Christensen: The winding journey of Howard Fuller

rchristensen@newsobserver.comNovember 19, 2013 

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— Howard Fuller is an elderly, distinguished-looking educator, the former superintendent of the Milwaukee public school system and a leading national advocate for charter schools and tax-paid vouchers to help poor children attend private schools.

He is a close friend of the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame. President George W. Bush named him to his education advisory team.

One would never guess by looking at him today that he was deemed one of the most dangerous radicals in North Carolina in the 1960s, regularly denounced by North Carolina’s and South Carolina’s congressional conservatives.

Fuller, now 72, drew a packed house last week at the headquarters of MDC, a jobs and training program in downtown Durham. The event marked the 50th anniversary of the North Carolina Fund, the pioneering anti-poverty program started by Gov. Terry Sanford.

Community organizer

Fuller was a young African-American community organizer, born in Louisiana but raised in Milwaukee, who was hired by the North Carolina Fund in 1965.

“I came down here thinking that people actually wanted to fight a war on poverty, and the idea was to win,” Fuller said. “You had to organize people so that they could speak for themselves.”

He began hiring other young African-Americans, often students from historically black campuses, to help organize neighborhoods in Durham. They organized community cleanups; pressured slumlords to keep up their property and pressured city hall to provide more services in the poorest section of the city.

What started in Durham soon expanded to Wilson, Rocky Mount, Williamston, Asheville, Wilmington and Raleigh, among other cities. It was an age of activism. Some of the students whom Fuller helped organize went on to take over the president’s office at Duke University, were involved in helping cafeteria workers strike at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and were involved in a violent confrontation at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro.

In 1968, he helped students start Malcolm X University, an independent school that lasted for a couple of years, first in Durham and then in Greensboro.

There was a conservative backlash as the state’s white power structure clashed with the young community activists who were more aggressive and confrontational than the state’s older black leaders.

Jim Gardner, the rising star in the conservative movement in North Carolina, called the North Carolina Fund “a political action machine” and called for an investigation of its “meddling in the affairs of local communities,” according to “To Right These Wrongs,” a history of the fund by Robert Korstad and James Leloudis.

Gardner took particular exception to Fuller for giving “inflammatory speech(es) in which he advocated the use of black power.”

Conservatives call for inquiry

Gardner wrote a letter to the North Carolina foundation’s funding sources, including the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, asking for a suspension of funds, suspension of Fuller and an investigation.

In Washington, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina scolded the same agency for funding an organization that would employ “such a man as Howard Fuller” – a known instigator of “agitation and riots and demonstrations.”

But Fuller had his defenders, including leading Durham businessman Watts Hill Jr.

“Howard Fuller,” Hill wrote to OEO head Sargent Shriver, “the center of so much controversy, is a man whose assets far outweigh his liabilities. (He) is the single person most responsible for there not being riots in Durham.”

Fuller left the anti-poverty program in 1970 and North Carolina in the mid-1970s.

Built a new life

He said he never looked back, building a new life, earning a Ph.D. and focusing on education.

“As I got older,” he once said, “I realized I couldn’t change the world, so I decided to work on the lives of children. The struggle is to make sure all kids get the best education possible.”

He founded the Black Alliance of Educational Options, which has chapters across the country. As a proponent of school choice, he has tangled with teacher unions.

Fuller is now a distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

While in Durham, he took part in a panel discussion and participated in a march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fund. But when asked whether he had any advice for today’s community organizers, Fuller demurred.

Each generation, Fuller said, must find their own way.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

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