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William Peters, King-era journalist, dies at 85

William E. Peters, a journalist who wrote one of the first national articles on Martin Luther King Jr., has died. He was 85.
/ Source: The Associated Press

William E. Peters, a journalist who wrote one of the first national articles on Martin Luther King Jr., has died. He was 85.

Peters died of pneumonia May 20 in a hospice center 20 miles northwest of Denver in Lafayette, Suzanne Peters Payne, the oldest of his three daughters, said Sunday.

"The world lost a good man, I lost a valued friend and journalists everywhere a role model for what a reporter should be," said Robert Stein, who as editor of Redbook magazine sent Peters to profile King.

In a Web posting, Stein said Peters had worked for him for a decade on subjects ranging from McCarthyism to integration. He sent Peters to Alabama after the 1955 Montgomery bus strike started.

In the August 1956 article, titled "Our Weapon Is Love," Peters wrote that King's adoption of Gandhi's strategy of nonviolent protest was bold "in the explosive atmosphere prevailing in the South."

An online introduction to a section on Peters at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University says the story's impact has lasted.

"Peters' article remains an important source for tracing King's intellectual development," the introduction reads. "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.'"

Worked for the networks
CBS hired Peters and sent him to cover voter registration efforts in the South. He subsequently worked for ABC, then became an independent producer.

He produced a series of Peabody Award-winning documentaries, including one on how Jane Elliott, a Riceville, Iowa, third-grade teacher taught children about racial discrimination by separating them by eye color. One day the blue-eyed group was considered dumb, the next day they switched roles with the brown-eyed students.

The same child who was praised a day before for achievement was humiliated. All the children were white, which made it easy to see how labels set children up to fail, Elliott said Sunday in a telephone interview from Riceville.

"He filmed the exercise the third time I did it. You could see that if you think a child is not worthy then you teach down to them," Elliott said. The first televised account of the class was "The Eye of the Storm," shown on ABC in 1970. A 1985 version: "A Class Divided: Then and Now," won an Emmy for PBS 1985.

Peters, who also wrote a series and book with the widow of the murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was born in San Francisco on July 30, 1921. He left Northwestern University after two years to become a pilot in World War II, writing a piece for the Ladies Home Journal about being shot down and spending many hours at sea before being rescued.

He returned to graduate with a degree in English after the war.

Peters is survived by four children.