Peter J. Countryman

Peter J. Countryman

Died October 5, 1992

Peter Countryman left Yale to become one of the leading figures in the northern civil rights movement. He started out as a member of the class of ’63 but took two years off to work for the Northern Student Movement, which served as the northern arm of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He headed the Philadelphia Tutorial Project, tutoring inner city teenagers to better prepare them for college.

The Project became the model for similar programs in other cities and was praised by Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania for making an effort to “deal with racial discrimination in the North.” “It was a time when your Dad was so active,” a woman who was a college student at the time wrote to Peter’s son years later. “Here was a man of action – my age, who left college to work on this . . . I have such a clear memory of him, still – so handsome and charismatic.”

During his years away from Yale, Peter met and married Joan Cannady (Sarah Lawrence ’62). “He was very intense and committed to social change,” Joan says. “He was one of the most charismatic people I ever met. He paid attention to you. I think that’s what was so attractive about him.”

Back at Yale and under the mentorship of William Sloane Coffin, Peter and Joan were involved in planning for the Mississippi Freedom Summer of ’64. As an interracial couple (she black and he white) with a young child, they could not travel safely in the south and stayed on at Yale where Peter earned a master’s in political science and Joan a master’s in urban studies at the School of Art and Architecture in 1966. From there they spent a year at the London School of Economics on Fulbright Scholarships before moving to Philadelphia, now with two young children. She joined the Planning Office of the School District of Philadelphia while Peter pursued his Ph.D. in political science at Princeton.

Peter remained an activist. In the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. he was arrested for violating a ban on gatherings of more than 12 people. He was convicted and fined $100 but appealed it all the way to the Supreme Court before the ban was upheld. In 1970, he traveled to Cuba as part of the Venceremos Brigade, an offshoot of Students for Democratic Society created to show solidarity with the Cuban revolution by working side by side with Cuban workers and campaigning against U.S. policies such as the trade embargo.

Shortly afterwards, Peter and Joan separated, and he went to the West Coast, supporting himself with teaching jobs. He moved back to the Boston area and stayed in touch with Joan and the children, attending soccer games, birthdays and graduations. Both children, Matthew and Rachel, went to Yale; and both graduated in the class of ‘86. (a grandchild entered Yale in 2014.)

Somewhere along the road, Peter became addicted to cocaine, a fact which the children knew about but hid from their mother. They tried an intervention with the help of Dwight Hall but Peter had become an IV drug user and died of complications from AIDS on October 5, 1992. His son Matthew is now an associate professor of history and American culture He has also written a book, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. His father was a seminal figure in the northern civil rights movement and Matthew’s book is considered a seminal work on the northern civil rights movement.