Peter Yarrow is an ordinary man with an extraordinary story to tell. Those who gathered in Northampton’s Lipkin Theater for the fifth annual Peace & Justice Conference Thursday March 26 heard Peter of the Peter, Paul, and Mary music trio of the 1960’s and 70’s promote social and political equality through inspired words and songs.
Yarrow has spent the last 50 years giving peace a voice, once traveling with famous Civil Rights’ activists Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama and participating in and organizing countless demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. The trio also sang at the 1969 March on Washington, which Yarrow helped organize.
He began with a short introduction of himself – protocol for anyone talking to an audience – and led us in song many times. He would begin a song, then pause to teach the audience the lyrics and have us sing along.
After we sang “Music speaks louder than words, it is the only thing the whole world listens to. When you sing, people understand,” he asked what that sounded like to each of us. “Peace” and “unity” were some things shouted from the audience.
His involvement in the Civil Rights Movement changed his thinking and further fueled the desire for peace. Peace protestors exemplified unwavering strength in numbers, and the importance of standing together under dangerous circumstances. Yarrow explained how accurately the movie “Freedom Summer” from 1964, set in Mississippi, portrayed the movement and mindset of the time.
One story that captured the full attention of the audience was his experiences with the Freedom Riders. Their journey started in the North. One of the riders, John Lewis, was thrown in jail with Peter. Because of the harsh treatments protestors endured on the streets, they wanted to stay there, but still hoped to push their message. They stayed in jail and, against the wishes of security, sang songs of peace and love. They were always determined to use their voices to “break the remnants of slavery.”
Yarrow addressed the need for peace protestors in today’s society. He recognized that racism and hatred still exist today in many forms. Greed and vulgarity are so prevalent— in TV shows and commercials, the Internet, and even acts of government, bringing wrong ideas to kids and adults.
Yarrow knows that simply changing policies is not enough. We should educate, not only with tests and quizzes, but with decency and respect. Children should learn to love and be empathetic for others.
A project that he helped find, titled Operation Respect, brings children in schools and camps a curriculum of tolerance and respect for each other’s differences.
Peter Yarrow is inspired by the people around him and can bring inspiration to those searching for some. He asks the question, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend he doesn’t see? The answer is within. The real task is to restore the heart.” He teaches that with impulses of love, care, and nonviolence, anyone can make a difference.
Yarrow’s message was clear: It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, or what you stand for – peace and justice can still use your voice.