James Peck

James Peck

Freedom Rider Stamford, CT

Radical journalist and pacifist James Peck was the only individual to participate in both the Fellowship of Reconciliation's 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and the 1961 CORE Freedom Ride.

Born into the family of a wealthy clothing wholesaler in 1914, Peck was a social outsider at Choate, an elite Connecticut prep school, in part because his family had only recently converted from Judaism to Episcopalianism. At Harvard he quickly gained a reputation as a campus radical, shocking his classmates by bringing a black date to the freshman dance. Peck dropped out after the end of his freshman year, spending several years as an expatriate in Europe and working as a merchant seaman. Returning to the United States in 1940, Peck devoted himself to organizing work and journalism on behalf of pacifist and social justice causes. He spent almost three years in federal prison during World War II as a conscientious objector.

After his release from prison in 1945, he rededicated himself to pacifism and militant trade unionism. In the late 1940s, Peck became increasingly involved in issues of racial justice, joining the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) as a volunteer.

On May 14, Peck assumed de facto leadership of the 1961 CORE Freedom Ride after James Farmer returned to Washington for his father's funeral. Peck sustained heavy injuries to the face and head during the Ku Klux Klan riot at the Birmingham Trailways Bus Station.

It took more than an hour for Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth to find an ambulance willing to take Peck to the all-white Carraway Methodist Hospital, where staff refused to treat him. Peck was finally able to see a doctor at Jefferson Hillman Hospital, where he received 53 stitches. Undeterred by his injuries, he urged the riders to continue.

"If he could be beaten as he was and still go on, we certainly felt we could go on," says Genevieve Hughes in Freedom Riders.

In 1976, Peck, along with Walter Bergman, filed a lawsuit against the FBI, seeking $100,000 in damages for the lasting injuries he sustained as a result of the riot, in which paid FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. was an active participant. In 1983, he was awarded a partial settlement of $25,000.

James Peck passed away in 1993.

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