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Rev. Whitley to take on Allison for Durham Committee leadership -- but just who gets to vote?

We noted here earlier in the month that there were signs of a possible rumble in the works this December at the biennial election for leadership of the venerable Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

And BCR's learned this week that one of the voices most disgruntled with the decade-long leadership of Dr. Lavonia Allison -- the Rev. Mel Whitley, most recently the campaign manager for Howard Clement's successful Ward 2 re-election bid -- is throwing his hat in the ring for leadership of the decades-old civil rights and political action organization.

Whitley's isn't the only possible candidacy out there; there's also rumors that former DCABP head Ken Spaulding or former political chair and treasurer Keith Corbett (a former NC Mutual CFO, now at Self-Help) could step up for the position.

But Whitley's announcement that he'll be running, confirmed by the N&O, is setting off a firestorm of debate in Committee circles.

None of which helps to answer the question that looms over the entire process, though: the question of just what qualifies one to vote in the DCABP election, and whether the voting rules are strict enough to deny anyone except the incumbent Allison a chance to walk away with the necessary votes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As we've talked about here before, and as Carl Kenney has documented very well at his REV-elution blog, the frustrations of some with Allison's leadership are not a new occurrence, but this year's endorsement cycle seems to have galvanized the opposition of at least some.

The turning point may well have been the near-endorsement of virtual unknown Steven Williams over three-decades-plus leader Bill Bell for the mayoral race, a move averted only by the last-minute presence of a qualified voter to break the tie at a Committee endorsement meeting.

That the Committee nearly turned away from Bell -- a longtime BOCC and City Council fixture, and the man most responsible for moving through racial politics to merge the city and county school systems in the early 1990s -- created some significant ill will, it seems, among a number of Durham black elites.

The four incumbents in this fall's election, meanwhile, ran individual campaigns but also a "coordinated campaign" encouraging voters to re-elect the entire slate of officeholders.

That coordinated campaign, helmed by Whitley, was an unusual tactic -- and one that drew Allison's ire, BCR's learned, since it undermined the Committee's endorsement of Donald Hughes over incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden.

At the election night incumbents' celebration, Whitley made no secret of his frustration with the DCABP endorsement process.

And now, it seems, he's ready to take a shot at leading the organization.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Two major challenges seem to be at hand.

The first: Whitley's role as treasurer of the liberal-leaning People's Alliance.

Although the PA and Committee (directly, or via underlying interests) have worked together in the past to form a quasi-Democratic/liberal alliance, in recent years Allison has steered a course significantly more conservative than the PA:

  • The Committee's current leadership has strongly backed the 751 assemblage rezoning, while the PA has been a consistent voice opposing the dense south Durham project;
  • The PA's support for urban-chickens contrasted Allison's opposition to the change, which drew strong words and ire from the Committee leader; and,
  • The Committee teamed with the right-wing Americans for Prosperity to oppose a local-option sales tax in 2008 to support museum and community cultural projects, a vote that the opposition strongly won in a high-turnout election year.

The PA's current president, David Harris, also got the cold shoulder from Allison and the Committee in 2007's City Council at-large elections, something that likely cost Harris the election over eventual endorsement recipient Farad Ali.

To longtime political activist and Joe Bowser supporter Lois Murphy, a Whitley win would be part of a subjugation of the Committee to PA interests, and possibly hasten the Committee's demise -- though Murphy does, interestingly call for a change in leadership. From a widely cc'ed and forwarded email thread:

Allow me to emphatically inform you that for years Melvin has been working with Katie Munger, who wrote an e-mail several years ago vowing to dismantle the Committee.  Melvin has no interest in the mission of our Committee and only wants to chair it so he can usher in the demise of our organization, which has been in the works since its inception in 1935.
Certainly, I do not deny change is needed; however, change fueled by lust for power, vengeance, and with the intent of dismantling the Committee is not the answer. There is not a one of us who has not at one time or another been disenfranchised with the Committee’s leadership.  However, one thing that we must not ignore is that Dr. Allison has a long standing record of protecting the mission of the Committee. She regularly attends meetings to voice concerns about the conditions of our people, and she is black and bold enough to publicly divulge racist discriminatory practices, which stifles the advancement of blacks in Durham....
[W]e must not allow the Committee to fall into the hands of those who want to dismantle our organization, not willing to equally share power and resources, as well as continue the Jim Crow mentality. Katie Munger, the People Alliance, and Melvin Whitley desire to see the only independent organization for blacks destroyed because they cannot control it or our leaders. We must lay aside our personal difference to protect this organization from them, as well as those among us who seek to destroy this Committee for their own self serving interest.

It was an argument that drew a rebuke from Chuck Watts in his own email reply; while acknowledging the work Allison has done in the black community and the progress occurring as a result, Watts questions whether the Committee's greatest risk of irrelevance comes from maintaining the status quo rather than changing it:

In my lifetime, I cannot recall a time when the Committee has been at such a low level and has become all but irrelevant to matters of significance to black folks in Durham.  You essentially acknowledge that fact in your comments, as has every person with whom I have had private conversation about the state of the Committee over the last few years.  I will say it maybe more clearly than you have, IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP AT THE DURHAM COMMITTEE.  The destruction of the Committee is more likely to occur from a continuation of the current leadership than it is from almost any change in leadership.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For all the talk of change and challenges, though, any person desiring to challenge Allison for the leadership of the Committee faces a second, and by no means insignificant challenge -- the qualification to vote.

Watts cites the "bizzare rules that have been put in place to give the Chair control over voting" in his email, a reference to attendance requirements that have made getting elected in the Committee a challenge indeed.

Carl Kenney made a reference to this at his blog, noting attendance requirements he claimed required you to attend two general-body Committee meetings in a year to be able to vote. Yet one of his commenters said the bar was even higher than that -- two general meetings plus one political meeting per quarter.

Regardless of the specifics, the presence of barriers (some of which were enacted after enterprising candidates started packing Committee endorsement meetings a few years back) was visible in the Bell-Williams endorsement vote... in which only eleven souls were able to cast ballots for the major mayoral endorsement.

It is, Kenney implies, a situation that reinforces Allison's control over the organization: individuals uncomfortable with the Committee's direction don't attend meetings, which are dominated instead by those who are close supporters of Allison; that, in turn, makes changing leadership impossible.

The biggest obstacle facing the Committee is a major change that alienates people who want to make a difference. Even if I wanted to come back and participate, I can’t vote for the next leader due to my lack of participation.

In the past, anyone could vote for the leadership of the Durham Committee. The only requirements were that you be black and a resident of Durham…. [The new eligibility rule] leaves the organization under the control of the few who continue to support the work of the Committee. A person like me would have to attend two meetings while waiting for the next election. You would have to bite your tongue and embrace the agenda of the current leadership. Frankly, that is something I can’t do.

Former City Council candidate Darius Little has been approaching the issue from a bylaws, by-the-book perspective, asking Allison for copies of the Committee's constitution and bylaws -- something he's claimed in email threads to Committee members and local elites that he has not received.

(The rumor on the street, in fact, has been that when Durham's first black mayor, Chester Jenkins, passed away this summer, the membership and attendance records of the Committee meetings were in his possession -- a wrinkle that made the endorsement season just past, and perhaps the Committee election to come, that much more interesting.)

The election is set for Thursday, December 10 at White Rock Baptist Church. We'll know then whether Whitley or another challenger has mustered the votes needed to take the reins -- or whether the Committee's rules have, in fact, closed the door to any effective challenge to Allison's leadership.



Fantastic coverage, Kevin.

I can't help but wonder what it would take for Kenney, Whitley and/or other sufficiently aligned souls to create a new African-American political group to supplant the DCABP.

In the broader non-profit community, one "syndrome" that people talk about is the tendency for people get excited about creating new organizations and/or new programs rather than working with existing organizations that are already working on the topic of interest (whether that be downtown revitalization, or homelessness, or childhood health, etc.) The message is: "be wary of the human tendency to create something new when you don't need to."

The situation with the Durham Committee seems to be just the opposite. There's been at least a decade of pressure to create something new, but I haven't heard anyone buzzing about doing it. Have I been missing the news? Perhaps so.

Kenney, in his blog (which I appreciate despite his painful painful habit of inserting so many typos and/or misspellings that I can't help but lose trust in his arguments) includes a starter list of prominent African-American Durhamites that he says stay away from the Durham Committee in its current form. Do they ever have serious discussions about starting something new? I can't help but wonder.


Good gracious!

It looks like Lavonia has finally crossed people that are willing to stand-up to her for a change.

More interesting would be a list of those satisfied with the current direction of the Durham Committee, to the proponents of them that want a change in direction. Then let's see how many on that list were demanding change in the past municipal election.


I second Phil's thanks for the good coverage here, but I do wish you had linked to the other blogs you cite--especially Carl Kenney. That's usually standard in blog posts, no?

As a historian, I can't help but do my professional duty and ask what happened to the records Chester Jenkins held when he died. Did he or his heirs give them to a repository (perhaps NCCU or to the Durham Library's Carolina Collection). I hope they did, or if they haven't that at least they didn't throw them away, and that they donate them now or later. Surely the Durham Committee's records would be a great archival resource for future generations of historians.

Kevin Davis

@Jacob: Thanks for pointing this out. It was an error of omission, not commission. I did in fact have a link to Carl's blog, but there's a formatting problem with the blog that hyperlinks don't appear bold-faced if they're after the continue/jump. There was also a second point where I should have linked to Carl's blog. Both fixed now.

John Dagenhart

I have a copy of the bylaws, or at least what they "used" to be.

The bylaws I have do not state any particular requirement for being able to vote other than being present. However, it does give the Executive Committee the authority to make changes outside the bylaws with a proper announcement of the intent to do so. That's a heck of a lot of power given to a few.

I wonder if if the bylaws have ever been officially changed regarding being allowed to vote. But how would we know? Wonder if there is any kind of listing of changes made by the Executive Committee? But how would we know?

The bylaws require a 2/3 vote of those "present and voting" to amend the bylaws. Hmm...that seems to have a hole big enough to drive a truck through it.

Kevin Davis

Post updated with some new information, including:

1) The Herald-Sun and a BCR source both left it pretty clear that Ken Spaulding has no intent of hopping back into the ring.

2) More is floating around about the Committee's constitution, and it is in line with what you're saying here, John.

If it is in fact the case that the attendance requirements apply only to political endorsements and not to Committee general elections -- which would seem more typical for a organization like the DCABP anyway -- then the election could very much come down to precisely who shows up to vote.

Gerald B.

In Saturday's "Durham News" section of the N&O, Rev. Whitley is quoted as saying he want to focus on issues such as dilapidated housing, illiteracy and drugs in the community.

I wonder if he knows how much of that "dilapidated housing" is owned by Ms. Allison?

Is it really true that you must be "black" in order to join the DCABP? If so, what qualifies one as "black"? How does the committee verify this? In this millennium, do we as a community really need organizations, political or otherwise, that exclude others based on race?

John Dagenhart

I don't think it is true that you must be "black" to join the DCABP, no matter what I've been told. I've been told this by many people, but nobody has ever shown me the document that proves it.

The bylaws that I have do not specify "anything" regarding race "or" skin color for membership.

Tom Miller

Criticize if you must, but speaking only for me, one day, when my labors are done, I hope I can look back and be able to truthfully say that I worked half as hard or accomplished half as much for the welfare of my community as Dr. Allison.

Will Wilson

I'm fine if DCABP restricts to Black membership (I'm white). Clearly, black history differs from white, and a need exists for such a committee in so many different equity issues (but all Durhamites could be involved). My big concern surrounds DCABP's position on the 751 Assemblage issue: Their work favoring the developer, and the developer's approach to rezoning, suddenly makes being pro-water-quality a position against the leading black voices in Durham County. Now what do environmentalists do?! I want to support water quality issues throughout the region, which means limiting development near reservoirs and leaving forested areas alone, but that means working against the reelection of the black members of the BOCC! Pro-environment is not anti-black!

John Dagenhart

I'm "not" fine with the restriction. I won't "ever" be fine with it. This needs to change.

Roger Thomas

If Dr. Allison walked away from the committee and started another, she would have the same community effect. I say let the Rev have it and come back when he fails. The lady has put in too much work for a johnny come lately to succeed. These younger guys just want a spotlight. Dr. A wants a good community.

Roger Thomas

What do Steve Williams, Darius Little, Donald Hughes have in common? They all needed a mentor like Dr. Allison to teach them some things about the people and politics in Durham. Steve and Donald got it right and the are growing and will emerge as community leaders. Darius on the other hand is promoting a shallow campaign to destroy of the few think tanks in Durham. I am willing to bet many who oppose Dr. Allison have never offered to work with her on anything. I disagree with Dr. Allison on a few things but that has never been a reason for me to deny her. If you want to be up and coming, do it the right way. The mess that these new folks are stirring up is going to be bad for Durham in the long run.

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