashioned way" at the kitchen sink. "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," he said. "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."

After reminiscing about his life as a civil rights and peace activist, Straley said he was worried about what the future holds for humanity. More than 170 million people from 60 nations were victims of genocide in the 20th century, Straley said.

"We have lived through the most extraordinary and terrible century in human history," he said.

And then Straley delivered a most unwelcome prediction. "I'm going to predict how things are going to be the next century," he 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?" Straley asked. "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."

Straley said there was also hope amid the pessimism. In the next century there would be others like Eleanor Roosevelt "to herald a version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," and "another Franklin D. Roosevelt who will give courage and optimism to us when we have the next depression. We're going to have another Martin Luther King who's going to lead us to hope and out of despair into a brighter tomorrow."

Straley also recognized some of his friends--Jerry Markatos, Dan Pollitt, W.W. Finlator and Phares to name a few--friends who exhibited "ethical standards to help us free ourselves from injustice, war and genocide."

Straley said he had the answer to the oft-asked question: "If you were president, what is the first thing that you would do?" Before giving his answer, Straley asked a friend to "check and see if the coast is clear." Told it was, 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 'til tomorrow. And why?

"Well, folks, I'm tired of singing about the rocket's red glare," he said. "I'm tired of hearing about how wonderful are 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."

Straley said his replacement for the national anthem would be a beautiful song that "sings easy. You've sung it. I've sung it." Then he closed with a solo of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the Black National Anthem. The program ended with the entire room full of people singing the song. "In the long run, in the long run, in the long run we shall overcome," Straley said.

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