[We salute Ed Powell, who passed April, 2001, and who is and will be sorely missed by his many friends, especially those outside the White House.]
AN 'ANTIDOTE TO THE MAINSTREAM'
By David Forton, Managing Editor
Wednesday. May 1, 1996
UB Sociology Professor Ed Powell listens as students debate
during his Sociology of War class Tuesday afternoon in Baldy
Hall. Powell, 70, will take a 15-month sabbatical at the
conclusion of this semester.
Despite a memo headlined. "CONTEMPLATED SABOTAGE AT WRIGHT
PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE OHIO." the FBI's 65-page file on Elwin
H. "Ed" Powell is essentially innocuous:
"A review of the 1969-70 faculty and Staff Directory for the
State University of New York at Buffalo on June 27, 1970 reveals
that subject (Powell) is an associate professor of Sociological
Science . . .
"Source One advised in March 5. 1965. that subject, while
teaching his Sociology of War and Peace class at SUNYAB a few
days previously told his students that the United States
government would do almost anything to accomplish its aims,
including the initiating of a world war."
"Source Three advised that on May 11, 1965, subject was
actively promoting among students at SUNYAB opposition to the
United States policy regarding Vietnam ...
"Source Five advised that subject participated in a
demonstration on October 15, 1965, in downtown Buffalo, New York,
sponsored by SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and opposing the Vietnam War.
And so, the FBI file on Powell -- who is still a UB sociology
professor -- continues, on and on, and on: "Source Seven advised
that subject attended a meeting of SDS (1966)... Source Eight
advised that subject participated in n demonstration Lafayette
Square (1967). Source 10 advised that subject continues to reside
at 124 Jewett Parkway, Buffalo. NY (1970)
The professor's FBI record which was made public after winning a
1976 courtroom battle with local law enforcement authorities that
attracted front page attention in the Courier Express --
Buffalo's major daily newspaper at the time -- is simply an
accurate chronicle, of the first 15 years of his involvement in a
30-year peace project, he says.
In a draft of "Choosing Peace/Making Trouble: A Project in
Participatory Sociology, 1960-1990" -- one of three books he
will be working on during a 15 month sabbatical beginning at the
end of this semester, Powell, now 70, writes:
"Where hut in America could the ideas of an ordinary college
professor be considered important enough to record in a
government file? Noting I was the ostensible Leader of (the
Buffalo Committee for a SANE (Nuclear Policy) in 1961. The
Buffalo FBI requested permission of the Washington Office to make
"a discrete investigation ... to ascertain if POWELL constitutes
any present danger to the best interests of the United States
Regarding the alleged "sabotage" at the Ohio Air Force Base,
Powell, who will reduce his class load at UB to one class per
semester when he returns to the university in the fall of 1997,
says sabotage may be too strong a word.
"I never contemplated physical sabotage, but in 1972 was openly
trying to subvert the war effort. asking military personnel, from
the Secretary of Defense on down., to leak secrets to the
EDUCATING AND AGITATING
Unlike the documented FBI surveillance. his desire to right
societies wrongs didn't end in 1971. On campus or in Washington.
D.C.. Powell -- who earned bachelor's and master`s degrees from
the University at Texas and a doctorate from Tulane University in
1954 -continued to educate agitate and organize through the rest
of the '70's and '80's
And in the 1990's, in facT, he was seen this year at many of
the University Council meetings with his student and good friend,
Michael Pierce, and at nearly all of the student-sponsored
protests, where he offered support, signed petitions or just
relished the sight of students fighting for a cause.
And he was there Tuesday afternoon in Capen Hall participating
in the Student Association-sponsored classroom Walkout, which
turned into UB's largest student protest on campus in 10 years.
Twenty-five years after the FBI surveillance ceased, Powell,
probably no loss or threat to the United States Government. is
now the elder statesman of political activism at UB -- a
prominent voice and sagacious counselor on campus.
Today, 38 years after he was hired by the University of Buffalo,
Powell's bushy beard and full head of unruly hair are now nearly
all white. His six foot-three frame, adorned with an outfit
identical to the one he's described as wearing in a December 1977
issue of The Spectrum -- "a dashiki and blue jeans" -- is
His classes also mirror the 1970's more like "teach-ins," they
are essentially 'bull sessions in which students develop their
minds through expressing and debating ideas, Powell says.
Class handouts -- or leaflets -- play a big part in Powell's
classes. In fact, the counter on his personal Xerox machine tells
its own tale: He has created nearly a million leaflets mostly
letters written by him that he circulates through the students in
his classes or at political gatherings, to anyone who will take
The leaflets -- such as the ones he passed around his classes in
1976 explaining why he was voting for the Socialist Workers Party
candidate for president that year -- are often controversial. But
there is method to Powell's perceived madness -- more than to
just raise eyebrows. Powell's leafleting has a deeper goal, to
provoke thought among the students in an effort to get them to
question, question, question
The major requirement for his classes is the writing of an
autobiographical "Book" a process that guides students, he says,
into an understanding of society through the discovery of
He says his classes are an antidote to the mainstream teaching
of` sociology, where students arc forced to .. memorize useless
and inaccurate names and check blanks on an examination and come
out with no understanding of sociology."
Like his teaching style, his political views are, well, not
within the Mainstream. The FBI calls him t "utopian idealist."
And with that he doesn't argue. Except to add that he is also an
"anarco-communist, like Jesus and Buddha and Alexander Berkman."
All those quirky characteristics. coupled with his frequent
references to the "regenerating qualities" of' LSD and "magic"
mushrooms, take him, some students and professors believe, over
As he relaxes in an emptying lecture hall just an especially
sparked classroom debate Powell pauses often to chuckle during a
afternoon interview. His of serenity offsets the Yang of
political urgency so prevalent just minutes ago in a "lecture" to
his last Sociology of War class
It's here, in the now dead quiet of the Kiva Room in Baldy
Hall, where the describes the true origins of his activism.
"When I was in high school I had a transforming experience
with a teacher who turned me on to a world of ideas," recalls
Powell. "We began with the eight parts of speech and moved to
his explaining the atomic theory of the universe.
"This was an epiphany -- a spiritual experience where my world
kind of fell into place. It was a discovery of the joy of
knowing --1 was quite literally intoxicated.
"I started getting turned on to new ideas and then a friend
said, 'If you're going to amount to anything as an intellectual,
you'll have to take a course In Latin,"' a subject area not
taught at his Plainview, Texas, high school, Powell said.
"So what I did was go out and get my friends to sign a petition
that said these students would take a Latin course if it was
offered. It was the first time I made a demand on a school when I
was at war with the institution.
It was a war he won.
The Plainview High School principal decided to take Powell and
his friends up on their offer and created the Latin course. To
top it off, the class was taught by the very teacher
who ignited the intellectual I flame that still burns within
"1 think that experience was crucial. I had the feeling from
that point on that I was in control of my education."
"Since then, Powell's theory on education - "If you don't use
the university, the university will use -- abuse -- you" --
But it's just that philosophy that at times has gotten him in
hot water -- the most scalding of which may have been a 12 day
lock-up In the Wende Correctional Facility in 1982.
The sentence stemmed from several arrests in connection with the
protesting of the closing of the Squire Hall Student Union on the
South Campus, the place where starry-eyed UB students planned
sit-ins, Vietnam War protests and revolutions during the '60s and
'70s. At the time of the scheduled closing there were no plans to
provide students with an alternative place to congregate out-
side of class.
On the day of his first arrest - in typical Powell style - he
was spotted: distributing leaflets outlining his plans for the
"I intend to be arrested tonight for refusing to·leave the
premises of Squire Hall," the leaflet boldly proclaims. "The
closing of Squire is an assault on the spiritual foundation of
the university. In the classroom ideas are professed, n Squire
they are generated.
"Here we can speak as friends and move beyond the formal roles
of teacher and student Squire Hall as a Student Union is vital to
the mission of the university, which is to promote the life and
growth of the mind."
He calls his 12 days in the pen a "great experience. In a
journal he kept while there, which was eventually published
in the December 1983 issue of Alternative Press, a local leftist
publication -- Power wrote: "I once thought prisons should be
abolished. Now, I would even recommend more prisons, if they
could be like Wende. So many or my colleagues would benefit by a
bit of time here."
The 'genuine article'
Without ever doubting Powell's devotion to effecting social
change, some may quibble with the self-description in his book
"Choosing Peace." For some reason, "ordinary college professor"
doesn't seem to capture his essence.
"Eccentric" is more apt but not the ephemeral kind seen so often
on college campuses, says Donald Sabo, a professor of sociology
at D'Youville College and a student of Powell's in the 1970s.
"There are two kinds of eccentrics -- fakes and genuine
eccentrics," contends Sabo, also an adjunct professor at UB and
co-author of five books on gender studies in sports. "Ed is the
genuine article, he's always strived to be in sync with his
values and beliefs."
But Powell's non-conformist nature shouldn't be overshadowed by
his ability to guide students into reaching their intellectual
potential, Sabo said, especially in the areas of developing
quality writing. In addition, Powell's refusal to succumb to
societal stereotypes made him an especially significant influence
on Sabo's life.
"I am a former defensive football captain ac UB, and Ed Is one
of the first professors who really gave mc credit for having a
good mind," said Sabo. "For whatever reason, he was able to see
through the 'dumb jock' label. He helped me get my foot in the
door of an area In which I eventually excelled."
During his nearly four decades as a full professor at UB,
Powell said he was never pressured to change his teaching style.
"I've never felt any constraints -- there have never been any
suggestions from any one (within the UB administration) that I
should be censured or restrained," said Powell. "I had a sense
of freedom at this university that my colleagues at other
universities did not have.'
This freedom, along with a genuine love of teaching, is why
Powell prefers not to sever his sacred ties to UB with
retirement. "The University at Buffalo and the State University
of New York System are mine like a church is to others," he
"I really don't feel my relationship with the university is
changing in any fundamental way."