Crusading for Everyday Americans


As pioneer suffragette Lucy Stone lay dying, after a lifelong battle for women’s equality and against slavery, her final utterance to her daughter was, “Make the world better.”

That four-word maxim could be the driving force in the long, long career of Charles Peters, who was the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s 1980 West Virginian of the Year.

Peters has spent his adult life crusading to help average Americans and working-class families, trying to protect them from selfish right-wing politics and cruelties of the changing economy.

Now, at 90, Peters has summed up his struggle in his latest book, We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America (Random House, 275 pages, $27, released March 7).

The book’s title is the slogan of a New Deal agency that helped rescue the nation from misery of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The spirit of all Americans doing their part for the good of society — not just greedily grabbing for themselves — is woven throughout the book.

Peters grew up in Charleston, son of a reform-minded lawyer, with memories of his mother feeding jobless Depression victims at their back door, and their home taking in rural relatives trying to find work. His social conscience grew when he saw brutal conditions in company-owned coal towns, and when a Charleston police chief proudly showed him a closet full of bloody clothes to “show me how they dealt with n***ers.”

Peters directed John F. Kennedy’s Kanawha County campaign in the fateful 1960 presidential primary and was elected to the Legislature the same year. Then he went to Washington to help operate Kennedy’s new Peace Corps, and later founded the progressive Washington Monthly.

The magazine — written mostly by young idealists willing to work for little pay — has been a five-decade voice for decency. Its “Tilting at Windmills” column, by Peters, was reprinted in the Charleston Gazette, and Peters was invited to speak at public events, such as a 2001 W.E. “Ned” Chilton III Leadership Lecture.

Peters wrote four previous books. His newest retraces his life — but especially focuses on the heroic struggle to combat poverty and desperation during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the 1930s. It was the era when America gained safety-net protections that made life endurable.

Roosevelt was hated and mocked by wealthy interests, yet he transformed America into a nation that cared about its citizens. “The Roosevelt era ... despite its many faults, saw progress toward equality of income and social and legal status unparalleled in American history,” Peters wrote.

Peters remembers how the New Deal put millions of jobless men to work — such as constructing Charleston’s Kanawha Boulevard and the South Side Bridge, both near his East End boyhood home.

The old magazine editor has immense knowledge about Washington and its colorful government insiders. His book is filled with Capitol Hill struggles.

Especially, he respects earnest reformers who took federal jobs at low pay in the New Deal to rescue society — in contrast to thousands later who entered government work so they could become private lobbyists and reap obscene salaries helping special interests gain lucrative law changes.

Peters’ book covers other societal shifts: the rise of the “religious right” under evangelists and Ronald Reagan, the snobbery of many intellectual liberals, the upsurge of right-to-bear-arms politics, the greed of Wall Street — which produces no products but creates undeserved wealth by manipulating money — and growing cynicism among Americans who suspect leaders of secret treachery of the “House of Cards” type.

Although he speaks for what he calls “neoliberalism,” Peters laments today’s ideological chasm that splits America into hostile camps, with conservatives and progressives not speaking to each other. If intelligent people would listen to opposing views, he says, they might compromise on workable solutions.

He regrets the cultural change that let Donald Trump grab the presidency. “I have seen my home state go from being politically liberal and among the nation’s leaders in desegregating its schools, to admiring Donald Trump and hating Barack Obama,” he wrote.

Instead of backing a demagogue like Trump, he says, blue-collar workers — especially those losing their jobs in the new Information Age — should be political allies of educated progressives who strive to help lower-income families. It’s up to the progressives to rebuild the alliance. He concludes:

“If liberals listen to the legitimate concerns of rural and white working class voters instead of dismissing them as boobs and bigots, they will gradually win back their natural allies in the ‘We Do Our Part’ coalition.”

Bottom line: Peters hopes that government and statecraft again can be seen as honorable pursuits to improve everyday lives, as it was during the Great Depression.

James A. Haught, the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s editor emeritus, can be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or email at

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2017

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