Remembering Ray Eurquhart, a lifelong activist radicalized 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 regulations.

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 days.

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.

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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.

So this is within a year of high school, you enlisted in the Air Force?

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.

Where is this?

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

And you're last row here.

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.

You can barely hold that hat on.

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."

I know how that is.

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 that.

During basic training would you have had any kind of thoughts on the war at that time?


Already you had had some type of an analysis?

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.

You're meeting some activists then?

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.