Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Fuller, December 14, 1996. Interview O-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Traditional civil rights movement narrative dismissed in place of a broader movement for economic justice

Fuller counteracts the traditional narrative of a monolithic civil rights movement. Instead, he argues that empowering poor people embodied the struggle for social justice. He maintains that a total systemic change is needed to empower the poor to be self-sufficient.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Fuller, December 14, 1996. Interview O-0034. 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

So we've got to understand that there were struggles going on. But what did we see as our mission? What we saw as our mission was to empower poor people. To give them levels and levels of power that were previously unavailable to them. We were never struggling for integration per se. Y'all gotta understand that, because our part of this was not the Civil Rights Movement. We weren't in that. We was in somethin else. We were in that part when the Black Power movement came along. People now want to sanitize what we were doing. But you can't lump all the Sixties together. Because there were different things happening at different times. When we were fighting, we were fighting to get things, like streets paved. You gotta understand that when we started out in Haiti, there were these dirt streets! When I came down here, hell, I'm coming from Milwaukee and Chicago, I get down here—what these dirt streets?! What is this, in the middle of town. I used to talk about how you could tell when you were in a black community in North Carolina. Hell, you could close your eyes, drive your car and just be going on this paved road, then when you hit them railroad tracks, and you got off on them dirt roads, then you knew you was in our place. People talk about shotgun shacks—they're still here! We drove down the street the other day, and I thought we had dealt with this! It's that air conditioning without opening up the windows. We were fighting to get people's houses fixed. We were fighting to say that, hey, you can't evict a person out of a public housing project and don't give 'em no reason. You can't never fix these steps and keep comin to get the rent! It was about real things. It was about giving people voice to be heard, to be listened to. And to have something happen. We were never struggling to just get into a position. You got people today who're just happy to be there. These people finally got into office. You know, and you go see them, and they're just grinnin'. Cause they just glad to be there. And you ask them, well, can you help me? "Well, you know, I can't help you right now, cause I just got here. Now, give me a little time, and we're gonna work on it." You go back to them a few years later: "Well, this ain't the time right now, cause I'm about to get a promotion, then I'm gonna be able to help all of y'all a lot more." Then you go back to them: "Well you know, I'm about to retire." [Laughter] Now, it ain't about that. It wasn't about just trying to put black faces in places that used to be white faces, and then have black faces operate like the people who was there before! What difference does that make? We weren't struggling to only create better services—that was a part of it. We wanted to control the services. I remember asking the question once, when I was down at Breakthrough, "I understand that this is the War on Poverty." They said, yeah. I said, "Well how is it, that if you are fighting a war, you have the enemy sitting on the board planning the war? I mean, explain that to me!" [Applause] We had this dude, you remember Ed Greenboro. This dude was the biggest slumlord in town. He's sitting on the board! I was saying, now what is this?! People said, "Howard, you gotta calm down." I said, hey look, all I know is, if this is gonna be a fight, this is gonna be a war to eliminate poverty, then we got to get rid of people who are part of the problem. How are they going to help us plan for our solution when we got a slumlord sitting on the poverty board?