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William E. Peters Jr., 85, journalist on civil rights

In a 1956 magazine article, William Peters introduced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to many Americans.

LOS ANGELES -- Before the historic march and awe-inspiring speech, before the water hoses, church bombings, and bullets, William E. Peters Jr. wrote an article for Redbook magazine about a 27-year-old minister from Atlanta.

Full of candor and insight, the article "Our Weapon is Love," introduced the minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the philosophy, nonviolent resistance, that soon would help transform the nation.

"This is a new and striking doctrine to preach in the explosive atmosphere prevailing in the South," Mr. Peters wrote in 1956. ". . . The man who preaches it is a new and striking kind of Negro leader. King's faith in this principle remains unshaken, and he has managed to impart it to Montgomery's Negroes. The tranquil yet efficient spirit in which they organized their protest has shaken the common assumption of Southern whites that they understood their Negroes."

An award-winning journalist, Mr. Peters covered civil rights and race relations as if he were a translator, introducing, explaining, and helping the nation learn about itself and its problems.

Mr. Peters, whose magazine articles, books, and television documentaries chronicled the face of a changing nation, died May 20 at a hospice in Lafayette, Colo., from complications of Alzheimer's disease, said his daughter, Jennifer Johnson. He was 85 and had lived for many years in Guilford, Conn.

Decades later, his work is a part of the historical record. Mr. Peters's article on King is described by scholars at Stanford University, which houses King's papers, as "an important source for tracing King's intellectual development."

"King explained to Peters, for example, that 'the spirit of passive resistance came to me from the Bible, from the teachings of Jesus."

"The techniques came from Gandhi,' " explains a note that accompanied a letter King wrote to Mr. Peters discussing the article.

In the 1950s and '60s, much of Mr. Peters's written work appeared in magazines with a mostly female readership. He wrote about interracial marriages for McCall's and about discrimination in private social clubs for Redbook. An article in Good Housekeeping examined the harassment of a Jewish couple in San Francisco by 10 young men.

The events in a classroom in Riceville, Iowa, so amazed Mr. Peters that he returned to the topic repeatedly.

Every child in Jane Elliott's class had been classified as moderately or severely dyslexic. Called the "dummy crew" by other teachers, they were pupils who were not expected to amount to much, Elliott said.

To teach her class of all-white third-graders about discrimination, Elliott divided them into two groups: blue-eyed and brown-eyed. One day students were treated as inferior simply because they were in the brown-eyed group, while students in the blue-eyed group were treated as superior. Another day, the groups switched roles.

The results were a stunning indictment of the power of prejudice and the expectations that accompany labels. Students who were treated as superior learned in ways that others had not thought possible; when labeled as inferior their performance failed. After the exercise ended, students continued to excel beyond expectation.

"He really felt that this exercise could seriously impact on attitudes and behavior where racism was concerned," Elliott said in an interview last week.

With Muriel Neff Peters, his second wife, Mr. Peters made a documentary about Elliott's exercise, "The Eye of the Storm," for ABC, which aired it in 1970. The following year his book "A Class Divided" was published.

In 1985 he made "A Class Divided," a documentary for PBS/Frontline, and in 1987 he published "A Class Divided: Then and Now," which continued the story and included a reunion of those third grade students.

Born in San Francisco, Mr. Peters attended Northwestern University. In 1942, after two years of study, he enlisted in the US Army Air Forces.

Mr. Peters flew B-17s and was shot down over the North Sea. He was stranded at sea for hours and wrote about the ordeal for Ladies' Home Journal in 1944.

After the war Mr. Peters returned to Northwestern, changed his major from zoology to English and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1947.

He married Ann Miller and the couple had four children before divorcing.

His second marriage to Muriel Neff Peters also ended in divorce. His third wife, Helene White Peters, died in 2000.

Mr. Peters's experience in matters of race earned him an opportunity to break into broadcasting. In 1962 when CBS needed a race relations specialist for an investigative report on voter registration in the South, the network selected Mr. Peters and sent him to Mississippi.

"Mississippi and the Fifteenth Amendment" aired in 1962, followed by several other reports for CBS and later ABC, including documentaries on the making of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, segregation in New Jersey, and Black Panther Bobby Seale's campaign for mayor of Oakland, Calif.

By 1963 Mr. Peters had won the first of many awards, a George Foster Peabody Award for two parts of a three-part series called "Storm Over the Supreme Court, Parts II and III," which examined prayer in school and Bible reading in schools.

From 1982 until 1989 Mr. Peters was director of Yale University Films, where he wrote, produced, and directed "A Class Divided," which won an Emmy. It can be viewed at pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/faq.html.

In addition to Johnson, Mr. Peters leaves daughters Suzanne Payne of Lafayette, Colo., and Gretchen Peters of Nashville; and a son, Geoffrey Peters of Vienna, Va.

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