For someone hailed as a peacemaker, “I’ve made a lot of people angry, particularly those in high places,” John Moeser told RPEC members as he accepted the Center’s award of Peacemaker of the Year for 2015.
“So much of what I’ve said, written, and done over the course of my life since Sharon and I moved to Richmond in 1971 has led to anything but peacemaking,” Moeser said in his remarks at RPEC’s annual meeting and dinner in June.
“I’ve been in the audience during two public forums when the same high ranking county official lamented the awful job we do welcoming new corporate executives to Richmond, illustrating it by how one speaker at a program for new business leaders talked about racial conflict and the lack of cooperation between the city and the counties. ‘Can you imagine having someone like that speak at a program for new business leaders?’ I felt like standing up and shouting, ‘I’m the guy he’s talking about.’”
Back in 1982, when Moeser and Rutledge Dennis published a book, “The Politics of Annexation,” about Richmond’s 1970 annexation of 23 square miles from Chesterfield County, “we seriously considered taking out liability insurance should the good people who ran Richmond in those days decide to take us to court for slander. We were meticulous in our documentation. . . .We nailed down every bit of evidence. And the evidence was overwhelming.
“A small group of Richmond’s corporate and political leaders, working in concert with their allies at the highest levels of state government, orchestrated the reduction of the capital city’s black population by annexing close to 50,000 white residents from Chesterfield County.
“We were confident about two things. First of all, the facts. Second, we were confident that we would never be asked to join the Commonwealth Club or the Country Club of Virginia. Our only question was whether we would be confronted directly, or whether they would pressure our employer, VCU, to ‘fix the problem.’”
Moeser held his ground at VCU but soon upset the University’s leadership when the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, which he helped organize, publicly opposed VCU’s plans to extend the campus into Oregon Hill.
“Word got back that the President, in a conversation with the Provost, questioned whether the university really needed an Urban Studies Department. I thought it was our finest hour.”
Moeser chaired the Richmond Human Relations Commission when it investigated racial discrimination in the Richmond Department of Public Works and issued a report that embarrassed City Hall and angered the white members of City Council.
“When Ed Peeples succeeded me as Chair of the Commission, there were more investigations of discriminatory practices in city agencies. As the Commission grew stronger, however, it drew more opposition. Ed and I joke to this day that we did such a good job chairing the Commission that it was ultimately abolished.”
Summing up this history of contrariness, Moeser insisted: “The truth is that I have never considered myself a peacemaker, but neither have I set out to be a trouble maker. What I have tried to do is to follow the example of people I’ve admired throughout my life. Members of my family, outstanding teachers, courageous ministers, friends, and other people influenced my behavior, not so much by what they said, but what they did.
“My Dad was a wonderful role model. Back in the 1950s, he lost his job at a bank because he blew the whistle on a bank executive for doing something that was wrong. It was a rough time financially. My older brother, who was probably ten, or so, loaded our wagon with bottles, newspapers, whatever it was, James doesn’t recall, but then went door to door asking neighbors if they would buy whatever he was selling.
“Another example was Dr. Albert Winn, the former Pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Richmond who was later elected to the highest office in the Presbyterian Church USA. Years earlier, when he was teaching at Stillman College, an historically black college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he preached in both white and black churches until the Brown decision, which he supported, and learned that he was no longer welcome to preach in white churches. He continued to challenge the evils of racism and soon caught the attention of the Klan and received threats from the Klan Grand Dragon. He feared for the safety of his family, but the police and the FBI provided no protection since they also included members of the Klan. Al never retreated, however, but continued to preach an inclusive Gospel despite the dangers.
“My friend, Ed Peeples, risked his life by going every day to Prince Edward County to work in special recreational and educational program for black children who had been locked out of their schools. At night when he returned to Richmond, there were occasions when he was closely followed by a car. Ed strongly suspected who they were.
“What I have learned is that truth can be dangerous, but it is the foundation for peace. We have examples throughout history and many examples today of nations and communities that have buried the truth in an effort to maintain calm. Whatever calm might appear on the surface, however, hides the anger that festers underneath. It’s not long before the calm is shattered. What happens is what we witness across the world today. It is what we can witness in any city, including Richmond.
“Others must judge whether my attempts over the years to write and speak honestly about metropolitan Richmond have led to anything positive or simply angered more people who sit in high places. Yet, I owe it to so many others to keep the faith, tell the truth, live by it as best I can, and keep going. I’m not much of a peacemaker, but I’m honored to accept this award on behalf of those who taught me to be honest and tell the truth, live by it as best you can, and don’t let those who hide the truth deter you. To my Dad, to my wife Sharon, Al Winn, Ed Peeples, and so many of you who are in the audience this evening, thank you. Thank you very much.”
Join the Peace Center as we honor Dr. Moeser and The Thrifty Quaker, our 2015 Peacemakers of the Year, at our dinner & auction on Nov. 7th.