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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edwin Caldwell, March 2, 2001. Interview K-0202. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Organization helps Howard Lee win mayoralty

In this excerpt, Caldwell remembers some of the factors that helped Howard Lee win the mayoralty of Chapel Hill in 1969. Volunteers played a significant role registering voters and maintaining voter lists in order to respond to challenges. Their exhaustive efforts at motivating turnout gave Lee a narrow victory and testified to the importance of organization to winning campaigns.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edwin Caldwell, March 2, 2001. Interview K-0202. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Well we were small time, but Howard was organized. Howard came out with a platform. He came out with everything. He had coffee's he had things set up. He had press conferences. This was unheard of in Chapel Hill, but Howard was organized. Howard has his stuff together he was a good speaker. Rollen Giddes was selected by Sandy McClamrock and the business. Sandy McClamrock ran everything. He was the mayor at the time. Sandy owned the Chapel Hill WCHL. He was mayor. Sandy had plenty of money, he just controlled things. Rollin Giddes was handpicked by Sandy McClamrock, because Sandy wanted to step down. Rollen had been on the town board and Rollen had prepared himself, he had been toastmaster, he had done a lot of things. It was just a foregone conclusion that he would just automatically go in. It got kind of tight, Howard was running a good campaign, at first they just said, "this black man he just a protest." But then people started to get excited, we had these coffees, and people started giving money and people started working. It got to be very, very close. Rollin Giddes said, "I am in a rat race here." When it came down to that election it was close. We had gone up, there was a fellow in Durham named Bill Davis, me and Bill were working on elections. Bill had gone to Bennett College to talk with the history professor up there, to give credit for anybody that wanted to work in the campaign. That's what they did, we had all the class come down and work in Chapel Hill. They worked in, they just did a lot of things. Week in and week out that was their class project. We also had people coming down from the North. They had heard about this black man running. There were a lot of colleges and so forth with kids that wanted to come South and work. They were coming every weekend, and they were going around trying register and they were talking and whatever. This thing turned into a big campaign. I knew that I could turn out a sizable number of votes. I had my stuff together. I had gotten The registrars to agree to allow us to have poll watchers to come in. Well, this was our precinct we had picked the judges so they agreed, "yeah, Ed you can have people here, [unclear] you can have your people here." So we had poll watchers. What I was doing is, I had all the black registered voters on lists by street and alphabetical order. If somebody came in what they would do in the poll is read their name off and we would check them off. So we knew who had voted and who hadn't voted. At three o'clock we passed the lists out, we had carbon copies behind about five of these names all mashed up together. At three o'clock we tore the first list off. I had cars. I had these classes from Bennett. I had high school kids that were excited working in this campaign. There was Doug Clark and the Hot Nut's he had his bus, his bus running all over everywhere. We had cars all over everywhere "Howard Lee for Mayor." We put about two or three people student and a person who the identified in the car. We sent them out. We went to the grocery stores. We went everywhere. We went to their doors, because we could look to see who had voted and who hadn't voted. We would go to Miss So-and-so we want to take you down to vote, "I've voted already," I said "no there must be some mistake here, cause we got people in the polls and you haven't voted." "I can't go, I can't walk." We got a car here. "I got to go to the grocery store." As soon as you go vote we will take you to the grocery store. "Well, OK." And they would go in there and get dressed up and we take them off. That's what we did we searched and we combed. We combed in neighborhoods, we found people. We went on their jobs and got them. Business people got a little worried. Because they could see that we were highly organized. This was something they just weren't quite sure of. We had students voting. We had student registered on the campus, and they were working. The Black Student Movement was working. There was excitement in the air on that day. We work the streets until the polls closed, and we knew Howard was going to win, we knew. Because we could count votes. We could count all of our votes, and we were hoping they wouldn't be able to get theirs out. So what the business's decided to do is, because we had poll watchers and people at the poll passing out literature-One other thing that we did, to ensure that they voted for the right person. We had a slip of paper that we would put in their hands who they were supposed to vote for when they went in the thing. We would say, "Look, who are you going to vote for?" "Well you know I'm going to let the Lord." I said, "No, we ain't going to let the Lord choose today. You take this piece of paper, this is who you vote for. You let the lord choose some other day." So we pretty much told them who to vote for. We controlled things. They went in there and they came out and people were proud. You talking about South Africa and voting, people were voting in Chapel Hill and they were proud the same way. You could just see their backs straighten up and see how proud they were. I worked the streets until the polls closed, we got every vote that we could find. We almost wrestled some people in that didn't want to go, but once they went and voted they were proud. When I got to the church, Howard had set up the Second Baptist Church, no CME the Methodist Church on Rosemary Street, was where he was supposed to give his acceptance speech. The man already thought that he was going to win. I couldn't even get in the church, and here I was a key person in his campaign. My job was to turn the vote out. His job was the campaign, have the tea's, the platform. I told him, "Don't you worry about the votes, I'll turn them out." I couldn't get in the church. There were people standing up there with him that hadn't done a lick of work. It's surprising how people come out of the woodwork and say I'm on your team and they didn't do nothing. We did it all. We found out that he had won, the returns started coming in, it was very close, he didn't win by very much but he won, because we turned out every vote that we could find. Then when he got elected, Howard had his stuff together, he was going to have office in the Town Hall. Nobody ever had the office of the mayor in Town Hall. Howard was the first to have an office, office hours. He took that job very seriously. He went to different things in the town. Howard put Chapel Hill on the map. Howard put the mayor's office on the map. Before that time it was a city manager, city manager ran the town. The mayor was more of a figurehead. Howard changed all that. Howard started going to Washington, [unclear] "First Black Mayor of the South in a predominately Southern town." People wanted to give him grants. Chapel Hill got put on the map. He bought a lot of money in, lots of streets got paved, a lot of houses got built. Worked right in to the sort of things that we wanted to do. Because it wasn't just running a political campaign, we wanted to improve our communities. That's pretty much what happened. Essentially, I worked very close with Howard, ever since then we became very good friends. His wife, we are like brothers and sisters really, we are just that close. His kids are just like family, my kids are like family to him. I've maintained a great relationship with him even though he has gone on to other things.