Note: Vanderbilt University history professor Devin Fergus, whose comments led off last Sunday's forum at the Hayti Heritage Center, will be Barry and my guest on the Shooting the Bull radio show tonight, 7:30pm, WXDU 88.7 FM (streaming at wxdu.org). We'll talk about his new book "Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics," and his forthcoming work on the inequities that impoverished Americans face through high costs of financial services, loans and insurance products.
Last Sunday's forum at the Hayti Heritage Center focused on community activism in Durham, as told through the lens of those who'd been at ground zero during efforts like the founding of Malcolm X Liberation University, or the ambitious Soul City "new town" effort in Warren County, or the Joan Little murder case.
All three of these events stand at the center of Vanderbilt University history professor Devin Fergus' new book examining the interplay of liberalism and Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s. And the presence of principals in all three events gave them an opportunity to reflect on Fergus' arguments, their own Durham and regional history -- and to share their own concerns of what today's activist messages and missions should be.
If one thing was clear, it was that the passions of those who fought for civil rights, access to education, justice, and economic opportunity for minorities four decades ago still feel passionately about what matters to them today.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Durham was home to many key players in the civil rights movement, from Duke Law graduate Karen Bethea Shields (who defended Joan Little in her Beaufort Co. murder case) to Howard Fuller (active in MXLU's founding and the local head of Operation Breakthrough in the 1960s) to the late Soul City founder Floyd McKissick (whose daughter, Dr. Charmaine McKissick Melton, spoke at the forum).
St. Joseph's Historic Foundation director Dianne Pledger argued in her opening remarks to the forum that this was no accident, with Durham's post-Civil War founding as an industrial and manufacturing center freeing it from some of landholders' biases and existing social structures that impaired progress for African-Americans in other cities.
And while Durham remained a deeply segregated and unequal community until the Civil Rights era (and in some dimensions, to this day), the presence of an educated, relatively affluent black middle class with supportive community institutions -- from the very church that comprises today's Hayti Heritage Center to neighboring NCCU -- historically supported Durham's "long and storied past" in progressive social justice and activism, Pledger said.
In his remarks, Fergus noted that he hoped to help debunk what he called the myth of violence (or the "celebrating of the spectacle" therewith) that surrounded the history of the Black Power movement. Yet the movement supported a wide range of other, less-noticed goals and outcomes -- from economic and rural/urban gap symbols like Soul City, to gender solidarity and scrutiny in the treatment of Joan Little, whose plight (she was acquitted of murdering her jailer during a sexual assault), to political institutions that helped usher African Americans into office.
All of these, Fergus argued, were focused on building individuals' capabilities and abilities to be a part of society -- not about dismantling it.
Fergus singled out a free ambulance service run by Winston-Salem's chapter of the Black Panthers -- a sympathetic NBC Nightly News feature story on which in 1974 by John Chancellor and Kenley Jones earned both of the newsmen scrutiny by the FBI.
This program, and a sickle cell program run in the city by the Black Panthers in partnership with Wake Forest University, “were not designed to supplant the state, but as Larry Little said when he ran for the Board of Alderman, they were there to fill the void left by the state.”
He also took exception to the stereotype of the movement as one that was anti-white. "They had no permanent enemies, just permanent interests," Fergus said of Black Power organizations, noting the close alignment between the largely-white Episcopal Church and the MXLU, and the tremendous backing Bobby Kennedy had for Soul City, envisioned itself as a multicultural (not African-American) community as part of the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development's New Towns program in the 1960s.
"It's important to challenge these two shibboleths, these two myths," Fergus said, arguing that both had helped to marginalize the role and impact of Black Power in society at large.
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The speakers who followed Fergus each reflected on their roles in historic events, within and outside the context that the historian set forth.
Joan Little attorney Shields noted her own pioneering work at liberal white Durham attorney Jerry Paul's practice, and the role she as a newly-minted African-American lawyer played in a landmark civil rights and criminal justice case.
The case drew what she called a "movement" in support of Little, whose checkered past was irrelevant to the assault and abuse she faced while a prisoner in Beaufort County. And it was a movement that brought groups like the National Organization for Women and the Black Panthers together, to collaborate around a common cause and a common interest.
And while these groups didn't always see eye-to-eye, it was a lesson in collaboration to a greater good, Shields said. “If we had stopped at the conflict instead of trying to grow and learn from each other, we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have now.”
"All these protests were nonviolent, even though the police tried to egg it on and get violent," Shields recalled. "But nothing happened." She added that contrary to the myth of violence surrounding the Black Power movement, the only violence in this instance was that shown by a jailer towards Little in a sexual assault performed on the prisoner at the point of an icepick.
For the attorney, who would later serve as a judge, her first exposure to the criminal justice system was eye-opening.
“Even though our criminal justice system is the perfect system on paper, it is not in action," Shields said -- noting that as a judge, her memory of watching Little stand in the courtroom shackled led her to not allow any defendants to be handcuffed in her courtroom.
Howard Fuller was back in town for the 40th anniversary celebration of Malcolm X Liberation University, and he reflected on its role and history before the crowd at the Hayti Heritage Center.
The alternative university formed after student protests at Duke and the takeover of the Allen Building; black students from Duke, leading and marching with some white students from the school, marched downtown to Five Points, then on to a rally at the very church where Sunday's forum was held. "That was the beginning of the effort to create Malcolm X Liberation University," Fuller said.
The longtime activist -- first in civil rights, now in education -- noted that while he found Fergus' theoretical arguments on liberalism and Black Power and who-coopted-whom interesting, he cautioned against too-closely imputing the broader schemas the historian calls out in his book on the actions and motivations of Fuller and others in their 1960s era.
“When we were doing stuff, we weren't trying to make history. We were trying to make change," Fuller said, though he laughed when noting that when he read back the words he himself said four decades ago, they certainly did seem to be deeper than he would have thought at the time.
McKissick Melton spoke about her own journey into Soul City, snatched out of a life in a New York City townhouse attending a magnet school for the arts and performing off Broadway, and brought to a trailer in rural Warren County to be part of her father's vision for Soul City.
“Warren County, when we got there in December of 1969… it really was one of the top ten poorest counties in the state of North Carolina. And in 2009, it is also," said McKissick Melton, noting that in the 1960s there were houses lacking electricity and plumbing just a mile away from the heart of Soul City.
She also recalled her experience in the Durham school system, going through integration when she was in the third grade -- only to arrive at Warren County as a high school senior in 1969, and finding integration just beginning.
McKissick Melton talked about her own work, split between historically-black NC Central (where she said choosing to teach instead of largely-white research universities was a form of contribution to the "struggle," as it were) and Warren Co., about which she dangled the possibility of a run for political office.
And she argued that the elevation of blacks to top political roles in the still-poor county was one symbol of the progress Soul City had helped to bring to the community.
She added that the largely-vacant site still has some of the best-developed road and other infrastructure in the Granville/Vance/Warren region, including access to a top-notch water and sewer system -- and that the site is featured at the heart of a recently-completed economic development plan for the three-county area.
Yet McKissick Melton expressed her sadness that one of the last remaining employers, Healthco, had closed its facility in the complex, and that the Soul Tech 1 facility where her father's offices had been and where good jobs were supposed to flow now operated in the hands of the county prison system.
The 20 foot tall concrete marker for the Soul City development stood very near that building, McKissick Melton said. Now, at her own expense (into the tens of thousands of dollars), she had paid to relocate the marker, saying her father would be aggrieved to see his vision corrupted in that way.
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If all of the speakers on Sunday touched on their memories, it was clear that each had passions and struggles -- related or new -- that they saw continuing.
Fuller spoke perhaps the most passionately, noting his late-life commitment to educational reform including charter schools and vouchers, which the former superintendent of Milwaukee's public schools and a city and statewide department director argued were the next line in the civil rights battle.
He raised the concern that educational opportunities in America were closed off to poor, minority populations without such reforms, which he said segregated such students to failing bureaucratic school systems.
To me, the great hypocrisy in America is all the rich people who’ve gotten choice," Fuller boomed. "Because if you’ve got money in America, and the schools don’t work for your kids, you either go move, or you go put them in private schools, and you don’t care what kind of government reports come out."
"To me, there ought not to be an America where only people with money get the right to choose," Fuller continued. "And I find it hypocritical that people who teach in schools, that they would never put their own children in, are demanding that other people's children stay there."
Fifty years ago, African-Americans were fighting to get a chance to sit at the same lunch counters as whites; today they're welcomed to sit there, but they can't even read the menu, Fuller warned the audience to its approbation.
"The question that I have for you all is, what is your mission? I would like to argue that your mission is to save the next generation behind you. Our future is being destroyed," Fuller told the crowd.
NCCU political science professor Jarvis Hall, who also spoke on Sunday, spoke out about the HK on J (Historic Thousands on Jones St.) effort, which unites liberals/progressives with the NAACP and black activists in the state to fight for a unified political agenda.
He noted the opposition a minimum-wage increase faced from some black politicians, which surprised the professor. "This struggle that we are engaged in has to cross racial lines," he said, ruefully noting the need to "re-educate" some black legislators silent on an issue he thought should have enlivened them.
Later in the conversation, Fuller agreed with this point, arguing that while Hayti was viewed as a cradle of the black middle class with a national reputation, "when the poverty programs started, there were black people whose class interests were in opposition to what we were doing," he said, arguing that it was only those in the black middle class who because of their race felt "a direct connection to the suffering of the mass of the people" that progress was made.
Attorney and judge Shields used her time to argue for the need to reform the criminal justice system.
"We may feel real good by locking people up, but they’re going to get out one day," she told the crowd, calling for a need to do more to reach youth through school, and to help build communities up to be stronger institutions.
For her part, Shields said, the work of fighting for equality and justice was never ending.
"The struggle continues until the struggle continues; I don’t have time to get tired," she told the audience.
BCR thanks the University of Georgia Press for providing a review copy of Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics," and for drawing attention to and publicizing Sunday's forum.