From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Remembering Ray Eurquhart, a Lifelong Activist Radicalized In the Military
Date May 26, 2020 12:05 AM
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[While he had not been involved in the civil rights movement or
any other 1960s-era protest movements, Eurquhart developed sharp
political views during his time in the military. ]
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Kerry Taylor
May 24, 2020
Facing South
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_ While he had not been involved in the civil rights movement or any
other 1960s-era protest movements, Eurquhart developed sharp political
views during his time in the military. _

Longtime Durham, North Carolina, activist Ray Eurquhart (at right in
photo) died on March 30., Photo courtesy of the Eurquhart family.


_Durham, North Carolina-based activist Raymond Lee Eurquhart died on
March 30. "Bro Ray" was a mainstay of the North Carolina peace, labor,
civil rights, and human rights movements. He was a friend, comrade,
and mentor to hundreds of workers, students, and activists with more
than 50 years in the struggle. A full Eurquhart biography would tell
stories of many lefts — from the very personal, through his beloved
Durham neighborhood, to the transnational. In March 2002, I had the
opportunity to spend several hours interviewing Eurquhart over the
course of several days. He was always enthused when teaching and
learning, but I have never seen him more animated and proud than when
he recounted his early political education and organizing while
serving in the U.S. Air Force. I do not know that I have ever been
more enthralled to listen._

_Raised in Durham by his mother, Mary Eurquhart Williams, who cooked
and waited tables at Woolworth's and other downtown cafeterias,
Eurquhart graduated from Hillside High School in 1966. Facing the near
certainty that he would be drafted and sent to Vietnam, Eurquhart
enlisted in the Air Force. After basic training, he was assigned to
Chimea, a remote base near Siberia. While he had not been involved in
the civil rights movement or any other 1960s-era protest movements,
Eurquhart developed sharp political views during his time in the
military. He began discussing politics with airmen who provided
firsthand accounts of campus protests like the Free Speech Movement in
Berkeley, California. Some black airmen identified openly as Black
Panthers, while others had witnessed race riots on bases in California
and New Jersey and had been sent to Chimea for their alleged
participation. Chimea also allowed him the opportunity to collect the
wisdom of old timers, who shared advice as well as their own stories
of discrimination in the service._

_As the end of his one-year stint at Chimea drew near in 1968,
Eurquhart lobbied for an assignment to Vietnam or Thailand, because
even though he opposed the war by this time he hoped to "witness . . .
racism on the front lines" and to be close to the action. Had the Air
Force sent him to Southeast Asia, he would have joined a growing and
sophisticated Pacific-based network of anti-war organizations that
included coffeehouses, newspapers, and GI counseling services. But
Eurquhart did not go to Vietnam. He was assigned to Croughton, one of
eight U.S. Air Force bases in England, where he quickly immersed
himself in efforts to improve the living and working conditions on
base. A loosely affiliated group of soldiers pooled their money to
hire private lawyers for servicemen facing court martial rather than
relying upon military representation. Among African Americans,
Latinos, and working-class airmen there was a clear sense that "we're
all getting screwed," recalled Eurquhart. Some of his fellow airmen
referred to him as "the attorney" because of his mastery of the
military justice system and his willingness to assist those who were
facing sanctions. Black soldiers organized around their own
grievances, and were able to extract small concessions from the Air
Force — soul food in the cafeteria, reggae in the noncommissioned
officers club, as well as relaxed enforcement of the hair-length

_Eurquhart's commitment to organizing deepened immensely after meeting
black airman John Adkins at a bookstore in London. Realizing they
shared a passion for books and radicalism, they met frequently in the
city, investigating its left-wing political movements and
counterculture, and even joining the London-based Black Panther
Movement. During one visit they stumbled upon a protest of Cambridge
students surrendering their Rhodes scholarships. Adkins and Eurquhart
approached the students, who were elated to learn that they were
American GIs. The Cambridge students belonged to a budding peace
organization centered around the publication of an anti-war newspaper
and had been looking to connect with servicemen. Adkins and Eurquhart
began contributing articles and coordinating distribution of the
group's newspaper, PEACE — People Emerging Against Corrupt
Establishment — at all eight U.S. Air Force bases in England.
Eurquhart used his participation on the military's boxing team as an
opportunity to distribute the paper to bases across England and to
solicit material from other GIs. A traveling football team smuggled
PEACE to bases as far away as Stuttgart._

_Eurquhart and Adkins painstakingly went about organizing servicemen
at their home bases, holding open meetings, but proceeding cautiously
so as not to invite harsh military repression. The results paid off,
and their fledgling organization soon had hundreds of members on bases
across England. "We had officers that supported our efforts to
undermine the military, master sergeants, noncommissioned officers,
technical sergeants, just sergeants. We had one stripers, two
stripers, three stripers. It went across class, color, native folks,
Hawaiian, Latino. If I had to get some hard numbers in terms of when
we were meeting, we could have 100 people at a meeting when we really
started expanding this group of us who was trying to deal with the
war, trying to deal with racism and just trying to deal with a lack of
opportunity on the base."_

_On May 31, 1971, Eurquhart helped organize a protest in London during
which more than 200 American GIs presented the U.S. ambassador to
Great Britain petitions demanding an end to the war signed by more
than 1,000 U.S. service members. To avoid taking part in an illegal
demonstration, the GIs divided into groups of six before presenting
the petitions to an embassy official. Before the presentation, the
protestors gathered at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, where a
representative of each base read a statement. "The U.S. Air Force is
probably the most powerful organization in the world, and we feel that
in Indo-China it is being used amorally and irresponsibly," one of the
GIs said. "We are therefore skeptical of current policies towards
ending the U.S. involvement there." The protestors then traveled by
bus to Victoria Park and attended an anti-war rally featuring theater
performances by Vanessa Redgrave, Mia Farrow, and Barbara Dan. Back on
base, Eurquhart was formally reprimanded and placed on the Airmen
Control Roster, making him ineligible for a promotion or raise for 90

_At the end of his enlistment, Eurquhart returned to Durham in 1972
and continued his activism as a worker and organizer at the American
Tobacco Company until the factory closed in 1987, and later as an
employee of the City of Durham._

_In this interview excerpt from March 9, 2002, Eurquhart describes his
decision to enlist in the Air Force, the challenges he faced as one of
a handful of African Americans in basic training, as well as his
earliest attempts to push back against military authority. The
transcript has been edited slightly for readability._

* * *

The boss said "Ray, you're a good worker. But we need to talk some."
He calls me in and says, "Hey, I notice here you didn't tell me you
were 1-A." He said, "I can't train you. I'm losing money because
they're going to get you." So I got another job. I think I had six
jobs in about eight months, and they all said, "They're going to get
you, buddy."

So I told my mom. Actually I just went to the recruiter and said, "I
think the Army is out for me." The Air Force guy said, "Man, we can
take care of that." He said, "Because boy, they're going to love you
in basic training in the Army. You're small. You're in shape." I used
to be a distance runner. "Boy they're going to love you. They can see
you now over there." And I said, "Yeah, where do I need to sign to get
out of this mess." So I signed up with the Air Force and then I went
and told my mom and stepfather about it. They didn't like it at all.
So I guess in basic training I got accepted at [North Carolina Central
University]. So of course I'm glad.


Yeah. What they call a draft volunteer. I think that's what they call
it. So I guess your first battles are in basic training. There were
only three or four black guys. I mean, I've got a picture of the class
I graduated with. You can multiply that by the whole squadron. You've
got a platoon. You can go on and on and on. Very few people of color.


This is in Texas. That's in Amarillo, Texas.


The big boys. I must be real small. Where am I? That's my man there.
No, that's me, little fellow there. Look at that little fellow there,
little peach fuzz. I didn't even have peach fuzz then.


That's right. That's why they called me "Shorts." Because when they
give out the uniforms and stuff, they just have the regular sizes and
my stuff would never fit me. So they started calling me "Shorts."


So the basic training was rough. I said, "Mama, I'm not going to make
it." Because I didn't like the way they talked to you. Didn't like the
use of the N word. Then again it was structured. The guys who came
from Berkeley and other colleges who had had the deferments, they were
the guys they called the Red Ropes, squadron leaders and all of that.1
They were certainly a lot more mature.

It's like you're free like Jim Thorpe. You're just free.

I learned 30 years later that there was this whole battle in the
streets around this whole question of blacks and Latinos being killed
in large numbers on the front lines. So people in the street, SNCC,
NAACP, CORE, on and on and on, were raising hell about that. That
forced the U.S. Department of War or whatever to come up with this
plan to integrate the other areas of the military, Navy, Marines, Air
Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines and all that. A lot of folks
don't realize that the Marines did not have a lot of color back in
that day. So I found out watching PBS this documentary on McNamara,
and I think he was the secretary of Defense then, but they had this
thing. Came on and said "McNamara's 100,000 morons."2 Something hit me
like, ooh that sounds like me there. So I was watching. It was just an
experiment that they had in bringing what they would call "strange
elements" into these other military forces. Also, what they mean by
the strange elements was they were bringing a lot of working class and
poor people into a branch of services that had never had people of
color in large numbers, period. Then you bring all these working-class
and poor elements there. And it wasn't working because they wouldn't
take orders. Because this was the time of the black liberation
movement, civil rights movement coming together, and folks were just
militant. They didn't know their place, and they were constantly
carving it out. So now you're confronted with the street violence at
the White House forcing you to bring these folks into the Navy, the
Marines, the Air Force, and it was total chaos. So, I was part of




I think I knew I wasn't going over there to fight. We did training
with Vietnamese. So, one day we were going to some special training,
and the thing kind of hit you and I said, "Whoa." So, I was talking to
my trainer. He said "We're Vietnamese. We're getting special
training." I said, "Ain't we supposed to be preparing to kill you?"
Kind of like that. So, we were friendly. You know the thing. So, then
you're in basic training, you don't read the paper. You don't read
anything. So, I was like, umm, what is this about? So that was kind of
strange that we were going to go over there and fight the Vietnamese,
and then we were training the Vietnamese over here who look like the
folks we're going to go over there and fight.

So then you know you've got some of these kids from Berkeley and all
these other places who are part of the what they call the Free Speech
Movement.3 So they're beginning to talk and stuff and you're kind of
carving out some ground trying to see through this thing.


Well, meeting some people who come out of Berkeley. I don't think they
necessarily were activists. But they had exposure to it. You start
asking them questions. They've got these ideas and like to talk about
them. So, after you come out of basic training, you've got more
freedom. You can start reading the papers and keeping up with stuff.
But the biggest thing you're dealing with there is the racism of just
being a person of color — I think it was about 11 of us of maybe
1,100 people. So, you know that the N word slips out. I was a
troublemaker, and I think one night some guys put some sheets over
their head and come in there to try to harass me.

But there was a guy. It was a guy named Schwartz, Jewish fellow, and
he was young. He just was dirty. He wasn't about cleaning up and all
this stuff. We had inspections and stuff. People panic. The first
thing you do when you panic and your stuff isn't right, you put your
stuff in your security drawer. That's the first place they look when
they inspect. I said, "Come on, Schwartz. Man, I'll tell you what.
Have that clean if nothing else is clean, because that's like your
gun." So, he put it in there, and they called him in. I think they did
humiliate him. I think they took him by a chain, were going to take
him outside to a tree and pee like a dog or something. I said, "I
wouldn't do that for shit." So, one of the Red Ropes said, "What did
you say Shorts?" I said, "I wouldn't do that for shit." Like that.
Called the [drill instructor] over there and then they said, "So
you're still talking?" I said, "Hey, that's humiliating. I wouldn't do
that, and I don't appreciate that happening. Schwartz is my buddy." We
were out in the field so the sergeant said, "I'll handle this." So he
got him a chair and sat in the middle of the track and said, "You're
going to run until I get tired." I said, "You're on." See, because
they didn't know anything about my history that I was a distance
runner. You know, you're a runner — it just feels good. It's like
you're free like Jim Thorpe. You're just free. I was just free, and
then I think after about 10 laps, he kind of like got that chair and
slung it up there.

_1. Red Ropes, so named for the red sash they wore across their
uniform, were the top student leaders in technical school._

_2. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's 1966 Project 100,000
lowered requirements for entrance into the service in an effort to
meet manpower needs. Critics considered the program to be a "backdoor"
draft that swelled the number of minorities on the front lines._

_3. Students at the University of California at Berkeley launched the
Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964 to protest efforts by
university administrators to restrict their rights to free expression.
The struggle, which lasted for several months, gained national
attention and served to inspire similar protests on campuses across
the country._

_Kerry Taylor is a board member of the Institute for Southern Studies,
publisher of Facing South, and directs the Charleston Oral History
Program at the Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina._

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