Remembering the Election of Howard Lee and the Power of Community Organizing

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Many locals will proudly tell newcomers that Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was the first majority-white town in the South to elect a Black mayor. The year was 1969. Though many told him it was too soon after desegregation and the town wasn’t ready, Howard Lee launched a campaign anyway. He used a strategy much like the one Barack Obama used to win the Presidency a few decades later: grassroots community organizing of the most thorough sort.

Lee and his wife had moved to Chapel Hill in 1964; he got a master’s degree at UNC, and then began teaching at Duke and North Carolina Central. Their story tells a lot about the climate at the time. As he told WUNC interviewer Frank Stasio decades later: “I had tried to buy a house in Chapel Hill and no realtor would sell me a house. We finally ended up buying a house by working with a white family, by tricking the realtor.”

I have heard a lot of stories like this one, about black people with audacity and their white accomplices, who chipped away at segregation. There are the stories of the legendary Dean Smith who entered segregated eating establishments with his black players and requested a table. And a couple I know who did the same with their black friends. And the students who demonstrated, sat in front of segregated stores, and engaged in various acts of civil disobedience.

And yet the fact remains:  in the mid-1960s, after businesses had officially desegregated, black university professors were denied housing outside of neighborhoods historically designated as “black.” The Lees and their two children received death threats, and the Klan burned a cross on their front lawn. As Lee puts it: “There were some nasty, nasty events in Chapel Hill during the civil rights era.” He twice went to the Town Council asking them to pass an open housing ordinance. City officials refused. Swim clubs, university facilities, golf clubs– all were still segregated in the mid-1960s.

Despite Chapel Hill’s reputation as a liberal haven in the racist South, the Lees probably expected the town wouldn’t live up to the hype. Howard grew up in Georgia, joined the Army and served in Korea where he, like many other black soldiers from the South, “tasted freedom.” As he told Stasio: “When you taste freedom and then you lose it again, that’s a tough pill to swallow. So when I came back from Korea and settled in as a probation officer in Savannah, Georgia, I found myself right back in the oppressive, discriminatory environment where I was paid a hundred dollars less than my white counterparts in the juvenile justice system.”

What defined Lee’s fight for equality was his commitment to not racialize the issue directly, but to work within the system, using his position to advocate and act on behalf of those the system cheated. Another part of the “Lee Way” was to recognize the various forms oppression can take; in his experience, poor and working class white kids in Savannah also suffered disadvantages. Speaking of Savannah, Lee recalled: “We lived next door to whites. We got along well. … But the difference was during that day was white families thought they were better than black families and didn’t accept that they were being treated just as poorly. Today it’s even worse.”

Lee saw the parallels when he moved to Chapel Hill where he recognized the plight of most of the white kids in mostly working class, or as many saw it, “redneck” Carrboro. And yet it was in the black neighborhoods that city street paving, maintenance, sewer and water stopped.

In 1968, when he decided to run for mayor of Chapel Hill, only one-fifth of one percent of public officials in the US was black. Lee opponent was a liberal Democrat. But Lee did not back down; he wanted to make sure desegregation progressed and put it at the top of his agenda.

Lee, I think, was enticed by the challenge and had a vision for how African Americans and other disenfranchised groups could challenge systemic injustices and gain power within the local political system: “We organized Chapel Hill like it had never been organized before by using students from the university and faculty and also bringing students in from around the state using somewhat of a civil rights tactic of getting people to come from the outside to help us on the inside.”

For Lee, his campaign wasn’t about race. It was about fairness and empowerment. And it was about educating African Americans on the power they could wield in a democracy when they were organized and informed. One local activist, Edwin Caldwell, whose family members had been at the forefront of the local civil rights movement, gives a moving and powerful account of the way the Lee campaign worked “on the ground” on election day: “We would say, ‘Look, who are you going to vote for?’ ‘Well you know I’m going to let the Lord.’  I said, ‘No, we ain’t going to let the Lord choose today. You take this piece of paper; this is who you vote for. You let the Lord choose some other day.’ So we pretty much told them who to vote for. We controlled things. They went in there and they came out and people were proud. You talking about South Africa and voting, people were voting in Chapel Hill and they were proud the same way. You could just see their backs straighten up and see how proud they were. I worked the streets until the polls closed; we got every vote that we could find. We almost wrestled some people in that didn’t want to go, but once they went and voted they were proud.”

There is a strong commitment to democracy and justice in this liberal town. It’s just not among those folks who most often take credit for it. Howard Lee’s election is more a story of what it took for Blacks to overcome the many obstacles to equality here than a story of white liberal progressivism. Today–fifty years later–voting rights are under renewed attack, challenged by proposed restrictions and racial gerrymandering. Community members gathered yesterday at Hargraves Center in Northside to discuss what can be done to oppose redistricting plans that would split a district surrounding NC A&T that would effectively split a majority African-American area into two minority constituencies. 

Mr. Caldwell’s words remind us of the importance of hard-fought voting rights and of continuing the struggle to uphold them. 

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