Dr. Howard Fuller: Consummate Community Organizer, Pan-Africanist, and Education Reformer
"Understanding the Relationship Between Struggle and Progress"
A Presentation at Blair-Caldwell Library
by Annette Walker
"No Struggle, No Progress", the title of Dr. Howard Fuller's new book, is a metaphor for his fifty years of organizing for social justice for the African-American community.
He was inspired by the words of Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did, and it never will."
"So struggle we must," Fuller said at a recent presentation held at the Blair-Caldwell African-American Research Library.
"Understanding the relationship between struggle and progress is what propelled me down dark alleys and dirt roads in some of North Carolina's poorest communities in the 1960s, and pushed me into the bush, mountains, and war-torn villages of Africa nearly a decade later," he stated at the event sponsored by Democrats for education Reform. "It is what pushes me still in the fight over one of the most contentious education issues of this era: parental choice."
Fuller also founded Malcolm X Liberation University in 1969 and was a Black Power advocate with an African name: Owusu Sadaukai. "I got involved in the African Liberation Movement in the early 1970s and later even studied Marxism as a union organizer," he said.
A native of Shreveport, Louisiana who grew up in Milwaukee, Fuller resolved to dedicate himself to the African-American struggle for social change as soon as he graduated from college in 1962. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, but he had unconventional ideas about the path to social change. These ideas have never allowed him to become merely a careerist.
Although he decided to pursue social work, he was not interested in the traditional curriculum of case work and group therapy. "I viewed those areas as helping people manage oppression, and I wanted no part of that," he writes. "I wanted to help end oppression."
He chose Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland because it offered a new area of social work that correlated with his vision: community organizing. Throughout his life Fuller frequently has had to make decisions to change jobs and projects to be able to pursue his social justice vision.
While in Cleveland he had two experiences that profoundly impacted his thinking and future work. First, he participated in a peaceful demonstration and sit-in at the school administration building. The police came and he, along with others, was beaten, taunted and charged with misdemeanors. Secondly, a few weeks later he went to hear Malcolm X speak about the future of the civil rights struggle a talk became known as “The Ballot or the Bullet”.
“And from the moment he opened his mouth, I was transfixed,” Fuller writes. “The man was bold. There was a raw honesty and bravery about Malcolm. He not only made perfect sense to me, but he connected to something deep in my soul,” he continued.
One month after Malcolm’s talk in Cleveland, Fuller finished his Master’s Degree. His scholarship stipulated that he spend one year working for the Urban League, so he accepted a position as an employment relations specialist at its Chicago office.
“I had much respect for the League and the role it played in the broader community, but it became clear to me that it would not provide the platform for me to do the kind of community organizing I yearned to do,” Fuller said.
It was the mid-1960s and there was a vast expansion in the United States of programs and projects aimed at quelling the discontent in the African-American community. Fuller accepted a job as coordinator of a North Carolina antipoverty program, Operation Breakthrough -- the first of many leadership positions he would hold throughout his life.
Fuller was troubled by living conditions for African-Americans in Durham, North Carolina. "Though I'd grown up in public housing and spent my earliest days in a poor southern community, I'd never seen poverty and neglect like this," he said. "Dirt streets in the middle of town! That was incomprehensible to me. Shotgun shacks were everywhere, and some of them had no running water indoors. My heart hurt when I saw how my people were living and how they had accommodated themselves to survive under conditions that no human being should have to endure. Anger burned deep inside."
Fuller's sentiments are not uncommon for African-Americans or for any humane person witnessing such a situation. However, he did not despair. "Far from feeling overwhelmed, it made me even more determined to figure out how to change the conditions."
A solution was right at hand. "It would shape my whole approach to the work I wanted to do," he said. It was a 'potent, but rarely-discussed line' in Section 202 of President Lyndon Baines Johnson's Economic Opportunity Act. Fuller notes that ". . .it included a mandate that antipoverty programs receiving federal funds must be developed, conducted and administered with the 'maximum feasible participation' of residents of areas and members of the groups served."
That constituted a 'eureka' moment for Fuller. "The provision said to me that poor Black people, who had long been dictated to even by well-meaning whites, should play a major role in determining what they needed and how they should get it," he reasoned.
Fuller had rejected the standard concept that the people social workers serve are 'clients'. He also considered 'professional objectivity' and sitting in an office 'observing' anathema to what he really wanted to do.
He and his team went to work. His style of community organizing consisted of going to churches, barber shops, pool halls, restaurants, and residences. "We got started simply by knocking on doors to get to know the people we were serving," he said.
From that moment in 1965 until the present, Fuller has sought to involve the people who were being helped in determining their needs and strategies for solutions.
Sometimes this method was criticized by the power structure, elected officials, donors, and the media. For example, once a White North Carolina Republican Congressman attacked both Fuller and Operation Breakthrough at a press conference, calling for the program's suspension and Fuller's firing.
Although this did not happen, the Congressman did succeed in banning direct participation in decision-making by the people served by the program. Two years later Fuller decided to resign. For the next several decades Fuller helped create many social and educational programs, always attempting to involve those being served.
In the early 1970s he spent time in Africa, even going into "the bush" with freedom fighters of FRELIMO, the armed units in Mozambique seeking an end of Portuguese colonialism.
When he returned to the United States, he made a decision to return to Milwaukee where he completed a Ph.D and began directing education programs. In the early 1990s he was appointed as Milwaukee's Superintendent of Public Schools. However, his ideas about education reform including vouchers clashed with some school board members and the teachers union.
"Just putting Black faces in high places will not change things because often institutional arrangements will not allow that," Fuller said. He did not believe that what he wanted to do as Superintendent could happen with the established powers against him, so he resigned.
However, as in the past, 'when one door closed, another door opened'. In 2000 he became the first President of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), the first Black-centered parental choice advocacy group. It is also one of the few Black-led organizations participating in the broader education reform movement.
As he looks back over the past 50 years, Fuller admits that there has been progress for some African-Americans, but he is concerned that some segments of the community seem to be trapped in poverty. "When I first landed in North Carolina fifty years ago, I truly believed I could help end poverty," Fuller concludes in his book.
"That youthful naivete vanished long ago," he continued. "Education does not alter the fundamentals of the economic structure, but we hope that by educating kids, they will be in a position to have an impact on making structural changes in this country."
(This article appeared in the April 2015 edition of the Denver Urban Spectrum.)