Vale Ralph Summy

ralph summy

The long march through 
the institutions ... 
          - Rudi Dutschke

Ralph Summy has was a lecturer at the University of Queensland. In 1977, at the height of the Queensland Government’s attack on Democratic Rights, Summy and others began an alternative magazine called Social Alternatives which provided a forum to oppose state violence of 3,000 arrests of its citizens, the mining and export of uranium, sandmining, destruction of native forests and Federal Government support for the American alliance.

Ralph Summy was arrested with 125 others in the 1967 Civil Liberties march which began a long march for democratic rights in Queensland.

Bench Charge sheet recording Ralph Summy’s arrest at 5.54pm on 8 September 1967.

I always associate Ralph Summy with a group of intellectuals, teachers and artists from a bygone era, willing to stand up during an era of political repression in Queensland: Carole Ferrier, Ian Hinckfuss, Peter Wertheim, Don Mannison, Derek Fielding, Gay Summy, Dan O’Neill, Barbara Wertheim, Merle Thornton, Di Zetlin, Di Priest, Errol O’Neill, Mary Kelly, Marion Redmond, Mary Mannison, Gary McLennan, Rosemary McBride, Humphrey McQueen, Auntie’s Lilla Watson & Mary Graham and Frank Varghese.

No doubt there are others whom I have missed.

I hope a new generation emerges to follow in their footsteps.

Ian Curr
4 November 2018

Student protest 5Sep1967 S909 p1000b[1] copy
Restore Civil Liberties Forum at University of Queensland Student Union on 5 Sept 1967


Ralph Summy: A journey in pursuit of nonviolence

The goal of Social Alternatives from its inception in 1977 was to provide a forum for discussing and analysing problems, with an emphasis on formulating nonviolent quest for peace and social justice. It was an idea whose time had come. The previous decade had seen great changes both in Australia and overseas; it was a period of student unrest that led to new ways of thinking. Ralph played a major role in the upheaval that took place at the University of Queensland during the sixties and into the seventies.

According to Ralph, it was an exciting time to be part of a ‘new awakening’ that embraced innovative ideas and activities. It was in this environment that the idea of a radical journal took root. Ralph had made some public comments about academics being good at criticising and analysing problems but not providing solutions.

A colleague and former student, Bruce Dickson, responded with the suggestion that Ralph start a journal with a solutions-based approach. Gathering a few like-minded friends to work on the first issue, Social Alternatives was launched in December 1977. Some forty years on, the journal continues to examine contemporary issues and explore the many facets of nonviolent solutions, although the format has evolved over time and technology has changed the modus operandi.

While the time was ripe for the genesis of such a journal on the social/political front, its creation also seemed a logical progression in Ralph’s personal journey. He claims that all his adult life he has been driven to work towards a fair and equitable society. This article shines a light on Ralph’s personal story, in an attempt to understand his motivation in pursuing such lofty ideals and to discover the evolution of his ideas.

Ralph was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and lived in a small town nearby, Lanark Manor, until the age of ten. He had one sibling, a sister eight years his senior. He was a happy child and had a comfortable middle-class upbringing. However, he became aware of injustice and inequality from an early age, growing up in the shadow of the ‘Great Depression’. The family moved from Lanark Manor to Kansas City in 1939 where they lived until 1947 before moving to Houston.

Ralph enjoyed school and achieved high grades, winning a scholarship to attend the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. He then went on to Harvard where he majored in Economics. The Harvard years proved to be a difficult time for Ralph, however. He rebelled against authority and took on board issues of social justice, and freedom for individuals to choose and take responsibility for their actions. He did not enjoy serving in the navy reserve for two months per year (a requirement of his Harvard scholarship). On the whole, the four years at Harvard was not the positive experience it could have been, due in large part to a restlessness and an unwillingness to conform to the status quo. On graduation day Ralph’s housemaster advised him not to squander his abilities in the future, adding, to Ralph’s surprise, ‘you have too much to offer’.

After graduation Ralph obtained a position as a cadet journalist on the Houston Post. Less than a year later he was drafted into the US Army and shipped to Germany to serve with the American occupation troops. Although he was not happy with this turn of events, he felt fortunate that he had not been sent to Korea, as this was the height of the Korean War. Instead he was assigned a job as a journalist to work in the Public Information Office of the 16th Infantry Regiment at Schweinfurt. One of his assignments was to write a history of the Regiment’s bloody landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, 1944. While researching this project he was confronted with the horrific slaughter and human waste of war. Due to this searing experience, he became quite anti-militaristic, to the point that he had to be disciplined and was denied an automatic promotion.

During his two-year stint in the army he read prodigiously, mostly war novels or books with powerful political messages related to peace and justice. He says that this preoccupation helped to keep him sane; it also influenced the development of his peace ideals. Among the books that made a big impression on him were Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers, Jones’ From Here to Eternity, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed and Brothers Karamazov, Hersey’s Hiroshima, Rolland’s Jean Christophe, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. Ralph quips that he gained a better education in the army than at Harvard.

On leaving the army Ralph felt uncertain about his future. He wanted to be a writer, but lacked the confidence and financial means to take the gamble. Instead he found employment in the trust department of a leading bank in Boston. During this time, he was drawn into the activities of an anti-nuclear group called the Greater Boston Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE).

He had been to see the movie On the Beach based on Neville Shute’s iconic novel about a nuclear holocaust. As he was leaving the theatre he saw a SANE poster flapping in the breeze with the prophetic words, ‘There’s still time brother’. This proved to be a turning point for Ralph. He volunteered to act as the chief organiser for an anti-nuclear rally. As publicity for the rally mounted, Ralph’s role became known to bank officials who gave him the option of either ceasing any association with SANE or leaving the bank. The year was 1960 and while Senator McCarthy had been dead for three years, McCarthyism in the form of a virulent anti-communism was very much alive. Any peace activity was considered highly suspect. Sealing his fate, Ralph chose to leave the bank. He was elected Director of the Boston chapter of SANE.

The rally, staged on 1 October 1960, was so successful that it attracted the attention of Senator Thomas Dodd, Chairman of the Senate Internal Security Sub-committee. Ralph was requested by the national body of SANE to sign a statement to the effect that the Boston chapter was not part of a communist or communist-front organisation. This issue caused a furore among the members, many urging Ralph to sign the statement. Ralph refused to sign on principle. He felt strongly that to act out of fear would mean succumbing to the very anti-freedom, anti-democratic measures attributed to the enemy; no one should be forced to declare their patriotism under oath. In the end he decided there was no alternative but to hand in his resignation. He was soon to discover that he had been blacklisted due to his ‘un-American’ activities and was unable to find full-time employment.

He managed to get by with the odd casual labouring job and supervising a summer camp for under-privileged boys. Along with about seventy other disenchanted former SANE members, Ralph decided to leave the US permanently and find a less repressive country in which to settle. He chose Australia, as did a number of these ‘nuclear refugees. Ralph arrived in Sydney in February 1962, aged 33, to begin a new life. Almost immediately he was offered a teaching position at Drummoyne Boys High School, teaching English and history. From the beginning he knew he had discovered his profession. He was employed as a casual and decided to enrol in a Diploma of Education to enable him to get permanent work. He also enrolled in a Masters in politics at Sydney University. He joined a local peace group which shared his concerns about nuclear testing and the build-up of nuclear stockpiles. It was considered a great triumph for the nuclear protest movement around the world when, in 1963, the three largest nuclear powers agreed to permanently refrain from testing in the atmosphere. The ordeal he had been through in Boston now seemed worthwhile and the efforts of the peace movement vindicated.

After two years in Sydney, Ralph moved to Brisbane where he secured a job as tutor in political science at the University of Queensland, teaching courses in Australian and US politics. He became involved in the anti-nuclear activities of the Queensland Peace Committee, serving on its executive body. As the principal link to the University, he attempted to involve other academic staff and encouraged students to become interested in the topic of war and peace. Soon the focus of peace activities shifted from nuclear issues to the war in Vietnam, in line with New Left student movements occurring in a number of other countries. Ralph played a major role in the student-led civil liberties campaign that developed as a result of the repressive measures imposed by the reactionary Queensland Government of the day.

Other issues that arose were the mining of uranium for nuclear weapons and South Africa’s apartheid regime. Ralph played a role in a campaign of nonviolent resistance during a rugby union tour by the Springboks in the early 1970s. His abiding concern was the problem of how to keep radical politics nonviolent. He published widely in the area of nonviolent political action, as well as American political ideas and the Australian peace movement.In 1974, while on sabbatical leave in the US, he met the doyen of nonviolent political action, Gene Sharp, who had just written a three-volume tome on The Politics of Nonviolent Action. This was a defining moment for Ralph.

He read voraciously on the subject of nonviolence from all the available literature. On his return to Australia he designed and pressed for a course, ‘The Politics of Nonviolent Change’, in the political science department at UQ. It was met with considerable opposition from colleagues, but in the end received the approval of the department head. Soon after, he was approached by a visiting peace scholar from India, Sugata Dasgupta, who suggested that Ralph include a course on Gandhian ideals. This course, ‘Nonviolence and the New Society’, was approved by the department about a year later. Building upon these two nonviolence subjects, in 1991 Ralph managed to establish, with a great deal of resistance, an interdisciplinary peace and conflict resolution program within the department. It was now possible for students to undertake a major/double major in peace and conflict studies. Over the next five years the programme grew by leaps and bounds, with over 200 students enrolling in the introductory course by the time of Ralph’s retirement in early 1997. The success of the program later led to the establishing of the Rotary Peace Centre and the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (ACPACS) at UQ. Perhaps the highpoint in Ralph’s pursuit of nonviolence climaxed with the organising and running of the 16th Biennial Conference of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) held at UQ in July 1996. The conference theme was ‘Creating Nonviolent Futures’.

Ralph convened the Nonviolence Commission. Around nine hundred delegates attended with at least a third from overseas. The five-day conference was considered a triumph. Much of its success was due to a large number of students who volunteered to help, myself included. We had a dedicated organising committee of which I
was secretary and Ralph the chair, with John Synott as programme director.

On a personal note, organising the event cemented a relationship that had developed between Ralph and me. I had taken a couple of Ralph’s courses the previous year and while he was on sabbatical leave in Canberra later that year we developed a mutual attraction. We spent time together on occasions when he flew back to Brisbane for meetings. We tried to keep our relationship under wraps initially but suspicions were aroused when I took over his office as organising secretary, and even shared his email. We decided that if we could survive the stress of organising a conference, we could survive a marriage, and so we married in December of that year. 1996 was Ralph’s last full year at the University of Queensland; in his view it was also one of the most hectic, yet rewarding.

Although officially retired early the following year, having served 33 years at UQ, Ralph was not ready for retirement. He accepted a position as Director of the Matsunaga Institute for Peace at the University of Hawaii. We packed our bags and departed for Honolulu in August 1997. Ralph’s main task was to set up a viable peace studies program. Having achieved what he set out to do, Ralph retired for a second time and we returned to Brisbane at the end of 1999. However, for Ralph there was no such thing as retirement. He continued to write (mostly on the topic of nonviolence), give guest lectures, examine doctoral theses, and serve on the editorial collective of Social Alternatives – and play tennis of course. Sadly, he is now incapacitated due to a variant of Parkinsons (MSA), but his legacy continues. We have enjoyed a long, happy and fruitful life together based on love and respect, shared values and common interests (apart from his passion for sport!).

Looking back over Ralph’s life, it is clear that he followed his inclination towards peace and justice from a very early age. Even when his principles jeopardised his safety or well-being, he never caved in to fear, or gave up the struggle in the face of adversity. While it took many years to formulate his methodology within a framework of nonviolence, his commitment to peace has never wavered. Albert Camus captures well the essence of Ralph’s dedication to peace and nonviolence with the words, ‘Peace is the only battle worth waging’.

Social Alternatives played a major role in the battle Ralph has waged for peace, and it continues to be an important vehicle for conveying nonviolent alternatives.

Hilary Summy
Social Alternatives

Author Hilary Summy is a peace historian and independent scholar. The subject of her PhD thesis is the League of Nations Union in Australia from 1921 to 1945, and the relational positions taken up by other peace groups during this volatile period. The author of ‘Peace Angel’ of World War I: Dissent of Margaret Thorp, she has also written numerous articles.

Please comment down below