"Everyone Jump on the Peace Train"

Peace Retreat in Action

Peace Retreat in action.

Peace Retreat March on Raleigh, May 1970

Thousands of students march from campus to the Capitol.

“We decided on the Peace Retreat because we wanted to take this great energy, and rather than go break windows or talk about bombing the ROTC—because these things were happening all over—we wanted to heal by coming together and giving everybody a chance to speak. Let’s take this energy and use it intelligently. We are a university. We’re not going downtown to Fayetteville Street and breaking windows. Why don’t we channel it?”- Cathy Sterling, 2014[1]

The Peace Retreat, although very successful, was not unanimously supported. Faculty and students were divided. In my interview with Sterling, she revealed to me that a woman approached her at the Leading the Pack exhibit opening at D.H. Hill Library, glad to finally meet her because Sterling had upset her husband, a faculty member at NC State, when she was president. She remembered that he used to come home every night enraged about the things she was orchestrating on campus.[2] 45 years later, this woman was still remembering the impact of Sterling on campus. Her decisions were very controversial. Most faculty and students stayed silent and went about their normal lives, but some were very vocal in their support or opposition of her leadership.

Sterling remembers the March to the Capitol as an incredible, quick come-together that could have gone terribly wrong.[3] To this day, she is still surprised by how well it went. There was never any trouble with the Raleigh Police Department, and the students refrained from acting out, even in a huge crowd. Whatever strings were pulled, moving from the campus to the Capitol was trouble-free the entire journey there. To have so many people marching and to not have a single incident is great planning and communication, extreme luck, or both.

The Peace Retreat was remarkable because the students came through with dignity and integrity. The March could have been really bad--just a few people could have brought it down. Sterling remembers debating people who believed that the Peace Retreat was a “cop out,” and that students should be taking harsher action. Looking back, it’s a miracle that those violent students decided to stay home that day and let the Peace Retreat happen without causing a riot. A single student could have thrown a rock into a window and the events of the Peace Retreat would have been completely changed.

“I’m glad that I wasn’t aware of how bad it could have been, because I would have been frightened. As you grow older and you realize that there is an undercurrent of violence that one person can set off. It’s like driving a car. Until you have an accident and the steering wheel jerks out of your hand, you realize that you are no longer relevant to this car or this situation. It just sobers you up about how much in control you are. So I think that’s the amazing thing about that time, is that all the people involved, even Jesse Helms, we somehow came out of it more than okay. NC State came out respected for having had such an evolved response to these very quick happenings. And I look back at it that way. Whatever part that I played in that, I don’t know. I truly didn’t see it. When I left, I knew that I worked really hard. I knew that as I stepped away, that was really the end of it. When I returned to NC State fiver years later, it was as if nothing happened during my presidency. It isn’t until now that I realize the lasting effect the Peace Retreat had on campus and I’m grateful for that.”- Cathy Sterling, 2014 [4]

We want Ms. Sterling to know that what she accomplished on campus from 1970 to 1971 was groundbreaking. Not only did she set a precedent that women, too, could represent NC State as their student leader, but she also showed us that collaboration and listening to one another is the way to make change. Her legacy as the first female student body president and as the facilitator of the Convocation and March to the Capitol in May 1970 will be remembered for years to come.


[1] Cathy Sterling, interview with author, Samantha Smith, November 13, 2014.

[2] Cathy Sterling, interview with author, Samantha Smith, November 13, 2014.

[3] Cathy Sterling, interview with author, Samantha Smith, November 13, 2014.

[4] Cathy Sterling, interview with author, Samantha Smith, November 13, 2014.

"Everyone Jump on the Peace Train"