Interview with Howard Fuller, December 14, 1996.
Interview O-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)

Interview Participants


[00:00:00 - 00:09:59]
…and challenges, some of which we predicted, and some of which we never would have imagined. For example, last night, Eva Clayton was speaking, and in the next room, she was accompanied by the tune of "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" [Laughter] . And while this was going on, a friend of mine handed me a doily napkin from the table that said, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." [Laughter] And I wrote out the rest of the prayer: "the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." And I realized as I was writing that there are many people who live this out, and it is my challenge in life to be at any one time serene or courageous or wise. But to actually be all three at one time is pretty unbelievable, and I think that, Dr. Fuller, you have done that, then and now. There is one name that has surfaced here in the last day and a half more than any other, and there have been more legends and myths and stories about you than anyone I can ever imagine. I heard three or four times yesterday that in the Sixties in North Carolina, there wasn't a day that went by when people weren't either smiling at, or infuriated by, something that you did or said or thought. And so in this incredible honor of having you here, there's a prayer that Nelson Mandela has asked South Africans to say every day, and it goes like this: "Let us bless the young, because they have a long way to go. Let us bless the old because they have come a long way. And let us bless the folks in the middle, because they are doing the work." And you had a long way to go, and you've come a long way, and you're still doing the work, and we're really happy to have you here. [Applause]
First of all, I want you all to relax, cause a lot of times, speakers get up, and they say, "This is going to be brief." Well, this ain't going to be brief. [Laughter] I want to thank the organizers of this conference. I really, deeply appreciate what you all have done to make this possible. I want to once again thank the founders of the North Carolina Fund, and all of my colleagues who were at the North Carolina Fund. But once again, I want to thank George Esser, because there were two bosses that I had—there were three, but two that I want to talk about—one was George, and the other was Nathan Garrett. Both of them had to find a way to deal with the people who were coming at them for all the stuff that I was doing. And I really appreciate the fact that never once did George Esser create a situation where we could not do the work that we felt we needed to do. I know a couple times, he asked me if I could rethink some of it [Laughter] , but to his credit, when I said "no," he accepted that. George, I just want you to know how much I appreciate that.
There's a group of people, I'm going to ask them to stand. You've heard a lot about the community action technicians, who were very important to the Fund. What you didn't hear much about was a group called the summer interns. It was the summer interns that raised havoc in various counties throughout North Carolina, and a number of them are here. I'm going to ask them to stand, even though they probably don't want to do this, and then I want them to remain standing if they would. But the interns, Ayesha is over here, and Naomi was just walking in, and Peggy Richmond was right here, and TJ, and did I miss any of the other interns?
Then there's another group that sort of came up when we formed Malcolm X Liberation University, and I want to put Bertie in that group, cause Bertie was an individual at Duke, and when we decided—they decided—to take over this building at Duke [Laughter] , that led directly to the formation of Malcolm X Liberation University. And then there was a young man who I met when I first came down, who was involved in the civil rights movement at the time, John Edwards, so I want John to stand. Then, when I started working for Operation Breakthrough in Durham, my secretary was Lottie, right there.
When I started organizing, there were a number of people who I came into contact with, who I just want you all to see, and I know some of them are here. Ann Atwater, who's now infamous cause of her book. Frances Fox is right there. Nathaniel and Louise Valentine, who are right there. Shirley Watson, who's right there. And then there was a younger group like Dwight [UNCLEAR] who's sitting over there. He ain't lookin young now, but he was young then! [Laughter] Then there were the people in Breakthrough like Clem Bangs, who came to us from Charlotte. He was a CAT.
Now the reason why I'm asking these people to stand is because I love them. And because they shaped my life in ways that I cannot even begin to describe. And unfortunately, in history, a single individual, or two single individuals get pointed out as people who did all of this, but it can never be that way. It can't be one person—it's like all of these people. And every one of them standing, they're like a part of me. There's this card that you see in Walgreen's, and it talks about how there are people who sort of come through your life, and they're like footprints in the sand, and then there are people who come through your life, and they put these footprints in your heart and soul that remain with you forever. These folks are the footprints in my heart and soul, that will remain with me forever. Thank you very much. [Applause]
I want to dedicate my remarks today to them, and to some who could not be with us. They're no longer with us. And those individuals these people will know: Arch Foster, Reggie Durant, Minnie Fuller, Osandi Hodari, Floyd McKissick, Mr. Louis Austin, Mr. John Wheeler, and the person who taught me the most about courage, Mr. Oliver Harvey. Mr. Harvey was a very short man who in the 1940s stood up to Duke University—in the 1940s!—as a janitor, to say that they had rights that needed to be recognized. It was Mr. Harvey that ultimately led to the formation of Local 77 at Duke University, the Organization of Maids and Janitors. You have to think about a black man standing up to the people at Duke in the 1940s, to say that we are somebody, and we demand to be heard. So my remarks today are dedicated to all of these folks.
[00:10:00 - 00:15:50] (View excerpt detail page)
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So what do I talk about after a conference like this? I want to talk about change. And I want to talk about the struggle to make things better for people who are poor and who are powerless. The one thing that all of you who are struggling—and the younger people understand as you continue to struggle—is that most people want change as long as nothing changes. [Laughter] It's like you come to a conference and people feel liberated because they discussed change. Not because they're going to change anything, it's the discussion about the change. People talk about all these win-win strategies in America today. But if there's going to be any change, many times there can't be no win-win. Because there's got to be a transfer of power, and when you start talking about transferring power, there's no way for everybody to leave happy. Everybody leaves happy from some of these things, and I know ain't nothing happened.
This change thing that I want to talk about, I want you to think about it in deep ways. If there's going to be change in America, you have to deal with the issues of race and class. Cause both of these issues have a direct impact on the life chances of people. This society never has been colorblind, will never be colorblind, and, at one level, shouldn't be. Now let me explain. It's like people come up to me and say, "When I see you, I don't see a black man." [Laughter] Well I'm like, "Tell me, what do you see?" So the issue is not that you see a black man, the issue is what difference does it make? And for you to say that you see me, and you just see a human—that's what Ralph Ellison talked about in Invisible Man. I am not invisible, I am not a figment of your imagination. I am who I am. And so to really understand me you have to see me. And you can't see me if you don't see that I'm black. So the issue in America is not that we're going to become colorblind, the issue in America is that we're not going to allow color or gender or disabilities or sexual orientation to determine what our relationship is going to be.
So, you can't function in America without having a deep understanding about race. And it is about pluralism, it is not about assimilation. It isn't really so much about a melting pot, I want more of a stew—you know, where they got all of the ingredients, but they're all sticking up in there. They didn't get all blended so you don't know where they at. You know, the potatoes is there, and if you're still eating that red meat, that's there, and all of this stuff is there in this stew, so that everybody sees that. If you can begin to visualize it that way, we can begin to have a different conversation about how we move forward. A young lady today talked about "celebrating diversity." You can't celebrate diversity unless you recognize it's existence. And you celebrate the strength that the diversity brings, you don't move to try to make it not be there. So, race is right there. Class is right there.
There is nothing quaint or redeeming about being poor. You got these people who start intellectualizing about poverty. The only people in America who would tell you that money is not important are people with money. [Laughter] Don't hear no poor people standing up and talking about how wonderful this is. I mean, it's always interesting. People say that throwing money at poverty won't end the problem. How does one end poverty without money? And so the reality of it is, if you're poor in America, you're in the vicious cycle. Because in America you need resources to have influence. If you're poor, you don't have resources, so how do you have influence? Long term, it's always been my view, that the way you get people out of poverty is to put them in a position where they can have relative economic self-sufficiency.
[00:15:51 - 00:18:16] (View excerpt detail page)
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Given that, when I came to this conference, I came here saying, it has to be not a conversation in the abstract, it has to be a conversation about struggle. And not so much the struggle then, as much as it is the struggle now. Because it's nice for you all to listen to our stories, and that's cool, and I'm all for that, really. But in the final analysis, the next time we meet, we need to begin with your stories, our stories. Not about the past, but about today. Because if this thing is ever going to work, that's what it has to be.
Franz Fernand said, "Every generation, must out of relative obscurity, discover its mission and either fulfill it or betray it." So the question is, what was our mission? And the "our" I'm talking about is these people who stood up here. Cause you need to understand, the Fund was not a monolith. There was no single movement in North Carolina. Not all of us shared what a lot of us did. We had a lot of mad people—angry people. There was angry and mad! [Laughter] These young ladies sitting here know what I'm talking about. I made a statement in the other room—I don't want y'all to romanticize what happened in the Sixties. It's like, I went to the Million Man March, and I know twenty years from now, I'm not going to meet a single black man who wasn't there. [Laughter] The Million Man March gonna be a Zillion Man March, cause all of em was there. It's just like when people talk about the Sixties, you don't meet nobody who wasn't there! [Laughter] Except all of us who was there, and know that all of them people couldn't have been there! [Laughter]
[00:18:17 - 00:23:46] (View excerpt detail page)
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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?
[00:23:47 - 00:31:16] (View excerpt detail page)
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So you gotta understand, we came out of this in a very different way. Our method of doing this struggle was to create effective organizations. There were two parts to it. One was practical, and one was philosophical. The practical part of it was things like: you never organize a meeting and get a big room. You never want to have a meeting with this huge room with all these empty chairs. What you've got to do is put it in a small room, so that when people come in there, they're all hunched up, and it looks like you're packed! The TV comes in, and you're packed all around the walls. But if they come into a room like this and there's twelve people sitting in there, they take pictures of all these empty chairs. Think about that. We talked about practical ways of knocking on a door. How do you convince people that they can do what they don't even think they can do?
We did crazy things. Like, I remember one night, we killed all these rats. The city council's down there having a discussion. We went down there and dumped these rats right up there on their sacred place where they were talking! It got their attention. [Laughter] We were trying to find creative ways that were practical to develop organization. And while some of you are concerned about enduring organizations, I'm not. Cause some organizations shouldn't endure. In fact, a lot of them endure too long. They get to be supporters of the status quo. There's got to be a distinction between organizations that should remain, and organizations that shouldn't.
We used to develop different kinds of organizations and coalitions. Sometimes you've got to create organizations that ain't even there. What do they know? Get you some stationery, you got an organization, and this is what we demand! [Laughter] These are things that we learned. We were trying to develop effective organizations, but more than that, we were creating effective, committed people. People who, today, still see that it's about struggle. The reason why that was important was that the foundation for all of this was a deep love, that's hard to describe. There's a book by Maryann Williamson, called Return to Love. You ought to read this book. In this book, Maryann Williamson talks about the fable of the frog and the prince, and how the princess kisses the frog and turns him into a prince. It's about showing you the dynamic situation that's created by love, and that love creates an environment for transformation. She argues that if you don't love people, you can never understand them. If you don't understand them, you cannot reach them.
You can't work with people and say, "These are my clients." What is that?! They teach you in school that you have to have professional objectivity. What is that? You have to feel the pain. If you're going to work with and for people, you have to love those people, you have to feel that pain. You can't be sitting up here observing. If you're going to be an observer, be one. But if you're going to be an organizer, and you're fighting for people's rights, you have to love those people and feel deeply about them. Ultimately, it's about freedom. In Paulo Freire's book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in the forward, Richard Shaw was talking about education, and he says, "Education is either the instrument where you train people to fit into the logic of the current order, or it becomes in fact the instrument that facilitates the development of people so that they can engage in the practice of freedom, which is in essence the practice to transform their world." What this is about is, how do you practice freedom? Martin Luther King, Jr., said that freedom is the ability to weigh alternatives, to make rational decisions, and to take responsibility for those decisions.
Our mission was to engage, and help others engage, in the practice of freedom. Our mission was to empower poor people to help them obtain levels and levels of power that were previously unavailable to them. What is your mission today, our mission today? Our mission is to empower poor people to help them obtain levels of power that are still unavailable to them. So the mission is the same. But you say this is a new generation. Yes, there are some differences, not the least of which is that you are here, which is important.
[00:31:17 - 00:35:17] (View excerpt detail page)
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A reporter asked me the other day, how did it feel to be an elder statesman? I said, I don't know, but there's always new leadership. All these people running around, talking about what young people ain't today. There are young people all over this country doing phenomenal things. Just because you don't know about it doesn't mean it's not happening. The older people get, the more angelic becomes their youth. [Laughter] We have selective amnesia. There are young people doing tremendous things, that when we were young, we weren't even thinking about. A lot of y'all lie about what you were doing anyway! [Laughter] To me, a nineteenth-century German philosopher named Schopenhauer said that the task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but it is to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees.
For the young people today—there's a qualifier, because I know there are some different issues. We weren't dealing with AIDS, or the kind of self-destruction occurring through violence, or the drug thing. People were into drugs, but it was nothing like what young people are dealing with today. We weren't dealing, I don't think, with the level of youth suicides. There was a different conception of the role of government. The technology that exists today did not exist then. There are differences, but the old issues are still there: jobs, education, housing, health care, and access to the levers of power.
So what to the new, or I should say, current activists bring to the scenario? You bring a different vision, energy, perspective. The one thing that you can never do is to let the old activists start telling you why you can't do what you want to do, in the way you want to do it. We ought to be here to tell you, "this is what happened to us," not to tell you not to do it your way, but just so that if there's anything you can learn from this, learn it. But there's many of us who get old and are trying to hold on, who see young people as a threat. "I've been here for thirty-five years, where are you coming—?" [Laughter] And the reason why I know that is that's what they said to me. And so I swore that I would never say that to any young people who come along. Some people have been there thirty years, and it's been thirty years too long. [Laughter] You have to do it your way.
[00:35:18 - 00:42:29]
Some people know that I'm a disc jockey, and do dances and stuff. [Laughter] The other night, I put together a tape. I found Marvin Gaye was talking about "Save the Children." Public Enemy said, "Fight the Power." How many of you in here are into Mint Condition? On that new CD, the only one they play is "What Kind of Man Would I Be?" But there's another one they don't play called "Raise Up." Check it out—about number eight or nine on that CD. [Laughter] Mint Condition says, "Raise up. We got to stop the power people from sweatin us." And how we gonna do that? We got to raise up. The beat is down, but the words are like this generation saying, we're still making this music to cause people to struggle. So when people start saying, young people ain't doing nothing today, and I see that Snoop [Doggy Dogg] and I see that [Dr.] Dre, and I when we're trying to tell young ladies not to have a baby, Salt N Peppa comes out and says, "You so crazy, I wanna have your baby!" There's a lot of people who aren't into rap, like older people who for them, it's like noise. You gotta remember, your music was noise to your parents. Everybody's down on young people. There's a lot of stuff out there that ought not to be played in my opinion. It is derogatory towards women, it's talking about violence. And it's not enough to say, "I'm just telling what's happening in the streets." Because there's a dialectic: I'm telling you what's happening in the streets, and I'm helping to reinforce what's happening in the streets. We have to understand that dialectic. So when Tupac [Shakur] died, I was telling some young people, "You can't be out here, talking all of this thing, and think it ain't never gonna come back your way. The way you say, the way you live, the values you hold, will come back." There's a saying, what goes around comes around. And that's real. There are things that are calling young people once again to struggle, and that has always happened, but we have to look for it.
This is off the point, but somebody said, they may not be funding these non-profits anymore, so we gotta try to figure out how to do things that need to be done, even though we're working for the private sector. Let me ask you to think about a concept: Make a distinction between your job and your work. You can go to any job that will allow you to pay your rent and buy clothes, so that you can go do your work. But if you're lucky in life, you'll have a job that is your work. But if you're not that lucky, then know that you've gotta do a job only so that you can go do your work. The fact that you're in the dreaded private sector, where most of the money comes from to pay for the non-profits, doesn't prevent you from struggling, tutoring, being on a board to make sure that things move forward.
What is this inter-generational connection? It's a connection between experience, that only should be used, as I said, to help inform you as you move forward, but ultimately the connection has to be in struggle. This is a wonderful gathering, but at one level, it's an abstraction. The deepest connection always takes place through struggle. It's not, "Here's a younger generation, and we've got to struggle." The younger generation is bringing forth and joining and informing the struggle, but we've got to struggle together. It makes no difference how old you are, but are you prepared to fight, and engage in all kinds of different way, and that's where we connect. But the only way that can happen is if there's a genuine respect for what each of us bring. I genuinely respect what young people bring to the table. I want to listen, I want to learn. There is no such thing as those of us who have been out here a long time coming to teach you. We come and share with you, and we learn from you as much as you learn from us. Billy, as beautiful as you are sister, the face of the new millennium is a blend of the past and you and those little kids behind you. Those little kids are going to be tougher than you. If you see her as the face of the new millennium, you have to see that face as a blend of what has, what is, and what is yet to be in this new millennium.
[00:42:30 - 00:48:54] (View excerpt detail page)
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I'm getting close to the end. One thing you ought to leave here with is a willingness to rethink strategies and labels, and to put everything within its historical context, and the context of struggle. I'm not trying to proselytize any of y'all, but I want to use this as an example. My work today revolves around how we transform learning for our children. How do we learn more about how to learn, but equally important, how do we create new structures for those kids to learn in. I support vouchers for poor parents. I support charter schools. I support public-private partnerships. I support a de-centralized, reconfigured system. Cyber schools, home schooling. We should no longer talk about school systems, but systems of learning opportunities.


…how I came to support vouchers for low income parents. I know people go, "But you're trying to destroy the public schools." Here's my view. It ain't about the public school system, it's about learning for our children. It ain't ever about institutions, it's about people. It is not in the public interest to maintain systems that continue not to educate our children. [Applause] Why do I support some of these things? Because I want poor parents to have the same choices in America that people with money have. Now you take people like Clinton—and this ain't no Democrat-Republican thing. I'm gonna tell y'all the truth, for the first time in my life, I didn't vote for either one of them. I could not vote. I didn't see no bridge to the past, and I didn't see none to the future. Whatever they were talking about didn't connect nowhere with me, because both of them looked the same to me. I know there's differences, and everybody's in parties, but I couldn't do it. What crystallized this for me, was when Clinton went to DC, and looked at the public schools, he said, ain't no way we're putting Chelsea in there! We're gonna send her to a private school. Which is his right as a parent, but the reason why he could make that choice is because him and Hillary have got money. After they make that choice, they look down to poor people in DC, and say, it ain't good enough for my daughter, but y'all gotta stay there, because to give you a way out would be to destroy the system. Come on!
We've got public school teachers who would never put their child in the school they teach in. This is a discussion about what Lisa Delpit called "other people's children." People have got all these things that they think other people's children ought to have, that they would never stand for for their own children. And like it or not, until you give poor people a way to control some of this money, money changes the conversation. If people knew that not only are these people gonna leave, but their gonna take the money with them, you'd have a different conversation. You can call me what you want, but the reality is, as long as this system remains closed, as long as we continue to depend on the bureaucracy to make change instead of empowering the people to make their own change, ain't going to be no change for a whole lot of our kids. This system works well for some children, but it does not work well for a whole bunch of kids. We've got people teaching kids who used to be there, kids they wish were there. Not the kids who are actually there. People tell me, Howard, I could do such a better job if I had better kids. These are the only kids these parents got! It ain't like they're holding back their best ones. [Applause]
People say, "but Howard, the Republicans support that." I say yeah, so what. "But you're getting in bed with the devil!" Not if it's for my kids. I sit on the side of the bed, I get under the sheets—" [Laughter] But I'm dead serious about this. All these alliances we talk about—some of them are no longer progressive alliances around certain issues. We've got to look for different alliances, not because we share their world view, but there's an intersection at a certain point in time, and you know there's going to be differences, because you have a different reason for why you're there.
[00:48:55 - 00:51:11]
I just want to leave you all with the notion that we have to rethink all of this. We have to be very careful that those of us who were progressive at one point in history have not now gotten up in the system so tight that we are now the strongest supporters of the status quo. And that's a hard lesson to learn. So yeah, it was no easy walk. And it never will be an easy walk. But it is always about struggle. Because if there is no struggle, there is no progress. And those of us who profess to favor freedom, yet deprecate agitation are people who want the crops without plowing up the ground. Who want the rain without the thunder and the lightning. Who want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, but it must be a struggle. Because power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will. And people may not get all that they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all that they get. Show me the exact amount of wrongs and injustices that are visited upon a people, and I will show you the exact amount of wrongs and injustices that are endured by these people. And these wrongs and injustices must be fought with words or with blows or with both. Because the limits of tyrants are proscribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. So said Frederick Douglass. Thank you very much. [Applause]