Communications Intern posted an articleAnd a conversation on Peace Corps ideals in today’s world see more
Williams issues a clarion call for building a more inclusive network for global development. And he explores the arc of Peace Corps history in an interview about the documentary A Towering Task.
By Del Wood and Steven Boyd Saum
We are in an historic moment. The protests against racial injustice that have swept the United States and scores of other countries since the end of May were sparked by the killing of George Floyd — one of so many Black women and men killed by police. The protests erupted with anger and frustration — and not only among Blacks. They have also ushered in the possibility of the United States coming to terms with systemic racism. That transformation needs to be carried over into global development work, writes former Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams.
“The diversity of the demonstrators gives me great hope that this could be the pivotal moment in our nation,” Williams observes in an essay published by Devex in June. “They are demanding that we live up to the American dream, and the ideals of democracy, civil rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality that the country was founded on two centuries ago.”
Williams also argues that international organizations have a responsibility to transform how they do their work:
“U.S. international and foreign affairs organizations should rise to this challenge, and seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity and social justice in both their U.S. and overseas offices. They play a prominent role — as principal partners with the U.S. government — in the country’s global leadership, and thus should invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will mirror the true face of our country.”
Williams served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967 to 1970 and as Director of the Peace Corps from 2009 to 2012. Read the full essay here.
‘Transformed my life’: Aaron Williams on Peace Corps history and A Towering Task
With the screening of A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps in Florida recently, Aaron Williams sat down for a conversation about the film. He supplements the sweeping history of the Peace Corps in the documentary with personal stories. How he, as a young Black man from the South Side of Chicago, headed into Peace Corps with a nearly all-white cohort of Volunteers. Of the powerful impact Peace Corps had in Ghana — teaching a young man and inspiring him to become a scientist, then later vice president and president. And he makes the case for Peace Corps ideals as offering a way forward: with understanding what it means to be engaged with the world, and to live out those ideals at home.
Here are clips from the conversation with film exhibitor Nat Chediak.
“My entire career … whether I've been in business, I’ve been in government, I’ve been in the nonprofit world — Peace Corps was the trigger for that.”
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, so I grew up in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and people expected me to settle down, become a teacher and, you know, have a normal life. Well, I had become intrigued by the Peace Corps by listening to Sargent Shriver’s speeches. And I heard a couple of Kennedy’s speeches. I was still pretty young when Kennedy was president. But I decided, this is something that I should look into. It sounded like something that would be structured, would give me a chance to learn something about outside of the United States, and it turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime. I mean, truly, truly transformed my life. Everything that I’ve done, Nat, has emanated from the Peace Corps. My entire career … whether I've been in business, I’ve been in government, I’ve been in the nonprofit world — Peace Corps was the trigger for that.The other thing about the Peace Corps is that when I arrived out in California, the San Diego State College where I was trained, I was in a group of about 80 or 90 people. I was the only Black person in the group. And I was wondering to myself, those first couple of days, what have I parachuted myself into? I quickly found out, within a week or two weeks there, that I was in the presence of some very special people. People who had self-selected to join in this wonderful enterprise called the Peace Corps, who were interested in making the world a better place, and were open to ideas, to people, to thoughts, and philosophies. That was just amazing. So it was an amazing time. And I trained with some amazing people. Part of our group went to El Salvador, part went to Honduras, the other part went to the Dominican Republic, and we were teacher trainers. So that's how it all emanated. That’s how I ended up in the Peace Corps.
“And that’s when this young man who became vice president, and ultimately president of Ghana, decided he wanted to become a scientist.”
WILLIAMS: There’s also a great commonality. And that’s what you really learn in the Peace Corps, right? You learn about the commonality and things that we worry about: our children, the future, good healthcare, aspirations for our children and our family. And you learn that those are the basic common elements that we all share, no matter where you might be born or live on the globe.
Let me tell you a story. I was in Ghana to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. And I went to an event with the then-vice president of Ghana. He had been taught by a Peace Corps Volunteer when he was a young man in elementary school in a remote part of Ghana. Ghana was one of the first countries where Sargent Shriver established the Peace Corps in 1961. So when we arrived at this event, it was to celebrate the Year of the Teacher in Ghana. And a Peace Corps Volunteer was one of the ten top teachers that was being honored, as a matter of fact. And that Peace Corps Volunteer, by the way, her parents had served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Latin America, you know, years before — so what a marvelous confluence of events. As I was waiting in the government house in this regional city to go out to the event with the vice president, I had a couple of talking points I wanted to share with him about the future of the Peace Corps in Ghana and some things that the ambassador had asked me to share with the vice president. And instead, he wanted to tell me a story about how he met this Peace Corps Volunteer.
So he’s a young man in this classroom. They had never seen a white person before in the village, and they were worried about this new teacher they had heard about. They wondered, would this man even speak English? Could they understand him? What was this gonna be all about? He comes in and he says: How many people here in this room know how far the sun is from the Earth? And they’re thinking, why is he asking us this? Who knows the answer to this question? Everybody put their heads down, nobody answered. He went up to the board and he wrote on the board: “93.” Then he went around this one-room classroom — with these chalk balls — and he kept circling with chalk until he came back around to the front. He says, “Ninety-three million miles. Don’t you ever forget that.”
“And that’s when this young man who became vice president, and ultimately president of Ghana, decided he wanted to become a scientist.”
WILLIAMS: He could have told me anything that day, but that’s the story that he shared with me, which I have never forgotten. It was such a stunning, amazing — and it tells you a lot about the impact of the Peace Corps. Now, lastly, when I got back to the States I did everything I could see if we could find this volunteer who had taught him. And we did!
CHEDIAK: No kidding!
WILLIAMS: When he came over for a summit of African nations with President Obama, we arranged a reunion with the then-vice president and the Peace Corps Volunteer who taught him in Ghana in that rural school.
CHEDIAK: You're kidding. Were you there? Was it very emotional?
WILLIAMS: No, I was not there.
CHEDIAK: Ah, okay. Okay, but I can imagine now I'm, you know, what a beautiful moment that must have been for both of them.
CHEDIAK: Oh, my gosh, that’s incredible. That’s a beautiful story.
WILLIAMS: It’s a miracle they tracked him down. This is 50 years later.
“That’s what we bring to the rich tapestry of America when we return home."
CHEDIAK: Even in these difficult, nationalistic days — and I’m not talking simply about the U.S. — you know, but it’s something that we have seen in other countries that is a troubling concern. You still feel that the goodwill of men will prevail?
WILLIAMS: I think so, and I think the Peace Corps is really my foundation for believing that. Because I’ve seen people prevail against really tough situations — horrendous conditions, right? Fighting disease, fighting poverty, political unrest, civil war, and they come out the other side, in most cases, better than they were in the beginning. Not in all cases, right — but it happens. So, that’s the reason I continue to be optimistic about the future of the world and mankind. And I’m so proud of Peace Corps Volunteers who have served for almost 60 years in countries around the world, who represent the true face of America and who really understand what it means to be engaged with the rest of the world and to become effective and optimistic global citizens. That’s what we bring to the rich tapestry of America when we return home and what we do in our future careers here at home.
Steven Saum posted an articleThird director of the Peace Corps, he led the agency through tumultuous times see more
Third director of the agency, he led during turbulent times
By Steven Boyd Saum
The Peace Corps community mourns the loss of Joseph H. Blatchford, third director of the Peace Corps. He took on that role at a time that heralded, he said, a “new world and a different America from 1961” when the Peace Corps was launched.
Joseph Blatchford was appointed to lead the Peace Corps by President Richard Nixon in May 1969 — and he headed the agency during turbulent times of Nixon’s first administration. Tapped for the post at 34 years old, he came with nearly a decade’s experience of organizing international volunteers: In 1961, he had launched the organization Accion to send U.S. volunteers to work in Latin America.
Some of the initial luster was already off Peace Corps when Blatchford took on the director’s role. That was true in the U.S. — deeply divided over the war in Vietnam — as well as internationally, where countries were increasingly seeking Volunteers with greater skills and expertise.
Blatchford called for a “wider spectrum” of volunteers, seeking, as the New York Times noted, to enlist “trade union members and blue collar workers, mature persons in mid-career, not just fresh college graduates.” He also floated the idea of a “reverse Peace Corps” to bring volunteers to the U.S. to help in domestic antipoverty programs.
New Directions: Third Director of the Peace Corps Joseph Blatchford in his office, January 1971. Photo by Warren K. Loeffler / Library of Congress
Blatchford introduced changes to the agency under the banner of “New Directions.” That included the creation of an office for minority affairs. “I think that the people who characterized the Peace Corps as an organization made up primarily of lily-white, middle-class people may have had a very valid point,” he told an audience at Harvard University in 1970. “But I think that has changed. We have a tremendous need for Blacks and other minorities, particularly in places like Africa and Latin America."
It was also during his tenure as director, in May 1970, that a group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers occupied Peace Corps headquarters for several days in protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. That was the same U.S. military campaign that led to the tragic shootings at Kent State University.
In the fall of 1970, writing for the journal Foreign Affairs, Blatchford asked, “Are we seeing the beginning of the end for the Peace Corps, or is it perhaps the end of the beginning?” He noted, “The American people, in a public opinion poll, declared the Peace Corps to be the best investment among our foreign assistance programs.” But, he said, “To attract Volunteers from a wider spectrum of American society, the Peace Corps has to broaden its appeal.” He put in place policies to allow Volunteers to serve with families. And he recognized that when it came to building true partnerships with countries, “if the Peace Corps has done better than some agencies, it is still behind the times.”
At a time of national turmoil, he also raised a question that resonates many decades later: “It is common for Americans to ask today, ‘Why go overseas when there is so much to be done at home?’”
At a time of national turmoil, he also raised a question that resonates many decades later: “It is common for Americans to ask today, ‘Why go overseas when there is so much to be done at home?’ The answer to the question is also best exemplified in the nearly 40,000 Volunteers who have now served in the Peace Corps and returned home. After living among the poor abroad and struggling in the agonizing process of change, they are not satisfied with ‘band-aid’ cures.”
He acknowledged the “bitter disillusionment over the Vietnam war among the Peace Corps’ traditional college constituency. For many of these students the Peace Corps is tainted by the war, an arm of the Establishment, merely the most tolerable part of an intolerable government.”
And he recognized the perception that the days of the Peace Corps might be numbered. “Some think the President will allow the Peace Corps to die of inattention. In the Congress the Peace Corps could fall victim to partisan politics.”
That didn’t happen. But under Nixon Peace Corps was folded into a new umbrella agency, ACTION, along with other domestic agencies including VISTA and Teacher Corps. And Blatchford was named head of ACTION.
Blatchford’s life story includes a remarkable television moment as well: As Director of the Peace Corps, in 1972 he appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show,” which was being guest-hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. One fellow guest that day: rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry.
That same year saw President Nixon reelected in a landslide. All agency heads were asked to submit their resignations. The story is that Blatchford told a colleague, “But I thought we won.” Along with a pro forma resignation, he submitted a real resignation letter, and he stepped down at the end of the year.
50th ANNIVERSARY REUNION, 2011: Joseph Blatchford, second from left, joined other leaders of the agency for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps. | Front row from left: Gaddi H. Vasquez, Ronald A. Tschetter, Jack Vaughn, Mark L. Schneider, Carol Bellamy, Mark D. Gearan, Elaine Chao. | Back row: Joseph Blatchford, Kevin O’Donnell, Richard F. Celeste, Aaron S. Williams, Nick Craw, Donald Hess
“Joe Blatchford led the agency through some of the most challenging and turbulent periods of Peace Corps’ 60-year history,” said National Peace Corps Association President and CEO Glenn Blumhorst. “In recent years, Director Blatchford has been a regular, enthusiastic participant in bipartisan efforts of past Peace Corps directors to support the agency and defend its independence.”
Indeed, in January 2020 he joined nine other former Peace Corps Directors to write an open letter opposing U.S. Senate legislation that would fold Peace Corps administration into the State Department. As that letter noted, in quoting Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s comment in 1961: “The Peace Corps is not an instrument of foreign policy because to make it so would rob it of its contribution to foreign policy.”
Joseph Hoffer Blatchford was born in Milwaukee in 1934. His family moved to California when he was 10 years old, and he was raised a Christian Scientist. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles for his undergraduate studies and excelled at tennis. He played at Wimbledon. In 1967 he wed Winifred March, an Accion veteran. Accion International, the organization that he founded in 1961, continues its work today. He died on October 7 at age 86.
“Every time we mourn the loss of a former Peace Corps director, we lose a part of our history,” said Glenn Blumhorst. “Our condolences to his family and to others who knew him, worked with him, and loved him.”
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView magazine and Director of Strategic Communications for National Peace Corps Association.
Steven Saum posted an articleAn impromptu speech at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960 that started it all see more
Well after midnight on October 14, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy arrived at the steps of the Michigan Union. Legend has it that he first proposed the idea of the Peace Corps here. The truth is a little more complex, but far more interesting.
By James Tobin
Senator John F. Kennedy’s motorcade rolled into Ann Arbor very early on the morning of Friday, October 14, 1960. The election was three and a half weeks away. The Democratic nominee for president and his staff had just flown into Willow Run Airport. A few hours earlier, in New York, Kennedy had fought Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, in the third of their four nationally televised debates. The race was extremely close, and Michigan was up for grabs. Kennedy’s schedule called for a few hours of sleep, then a one-day whistle-stop train tour across the state.
The campaign got word that students had been waiting outside the Michigan Union, where Kennedy was to spend the night, for three hours. As the cars reached the corner of State and South University, Kennedy’s speechwriters, Theodore Sorensen and Richard Goodwin, looked out the window. Students, densely packed, were milling all over the steps and sidewalks and into the street. Some carried signs or wore Kennedy hats. There were signs for Nixon, too. Cries arose as the cars pulled up.
“He won’t just let them stand there,” Sorensen told Goodwin. “He’s going to speak. Maybe that’ll give us a chance to get something to eat.”
He might have given the students a quick greeting and a standard pitch for votes. No one knows why he chose, instead, to ask them a question that would launch the signature program of his administration and ignite the idealism of a generation.
They hadn’t prepared a speech, but Kennedy was good at extemporizing in a pinch. He might have given the students a quick greeting and a standard pitch for votes. No one knows why he chose, instead, to ask them a question that would launch the signature program of his administration and ignite the idealism of a generation.
JFK at the Union. Photo by David Giltrow, courtesy Bentley Library
Since early in the campaign year, there had been scattered proposals for a volunteer corps of young Americans who would go abroad to help nations emerging from colonialism in Africa, Asia, and South America. Kennedy had asked for studies of the idea, including from Samuel Hayes, a U-M professor of economics and director of the Center for Research on Economic Development. In early October, his staff had floated the idea in a press release, but no sparks had been struck. And Kennedy, according to aides, had been leery of the idea, fearing the damage Nixon might cause, in the jittery atmosphere of the Cold War, by calling him naïve about foreign affairs.
Possibly it was a remark of Nixon’s that drew Kennedy’s mind back to the idea. In the debate the night before, the vice president had reminded the national audience that three Democratic presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman — had taken the U.S. to war. Kennedy may have wanted to strike a note that would associate his campaign with peace.
In any case, he did not actually propose a program. He issued a challenge. Speaking into a microphone at the center of the stone staircase, with aides and students around him, Kennedy began by expressing his “thanks to you, as a graduate of the Michigan of the East, Harvard University.” (A recording shows that this got a shout from the crowd.) The campaign, he said, was the most important since the Depression election of 1932, “because of the problems which press upon the United States, and the opportunities which will be presented to us in the 1960s, which must be seized.”
The motorcade. Photo by David Giltrow, courtesy Bentley Library
Then he asked his question:
“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers: how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past.
“Therefore, I am delighted to come to Michigan, this university, because unless we have those resources in this school, unless you comprehend the nature of what is being asked of you, this country can’t possibly move through the next 10 years in a period of relative strength.”
”I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past.”
He said he’d come to Ann Arbor merely “to go to bed” — drawing a ribald roar from the crowd — then: “This is the longest short speech I’ve ever made, and I’ll therefore finish it.” The state had not built the university “merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle,” he said. “There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it.” He was not merely asking for their votes, but for “your support for this country over the next decade.”
The students roared again. Then Kennedy went up to bed, telling an aide he appeared to have “hit a winning number.”
JFK arrives. Photo by Frederick L. Shippey, courtesy Bentley Library
There were 50 or 60 reporters with Kennedy, but few mentioned the senator’s remarks. Russell Baker of the New York Times reported that during JFK’s entire swing through Michigan, he said “nothing that was new” — which was true, if one counted the early-October press release. But in the aftermath of the speech, something new began.
The following Tuesday, October 18, Congressman Chester Bowles of Connecticut, a Kennedy supporter and advisor, spoke to students in the Union ballroom. He, too, proposed what the Michigan Daily called “a U.N. civil service, which would send doctors, agricultural experts and teachers to needy countries throughout the world.”
Among Bowles’ listeners were two married graduate students, Alan and Judy Guskin. From Bowles’ talk, they went to a diner where they drafted a letter to the Daily on a napkin. The letter was published the following Friday. The Guskins noted that Kennedy and Bowles had “emphasized that disarmament and peace lie to a very great extent in our hands and requested our participation throughout the world as necessary for the realization of these goals.” The two then pledged to “devote a number of years to work in countries where our help is needed,” and they challenged other students to write similar pledges to Kennedy and Bowles. “With this request,” they wrote, “we express our faith that those of us who have been fortunate enough to receive an education will want to apply their knowledge through direct participation in the underdeveloped communities of the world.”
JFK at the Union. Photo by Frederick Shippey, courtesy Bentley Library
Over the next two weeks, events moved fast. The Guskins were contacted by Samuel Hayes, the professor who had written the position paper on a youth corps for Kennedy. Together, they called a mass meeting. Some 250 students came out to sign a petition saying they would volunteer. Hundreds more signers followed within days.
Some 250 students came out to sign a petition saying they would volunteer. Hundreds more signers followed within days.
Then Mildred Jeffrey, a Democratic state committeewoman and UAW official whose daughter attended U-M, got word to Ted Sorensen about what Kennedy and Bowles had wrought in Ann Arbor. Sorensen told Kennedy.
On November 2, in a major address at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Kennedy formally proposed “a peace corps of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country ... for three years as an alternative or as a supplement to peacetime selective service.” (Nixon responded by calling the idea “a cult of escapism” and “a haven for draft dodgers.”)
On Sunday, November 6, two days before the election, Kennedy was expected at the Toledo airport. Three carloads of U-M students, including the Guskins, drove down to show him the petitions. “He took them in his hands and started looking through the names,” Judy Guskin recalled later. “He was very interested.”
Alan asked: “Are you really serious about the Peace Corps?”
“Until Tuesday we’ll worry about this nation,” Kennedy said. “After Tuesday, the world.”
Alan asked: “Are you really serious about the Peace Corps?”
“Until Tuesday we’ll worry about this nation,” Kennedy said. “After Tuesday, the world.”
Two days later, Kennedy defeated Nixon by some 120,000 votes, one of the slimmest margins in U.S. history. Some argue the Peace Corps proposal may have swayed enough votes to make the difference.
“It might still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty,” wrote Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law and the Peace Corps’ first director, in his memoir. “Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once more on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded the idea was impractical or premature. That probably would have ended it then and there. Instead, it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.”
Alan and Judy Guskin were among the Peace Corps’ early volunteers. They served in Thailand.
A Letter to the Michigan Daily, October 21, 1960
To the Editor:
Representative Chester Bowles and Senator Kennedy in their speeches to the students of the University of Michigan both emphasized that disarmament and peace lie to a very great extent in our hands and requested our participation throughout the world as necessary for the realization of these goals.
In reply to this urgent request, we both hereby state that we would devote a number of years to work in countries where our help is needed, either through the United Nations or through the United States Foreign Service.
WE ALSO WOULD like to request that all students who feel that they would like to help the cause of world peace by direct participation send a letter to this paper and/or our address. These letters will be forwarded to Kennedy and Bowles as an answer of the students of the University of Michigan to their plea for help. If it is at all possible, we would like students to start asking others in their classes, dorms, sororities, fraternities, house, etc. to send letters expressing their desire to work toward these goals. We also request that those who have friends at other universities write to them asking them to start similar action on their campuses.
With this request we express our faith that those of us who have been fortunate enough to receive an education will want to apply their knowledge through direct participation in the underdeveloped communities of the world.
— Alan E. Guskin, Grad.
— Judith T. Guskin, Grad.
Story updated October 15, 2020
COMING SOON: Video of Special 60th Anniversary Celebration of the Speech That Launched the Peace Corps
On October 14, 2020, members of the Peace Corps community came together at 2 a.m. (yes, 2 a.m.!) to to mark this historic moment. We’ll upload video from the evening where you can hear an interview from October 2020 with Judy Guskin, who was there — and is one of two University of Michigan graduate students who helped propel the creation of the Peace Corps.
WATCH: An interview with Judith Guskin from October 2020 recounting the night Kennedy gave his speech and the first months that shaped the Peace Corps. She takes inspiration from what she sees with the new generation of Americans. And, she says, we have a responsibility to act.
READ MORE about how University of Michigan graduate students Al and Judy Guskin helped propel the creation of the Peace Corps.
James Tobin is an author and historian. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for Ernie Pyle’s War. This article appeared originally in Michigan Today, the alumni publication of the University of Michigan, and previously appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of WorldView magazine .
Sources include articles in The Michigan Daily and the Ann Arbor News and the following books: Robert G. Carey, The Peace Corps (Prager, 1970); Richard N. Goodwin, Remembering America (Little, Brown & Co., 1988); Gerard T. Rice, The Bold Experiment (Notre Dame, 1985); Karen Schwarz, What You Can Do For Your Country: An Oral History of the Peace Corps (Morrow, 1991); Sargent Shriver, Point of the Lance (Harper & Row, 1964); Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (Harper & Row, 1965); Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings (FSG, 1980).
Ana Victoria Cruz posted an articleWomen of Peace Corps Legacy see more
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech that has become a defining moment in American History. Women of Peace Corps Legacy interview founding member Betty Currie about her experience there.
by Katie McSheffrey
Betty Currie‘s long career with Peace Corps began in 1969, after her job at USAID ended. She was initially recruited to work in the Africa Region as the secretary for the regional director. When the newly appointed Peace Corps Director, Joseph Blatchford, needed a secretary, Betty’s talents were already known at the agency. “The job was a crucial one. It had 10,000 people spread out over sixty-eight countries, and I needed a reliable, efficient person,” Blatchford recalls. “I didn't ask if she was a Republican or Democrat. I wasn't interested because she was so good." Betty remained with Director Blatchford when he moved to ACTION, the federal agency that ran the Peace Corps, and she subsequently moved up to work for two other agency directors — Michael Balzano and Sam Brown. In 2006, she resumed her relationship with Peace Corps as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.
Betty had met John Podesta, who also worked at ACTION, and in the early 1980s he invited her to run the offices of the Mondale and Dukakis Presidential campaigns and to later join the Clinton campaign. After Clinton became president, Betty served as his personal secretary during both of his terms. Betty has remained involved in Democratic politics. An Obama supporter, she is close to the former president's mother-inlaw, and in a recent conversation told her friend that everyone Betty knew applauded Michelle’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.
A summary of the Women of Peace Corps Legacy interview with Betty Currie follows. It has been edited for clarity and concision.
Q: First, let's talk about your experiences at the March on Washington 57 years ago. How did you get involved in the march?
I’d gone to work that day at the Post Office at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, professionally dressed, ready for a day of hard work, and when I got there, my supervisor said, “What are doing here?” I said, “I have my job to do.” And he said, “You need to join the march so others will get a job!” So, I put on my tennis shoes and quickly ran down Connecticut Avenue to join the thousands of people gathering on the National Mall.
I found a place to sit under a tree between the stage and the end of reflection pool. Others joined me, and I met and talked to strangers who I felt I had a connection with. Together we listened to the most wonderful music by the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, singing “How I Got Over.” Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome,” and Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “If I Had a Hammer.” Then we quietly listened to the speeches that began under the statue of Abraham Lincoln.
Q: What are the most memorable things that happened at the March? How would you describe the participants in the March?
I remembering it being a joyful experience, fun even, full of people who were smiling and being kind to one another. The group was very diverse — there were people of all ages and races, gathered together in solidarity. Because it was a workday, people were dressed up in coats and ties and nice dresses. The atmosphere was peaceful, calm, and friendly; I felt safe. It felt like a time of change, and we were all inspired about future possibilities.
The speakers, including Martin Luther King and John Lewis, gave rousing speeches, but we had no idea at the time that their words would go down in history. After hearing the “I Have a Dream” speech, I remember thinking, “Well, that was a pretty good speech.” He said we should not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. I thought that was very powerful.
When it was over, thousands of people peacefully left the area and returned to work.
Q: How would you compare this year's march with the one in 1963?
Fifty-seven years ago, there was a lot of advance publicity about the march. I am not aware of that kind of publicity for today’s march. Ours was very organized with strong leadership, as one would expect with MLK’s people. And it wasn’t during a time of COVID, which will definitely affect turnout this week.
Q: During the march, Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech calling for an end to racism. How well do you feel America has achieved that dream?
We still have a way to go. We were on a good path to racial equality, but we’ve strayed from it in recent years. I hope that we’re back on the path to progress. I feel hopeful.
Q: Now let's talk about your time with Peace Corps. What brought you to Peace Corps?
Well, I would say it was the grace of God that brought me there. I had worked for USAID and when that time was over, I was asked to interview with the head of the Africa Region of Peace Corps, Walter Carrington. I remember waiting for an interview when a young woman walked in and said, “We need to send this letter to Mauritius,” and I remember thinking, “Is there actually a country Mauritius? Even so, I got the job!”
I was lucky to attend a regional conference in Africa where I was asked to take notes. I guess I did a good job because I was recommended to be the new Peace Corps Director Joseph Blatchford’s special assistant/secretary. I remember after the interview I was told that if I got the job, I would have to either get rid of the afro or the pants suit — I couldn’t keep both. I chose to keep the pants suit.
Q: How did your time at Peace Corps affect your life?
I learned that working in the Peace Corps office could bring great joy. Volunteers returned after two difficult years, full of happiness and hope for their future. It was as if they had gained the knowledge that you could be happy with very few creatures comforts and understood the oneness of mankind. They also came home with a deep appreciation for their life in America and the democracy they enjoyed in the U.S. Meeting them was truly inspirational.
I remember one time when I was asked to host local Peace Corps staff who were visiting from Mauritius, and I was asked us to host them at our home for a real American meal and experience. “What am I going to do?” I thought because I wasn’t much of a cook. So, I called my daughter and told her to cook some spaghetti for our new guests that I would be bringing home. It was quite evident that they couldn’t figure out what we were serving — I guess they’d never had spaghetti before — so we took them to a nearby restaurant that featured good old Southern cooking with ribs and collard greens, and they loved it!
"That was the Peace Corps way. An organization were people care and they let you know. They care about you, what you’re doing and how you’re doing. And that feeling stays with me.
Q: You were at Peace Corps at a time when Nixon wanted to do away with it. What is your memory of that experience?
It’s true — Nixon wanted to do away with Peace Corps. I remember that at one point some Volunteers took over the building in protest. I was on the front lines when Peace Corps was folded into ACTION, something Director Blatchford reluctantly agreed to so that President Nixon would not dissolve the Peace Corps. I know that Blatchford is still criticized for that, but I thought it was a brilliant move because it kept Peace Corps alive.
Q: Finally, let's talk about the current Black Lives Matter movement. As you know, Black Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in the DMV, a new group affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association, is actively involved in the August 28th march. What advice would you give to young people who are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement?
First, let me say how much I appreciate the work of Women of Peace Corps Legacy. Your support of women’s empowerment around the world is very admirable.
The Black Lives Matter movement is relatively new, and I wholeheartedly support their efforts. I would say to all young people — and to people of all ages: “Join them, support their efforts, and enjoy every minute!”
To learn more about the March on Washington and the Black Returned Peace Corps Volunteer organization please visit the Black PCV in the DMV website.