Howard Clement died Wednesday morning, leaving behind a vibrant downtown he strove for and many memories for those he met and helped as an attorney, civil rights leader and longtime Durham City Council member.
Clement was 82.
“He helped to shape Durham,” said John White, vice president of public policy at the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. “He was just a great man.”
Clement, who served on the council for three decades, was an advocate for housing, downtown, transportation and civil rights. He helped establish groups such as the Durham Crime Cabinet, along with Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow and attorney Patrick Byker.
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“He was somebody who was passionate about the things he believed in,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., who served on the City Council with Clement from 1993 to 2001.
A friend of the family, the Rev. Teiji Kimball, said they are still finalizing the details for Clement’s funeral service.
Among other things, Clement was known for his broad, disarming smile and stories that stretched back to a segregated South and a developing Durham.
He would often introduce himself to constituents, even if he had met them before, and repeated signature phrases, such as it is better to be seen than viewed and that he didn’t want to get caught up in the paralysis of analysis.
“Howard made his mark as a civil rights leader, lawyer, business executive and as a public servant,” Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement. “His 30 years serving on Durham City Council was a record, and the city and the entire community were the beneficiaries of that dedication and service.”
Clement and his wife, Annie, held a fundraiser for County Commissioner Brenda Howerton last year. In recent months, she said, Clement’s Parkinson’s disease had progressed.
“He was someone that loved people, that was willing to go the extra mile for people,” Howerton said. “And he had the best smile of anybody in the world.”
Clement didn’t drive, due to epilepsy resulting from a childhood skull fracture. He depended on others to get him from place to place.
Chapel Hill Town Councilman Ed Harrison often gave him a ride when they served on the Triangle Transit Authority board from 2010 to 2012.
“I knew that the conversation in the car would be interesting,” Harrison said. “He taught all of us in local office who knew him things about how to do the job. We didn’t have to agree with Howard to learn from him.”
In August 1963, Clement, then an attorney for the N.C. Mutual Insurance Co., was among the 100,000-plus in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington – the only Mutual employee there, he said in a 2013 interview.
He met King and, two years later, was invited to join King’s Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama. When Mutual executives learned he planned to go, they sent him to California for three months to deal with some legal difficulties at the Los Angeles office.
Clement returned to Durham to take part in sit-ins and helped organize marches.
He led a boycott of Durham merchants that, among other things, led city leaders to create the Human Relations Commission.
“He served as an elder in the village,” former City Councilman Farad Ali said when Clement stepped down from City Council in 2013 after winning elections seven times. “He had the institutional knowledge to remind us where we had been and where we could go.”
In a 2013 interview, Clement described his council experiences as “very humbling and certainly pleasurable.”
Clement was appointed to the council in May 1983 and won his first full term two years later. Downtown revitalization was a top concern.
“I remember when the hotel – it’s now the Marriott – was built, one of the first big (recent) buildings, commercial, in downtown,” he said. “Then of course there was the ballpark, Durham Bulls Athletic Park; and there was the American Tobacco campus, there was DPAC, a very, very successful endeavor that the city got involved in.
“Being a part of that process was really a privilege and a pleasure.”
In a Facebook post, City Attorney Patrick Baker said that when he thinks of the phrase “a life well lived” he thinks of the impact Clement had on those who crossed his path.
“If you didn’t know the man but love what Durham has become over the last 20-30 years, Howard played a significant role in our community’s renaissance,” Baker wrote. “Rest in Peace Howard, and thank you for everything!”
Former staff writer Jim Wise contributed to this story.