In the last year, Bill Towe's been to The Hague for an international peace conference and to the State Fair with a giant inflatable missile. Over a lifetime of political activism, he's worked for the voting rights of African Americans, against nuclear proliferation, and in support of just about every good cause you can think of related to peace and justice.
The operative word is worked. Towe was a social studies teacher in Hampton, Va., in the early '60s who quit his job and went to work as a civil-rights organizer for $12 a week and gas money. He worked for SNCC and for SSOC ("that's snick and sock," he says)--the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and its offshoot, the Southern Student Organizing Committee, which was about getting white students into the movement.
That was the beginning, and while his business card changed frequently, his commitment to work that "humanizes society and makes it more democratic" never has. Retired after a series of jobs in economic development and affordable housing, he is serving as national co-chair of Peace Action, the Washington-based group once known as SANE and later SANE/Freeze, and he is the driving force behind the N.C. Peace Action chapter.
It sounds lofty. It isn't, except in its idealism. Towe is a quiet man. As Cy King, himself a hardy activist and former Citizen Awards honoree, says: "Bill is what I would call a long-distance runner. ... He's a persistent worker for good causes who doesn't seek recognition for himself, but I can't think of anyone who deserves it more. He's sustained the peace movement through the ebb and flow, especially in recent years, when it's been a very tough thing to do."
Peace was the cause in the years just after World War II and at the start of the Cold War, when Albert Schweitzer, Benjamin Spock and others called for a "sane" nuclear policy in the United States, and the name stuck. It emerged again in the '60s with Vietnam and in the '80s with the nuclear freeze movement. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, however, the cause of nuclear disarmament has faded from the headlines.
But the need for "peace action" remains, and the renamed organization has turned its attention to three additional American foreign policy issues, Towe says: halting the sale of conventional weapons around the world; reducing military spending and using the "peace dividend" for better schools, health care and social needs; and using diplomacy rather than force to settle conflicts around the world.
With Americans enjoying the status of lone superpower, however, and politics fixated on "the economy, stupid," making progress on these issues has been tough, Towe acknowledges. He describes his efforts as "plugging away--getting people to move this much, you know?" as he holds two fingers an inch apart. If he couldn't get Sen. Jesse Helms to support the unsuccessful comprehensive test-ban treaty, for example, at least Sen. John Edwards did support it. If Rep. David Price won't co-sponsor a bill to end the economic sanctions bleeding the Iraqi population, at least he was willing to sign a letter to Secretary of State Madeline Albright expressing concern about whether U.S. policies are hamstringing the United Nation's Oil for Food program there.
"You have to be pragmatic," Towe says.
The point, Towe believes, is to keep working, keep organizing, until events occur that allow you to reach "critical mass" and move public opinion forward. It happened that way with civil rights, he says, and with Vietnam. The pattern may be repeating itself with the issues of globalization, corporate power, and the threats to labor rights and the environment.
Helping people see the connection between military spending and wage rates in the textile industry, however, requires some imagination and an understanding of diversity. Two Bill Towe stories show that he's got both.
The first story, courtesy of Cy King, is about Towe's appearances as "Captain Boomerang" at the time of the Gulf War. Towe's superhero costume, with a boomerang as headgear, was designed to illustrate that when the U.S. arms industry sells weapons to other countries--like Iraq--there's a good chance they'll be used against us or our allies down the line. "It takes a certain amount of courage," King laughs, "to make a fool of yourself for a good cause."
The second story is told by Bridgette Burge, a young, feminist activist who works for Peace Action. A few years ago when she was still in graduate school in Memphis, she couldn't afford the money to come to the organization's annual congress in Washington as her chapter's representative. Somehow Towe heard about it and sent her a check out of the blue for several hundred dollars, enough so she and a friend also active in Memphis were able to fly in for the weekend.
Speaking from the floor, Burge thanked Towe. Later, she says, "he came up to me and said, quietly, 'you know, we don't announce things like that.'" She adds: "I'm still glad I did it."
The reason, Burge says, is that while the white males who predominate in the peace movement talk about reaching out to racial minorities and women, Towe does it. "Bill's made it a point to learn how to be an ally with others," she says. "I'm a personal example of that. He's been a real nurturer for me."
Outreach, in fact, is a centerpiece of Towe's term as national co-chair. He helped launch Peace LEAP (List Enhancement Action Project) in North Carolina, a way of helping like-minded groups share their member lists when they're working on issues of mutual concern. Other states will follow.
Towe's knack for getting people to work together is what got him elected national co-chair, Burge says. His name was on a list of potential leaders circulated to the chapters, and it came back checked on just about all of them. "He just has that Southern flair, that ability to be real kind," she says. "He commands attention, but in a gentle way, and he works real hard to hear all sides--which is real hard to do, because a table of activists can be pretty fiery."
Most of Peace Action's 70,000 members nationally are in the Northeast states or in California, Oregon and Washington. Only Texas and North Carolina have active chapters in the South. North Carolina's active membership is about 500, Towe says.
Thus, at the local level most of all, Towe reaches out to other peace and justice groups at every opportunity. If there's a protest against the death penalty, he's likely to be there. Is Democracy South doing something on campaign finance reform? Towe's a regular. NC Fair Share on health-care issues in minority communities? The same. "Not only is he there," Cy King says, "but if you look into it, you'll find he had a lot to do with putting the event together."
The issues are all connected, Towe says, just as racism and Vietnam were connected. "Eventually, it all comes together," he thinks. "Until then, it's been my experience that you have to work with people on their issue before you can win enough trust that they'll help you work on yours."
Towe says he doesn't know what sparked his activism. Maybe it was his wife, Betsy Jean. That's King's guess, anyway. She was teaching in Hampton, too, when they met, and soon they were both working for $12 a week. They've lived in Cary since 1977 and raised a son and a daughter together. "She's been with him all the way," says King. "I don't really know what the conversion experience was in his life, but whatever it was, he's sure stayed with it."