From there his feud with Chambers deepened. An editorial in the September 1986 issue of the High Point College Hi-Po describes a Citizens Against Censorship concert at UNCG where Chambers was called to defend the state’s 1985 obscenity law. Ralph was there, too, poking holes in the Meese Report, a government study on pornography commissioned by President Ronald Reagan that had been released that summer.

Ralph collected masters degrees as avidly as he collected wax recordings of the blues greats. He taught the first human sexuality course in Guilford County Schools.
Ralph collected masters degrees as avidly as he collected wax recordings of the blues greats. He taught the first human sexuality course in Guilford County Schools.

He told the students that the Meese Commission was “not political in any normal sense of the word, but powerful, nonetheless, and very intimidating. They were the ones responsible for the removal of Playboy and Penthouse from convenience store shelves.”
scubamaskRalph’s obit lists the job titles he held during his 83 years, which paint as accurate a profile of the man as any biography can.

In addition to his teaching positions, Ralph worked as a soda jerk, farmhand, construction laborer, mill hand, truck driver, timekeeper, salesman, house painter, cement finisher and carpenter. He’d served as a surgical orderly, an EMT/ambulance driver, an underwater research diver, a lifeguard, a security guard and a photojournalist.

And it still barely scratches the surface.scubamaskThere’s so much more.

Ralph was a founding member and eventual president of the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He chaired the law enforcement sessions of the first urban affairs conferences at NC A&T University and served on the citizens’ advisory committee for the NC Department of Corrections. He led encounter sessions between racial groups in churches, schools and military bases, and for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce in the ’60s and ’70s. And he was involved in substance abuse and recovery since the earliest days of the subject in both Greensboro and Winston-Salem. He was a consultant, lecturer and debater for NC Citizens Against Censorship. And he founded the Association for the Repeal of North Carolina Abortion Laws in the late ’60s, a post which he held until 1973, when the state abortion law was, indeed repealed.

I look around my newsroom, my home, my city, and I realize that in some ways, we are all standing on Ralph Speas’ shoulders.scubamaskI remember another Ralph Speas interview I conducted, back near the turn of the century when Greensboro was in the process of reconciliation from the 1979 Klan Massacre while the current police department was in the throes of a scandal that reached all the way up to the office of the chief.

“There’s a lot of connection between those days and now,” he told me. “Some of the same people are in the department.”

I had been interviewing him about a blues artist or some such thing, but pushed him on the statement. That’s when he told me he had infiltrated the Klan and other hate groups when he was younger, and informed on them to law enforcement.

Chalk up another crazy job for Ralph.

I remember coming back to the newsroom that day and thinking how strange it was that the nice old guy who takes pictures at the blues fest used to sneak around taking photos of burning crosses.

And still I did not comprehend the scope of the man.scubamaskI came in at the end.

Ralph Speas was already almost 70 years old when I met him — still vibrant, to be sure, a man in full. And I had always sensed a greatness in Ralph that he seemed reluctant to talk about… or, more probably, that I never had the time or inclination to discover.

Ralph’s life ultimately stood for something more potent than the blues, though not entirely unrelated. It was about sex and power and freedom and knowledge, and I had no idea.

How do you eulogize a man you didn’t know existed? How can a life with so many elements be properly honored, or even put into perspective?

What can I say about my friend Ralph is that he may have been the greatest guy I never knew. And his legacy will long outlast his life.


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