Amid Washington’s graduation season, we look at the craft of writing and delivering commencement speeches. What advice sticks — and what doesn’t?
Experts seem to agree that giving poor and working class families access to quality education and the power to influence school change is a key to equality in our society. Yet it’s a social justice issue that decades of work have yet to fully resolve. Kojo talks with education activist Howard Fuller about a career devoted to that goal and considers how his time spent in the Jim Crow South, his work as a community organizer and his experience in the Pan Africanism movement have influenced his work.
- Howard Fuller Author, "No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform" (Marquette University Press); Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Marquette University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Sixty years after the landmark Brown versus the Board of Education ruling, 40 years after bussing in Boston sparked violence and outrage fueled by racial and economic inequality, some of our nation's school districts still struggle to provide quality education for all students regardless of the color of their skin or their socioeconomic status. Proponents of school or parent choice aim to bridge that gap.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd here to tell us how he came to make that movement the hallmark of his career in activism is Howard Fuller. He is a distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. Howard Fuller's new book is called "No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior's Life from Black Power to Education Reform." Howard Fuller joins us in studio. Welcome.
MR. HOWARD FULLERHey, Kojo. Thanks for having me, man. It's great to see you too.
NNAMDIGood to see you too. I first met Howard Fuller in 1969. Then I was associated with an organization called the Center for Black Education. He was the founder and leader of Malcolm X Liberation University then in Durham, N.C., later in Greensboro. Both sister institutions have the same objective, providing a black education independent of existing so-called establishment institutions.
NNAMDIHe would soon be known nationally as Owusu Sadaukai, the dynamic speaker who keynoted the first African Liberation Day demonstration in 1972. Today he is nationally known again as Howard Fuller, chair of the board of the black alliance for Educational Options. I'd like to follow that path that brought you here. You were born in Shreveport, La., raised in Milwaukee, a basketball player. Then you go off to college. You attended Carroll College on a basketball scholarship where you were not just the only black player on your team, but the only black student on the campus. How did that experience -- what do you think that experience had to do with who you are today?
FULLERWell, you know, Kojo, it's interesting because, you know, I tell people that it was a mixed experience. I mean, it was great in the sense that I made friends that are still actually my lifeline friends. But I lost my perspective of myself as a black person. And I always felt like I was in between two worlds, you know. Like, when I'm out there on campus back then, you know, people would say, we can't understand what you're saying. So I'm trying to figure out how to deal with that. And then when I go back home people are like, hey man, what's wrong with you, you know?
FULLERSo, you know, it was this really living in between these two worlds. So when I got ready to go to graduate school, I really chose Cleveland not so much because of the number of black people in the school at Western Missouri, but the number of black people in the city. And so one of the ideas I had was that when I go to graduate school, I got to go somewhere where there's a lot of black people because I've got to try to regain my sense of, like, you know, who I am as a black person.
NNAMDIA quest for identity.
FULLERYeah, but, you know, it really didn't really -- the debt didn't happen or the real thing didn't happen until I think it was April 4, 1964. I think I got those dates right. I was sitting in Cory Methodist Church and I heard Malcolm X speak. And it was actually a debate with Louis Lomax. And that speech really changed my life, you know, changed my life.
NNAMDIYou said that like a lot of people, black and white, you had a little fear of Malcolm X at first.
FULLEROh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, you know, back then the kind of stuff people were talking on TV about Malcolm, I went there like, oh my god, you know, what is this dude going to be like, man? And I was just mesmerized. And even you know that Louis Lomax had written this book which was an anti book about the nation. And so, you know, Malcolm took him on, man. And this was -- Cory Methodist Church was packed that night with just like low-income and working-class black people. And it was clear, you know, who was being affected, you know, by his words and how people were being affected. And I was one of them.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you have comments or questions. Were you involved in the black power or Pan-African movement? Tell us how you evolved and how that experience may have shaped your life or career. We're talking with Howard Fuller, distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. He has a new book out. It's called "No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior's Life from Black Power to Education Reform." You can also send us email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDISoon after college you returned to the south as a community organizer in North Carolina. How did what you encountered there when you arrived in the mid '60s compare to your prior experience either in the south or more broadly?
FULLERWell, you know what happened is that after I got my Masters Degree -- and that was really the first time I was arrested, Kojo. And there's a sister here in D.C. right now, Ruth Paral (sp?) who got me involved in the Congress of Racial Equality. And it was the first time I actually got arrested, you know, during a demonstration where a Presbyterian minister was actually killed.
FULLERBut -- so once I left there I had gotten the first Whitney scholarship to go to graduate school. So I owed the Urban League a year. So I went back. Actually when I left graduate school and spent a year in Chicago 11 months, working for the Chicago Urban League. So when I went down to North Carolina, I went down there to work in the poverty program. This is right after the Economic Opportunity Act had been passed and they'd created these community action programs.
FULLERSo I went to Durham, N.C. on May 3, 1965 at 2:00 in the afternoon. And, you know, I went down there to help poor people, you know, change their lives. And then I had read the Economic Opportunity Act, you know. And it had a little clause in there that said maximum feasible involvement are the poor. And so what I thought that meant was that we were supposed to organize poor people so that they could change their lives, you know. And that if there was a board, they should be on the board. I believed that people should get jobs so I changed the budget around so that poor people could get jobs in the agency.
FULLERAnd so if you could imagine, it's kind of like you have this experience where you're the one black person in a college for three years and you integrate into college. You leave there, you go to Cleveland, you hear Malcolm X. And then you go work for the Urban League. And then you go down to North Carolina to be a community organizer. I mean, it was just -- you know, but it's kind of like what my life has been like. You know, I go through these different points and everybody assumes certain things about me, which is why I actually wrote the book. And -- but yet, you know, me, I'm going through it with my own view about what I'm doing and why. So...
NNAMDII discovered reading this book that a lot of my assumptions about you were also incorrect or based on here say. You got involved with students at Duke University and you were instrumental in the founding of Malcolm X Liberation University. What was the relationship between those two things? How did that institution come to be?
FULLEROkay. The way it happened was that when I start doing community organizing, I came up with this idea of training young college students to become community organizers. And so after I worked for Operation Break Through in Durham, which was a community action program, I moved over to the North Carolina Fund, which was a statewide effort to attack poverty in North Carolina. In fact, the North Carolina Fund's model was used by the Office of Economic Opportunity when they created the poverty programs around the country.
FULLERAnd so one of the students -- I can't remember how many students now were trained, but one of them was a young brother named Chuck Hopkins. And Chuck went to Duke. And so after the summer of organizing, they went back to Duke, he and others, and demanded an Afro-American studies program at Duke University.
FULLERAnd so when the administration didn't move on it, they took over the administration building. And I was -- I actually -- the day they took it over I was speaking at Bennett and I was on my way down to Atlanta to speak at Spellman. And I got a call that they had taken over the building. So I went back to Durham. I got in the building, you know, like early in the morning -- fairly early during the day. And there were all of these discussions. And then as the day started getting closer to night there was a lot of, you know, my mama didn't send me to Duke to get arrested and the whole conversation changed.
FULLERSo I figured out a way for them to leave the building in a militant way, except the police didn't know we had left. So they broke out the windows and tear-gassed the building, got in there and we weren't in there. So then they went out and tear-gassed all these white kids who were just standing out there looking. That led to a march on the president's house.
FULLERAnd then we came back and they had a black room that they had given the students up on the union, the fourth floor, third floor, the union. So we were sitting around this -- you know, we need to create an independent black educational institution. And since they had named the Allen building, which was the administration building, when they took it over they renamed it the Malcolm X building.
FULLERSo we decided that night to create Malcolm X Liberation University. And the objective was going to be to have an independent black educational institution. And in the beginning, Kojo, before I met Jimmy and all the people from the Center for Black Education...
NNAMDIJimmy Garrett, one of the founders of the Center for Black Education...
FULLERYeah, and Courtland and all them. So before that, you know, we were just going to be a black school, you know. So instead of music, it was going to be black music. Instead of history, it'd be black history, you know. And ultimately, you know, once I got connected to the center and also with Cleve Sellers and Kwame Toure, began to talk about Pan-Africanism. So we moved from just talking about becoming a black institution with no particular ideology per say and began to talk about being a Pan-Africanism institution.
NNAMDII'm going to talk about what happened, at some point, between then and you becoming an advocate for school choice. But I'm going to ask you to make a leap in time to your advocacy for school choice, because I see in that advocacy some of the roots of it being in the establishment of an institution that was an alternative. And school choice has a lot to do with being dissatisfied with the public school systems you went on to become the public school superintendent for Milwaukee, Wis. But the notion of school choice exists because the establishment schools, the public schools in this case were not providing, in your view, the kind of education that black children in general and poor black children in particular deserved.
FULLERYeah, I use the term parent choice because for me what I've always been about in this movement was trying to empower low-income and working-class parents to be able to have choice. I mean, that is really fundamental to me. And so when you talk about where are the connections, in some respect it's a connection to the create a new structure, like with Malcolm X. But the real connection for me is the organizing I was doing was all about giving poor people more control over their own lives so that they could make decisions about their own lives.
FULLERAnd I've always viewed parent choice as saying, look, we can't have an America, man, where only those of us with money have the ability to choose the best educational environment for our children. And my journey to parent choice did not come from reading Milton Friedman. In fact, when I started supporting parent choice, I had never read "Capitalism and Freedom." I didn't even know that he had proposed this concept of vouchers.
FULLERFor us it came through a series of community struggles where we started out trying to get the district to do something about educating poor black kids. And they gave us all kinds of reasons why this couldn't happen. So then what we said was, well, we'd like to create our own separate school district. And we actually got a proposal through the Wisconsin assembly to create a separate school district in Milwaukee. And it was killed in the Senate.
FULLERSo then when they killed it then we said, well, look, you're not educating the kids. You won't let us create our own district. The logical thing was, give us a way out of here. And it was because of the courage of Polly Williams, who was a black state rep that I had gone to high school with, that back in 1989 Polly, along with other people in the community, crafted a bill that led to the creation of the Milwaukee pro-choice program.
FULLERAnd from my view, it was very consistent way to look at things. You know, we're trying to empower people. This gives people a way to have more choices for their children. Because in my view, Kojo, if you are rich or you got money in America -- you don't have to be rich. You got enough money in America and schools are not working for your kids, you're either going to move to communities where they do work, you're going to put your kids in private schools or you're going to find the most expensive tutoring program that you can find or you're going to do all three.
FULLERAnd ironically, I debated this issue in 1989 with a then state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. You know, they told me to come over from Milwaukee and, you know, be on a panel with this upcoming state senator named Barack Obama. And you know, in the book I -- because they actually recorded this panel and they turned it into pamphlet. And I quote, you know, the interchange between President Obama and myself on this issue.
FULLERAnd I raise that because I look at him today and Barack Obama, who does not support vouchers, but he puts his children in Sidwell Friends. Now, I'm not mad at him because I think that parents ought to make the best choices for their children. But you can't put your kids in Sidwell Friends and then tell low-income parents in D.C., you got to stay in these schools whether they work for you or not.
FULLERAnd I took this thing from Bernice King, because Bernice King said that, you know, and I feel this same way. I don't want President Obama and the first lady to be the only people living in public housing who can choose the best school for their kids. So that's where I'm at.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Howard Fuller. His memoir is called "No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior's Life from Black Power to Education Reform." He's distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. We invite your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about vouchers?
NNAMDIHow do you feel about parent choice? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you believe it helps the public schools to do a better job? Do you believe it helps poor children to get a better education? Or do you believe it's all a conspiracy to destroy the public education system? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We continue our conversation with Howard Fuller, distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. His new book is titled, "No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior's Life from Black Power to Education Reform." When we broke off you were talking about the debate you had with then state Senator Barack Obama over the issue of parent choice.
NNAMDII mentioned what I think is the argument that a lot of people make against parent choice, that they see it as part of a larger movement, if not conspiracy, to destroy the nation's public school system. How do you respond?
FULLERWell, I'm sure there are -- I know for a fact there are people who support parent choice because they don't believe that the public space can be productive or maybe don't even believe there ought to be public space. I'm not one of those people. And I make a very clear distinction. And I don't think it's symantical, between public education and the system that delivers public education, because they're not the same thing.
FULLERIt's just like religion does not define every single church. And so when I approach this issue, to me, public education is the idea that we want the public to be educated, that we want people, our young people, to be able to do what Paulo Freire said, engage in the practice of freedom, the transformation of their world. And so towards trying to realize that idea, we put together a system or systems as a way to try to make that happen.
FULLERAnd since the system that we put together was not created by God, it means that we could change it. And so to me the D.C. public school system is not public education. It's a delivery system. And so the way I look at it, we can create other delivery systems to educate the public. So I approach this from a standpoint that I want low-income and working-class people to be able to take advantage of all three sectors of education in this, you know, in our country. The traditional public education structure, charter schools and private schools.
FULLERAnd my goal is for a parent, a low-income parent to be able to look at all three of those options and say, hey, you know what, for this child, I want my child to go here. For this one, I want my child to go there. And what I want to fight for is quality in all three of those sectors so that as people make choices and are empowered to make choices, that they will be quality choices.
NNAMDIA lot of people who advocate on one side of the issue or another feel that the issue itself is associated with the divisive political and ideological stances we take in this country. If you are a conservative you are pro-parental choice. If you are a liberal, you tend to be against parental choice. Democrat, Republican, you don't identify with the political parties in that regard.
NNAMDIHow do you manage to bridge that gap, if you will?
FULLERI don't always bridge it. See, I don't, you know, especially on -- I don't believe in none of these parties, Republicans, Democrats. I don't -- I just don't -- all of them have rubbed me on my head and called me boy at some point in my life. So the way I look at it is I'm an Independent, free, black man who has the capacity to think and to try to figure out -- given the political dynamic -- what is the best path for me to take at any moment in history.
FULLERAnd one of the things that I learned from Derrick Bell -- Derrick Bell taught me a concept called interest convergent theory. And what Derrick Bell said was, "Look, man," he said, "if you look at the civil rights movement, black people made progress during the civil rights movement because of our own struggle, but also because at the time that this was happening, the white people who controlled the country we're trying to convince the rest of the world that democracy was a better form of government than communism."
FULLERVery hard to do that with Bull Connor siccing dogs on people. So at a certain point people pulled Bull aside -- some of them pulled him aside because thought it was inhumane. Others said, "Look, man, we got a larger thing that we're trying to do here." So at a certain point our interests converged. But because your interests converge at a certain point in time, it doesn't mean that your interests are going to stay converged because you're coming at it for very different reasons.
FULLERAnd you may be coming at it with a totally different world view. I'm clear that some people who support parent choice, support it for radically different reasons than I do. But I'm not confused about that because I understand that in a world of politics, in this country, when you're trying to move something, you will, at different times, have to deal with some interesting sort of friends. And…
NNAMDIYou talk about it in this book of your first meeting with then governor of Texas…
FULLEROh, George Bush, yeah.
NNAMDI…George W. Bush. And you were pleasantly surprised by the fact that when you expected for a very short conversation, one in which he would do the most talking, that he ended up listening for…
FULLERYeah, he did.
NNAMDI…about an hour and a half.
NNAMDIUltimately, you were being offered -- considered for a position in the George W. Bush administration. You began to figure out whether or not they were going to background check you and look into your past. But those are the kinds of political situations that you find yourself having to negotiate.
FULLERYeah, but, you know, Kojo, what it is, is -- and I understand this because I've been called sellout, I've been called radical, I've been called traitor, I've been called everything. Right? And so, you know, bring it on. It really doesn't move me because what I try to do is to understand the difference between something that is a point of principle and something that is a point of strategy and tactics.
FULLERFor some people, sitting down with George Bush is a matter of principle. It's not for me. It's a matter of strategy and tactics. In fact, I liked George. I mean, just to sit down and talk to him -- I will be very honest -- he's a -- really a nice dude to sit down and talk to, you know, absent your views about his policies and all of that. And so when he -- when we got up from the conversation he said to me, "Look, I'm going to be the next president of the United States." Right. "And would you come to Washington with me?"
FULLERI was like, "Hey, man, first of all, I'm not a Republican. I'm not a loyalist. You need somebody that's a loyalist. I may go off at any point in time. So you don't want me around." So -- but he ended up saying, "Well, will you help me develop my education platform?" So I ended up really helping -- working with a group of people to help write his first two speeches on education, the one he gave in L.A. and the one he gave in New York.
FULLERThen when we got invited to the Oval Office, you know, it was several of us, you know, that were invited. Virginia Walden Ford was one of them, you know, who was there. And so I go into my, you know, into the Oval Office, and I'm looking around at all these doors. Right? So my first thought is, man, which one of these doors (unintelligible). So, you know, that's where my head is, right. And then I was thinking, Kojo, about, you know, when Rap Brown wrote "Die Nigger Die." And Rap Brown…
NNAMDIWanted to steal an ashtray. Did he steal an ashtray?
FULLERHe stole an ashtray. Right. Remember he was so angry about, like -- so I was, like, thinking, should I steal an ashtray on my way out of here? What am I supposed to do? But, I mean, the point is that, you know, I sat down with George Bush and I actually did like him. But I don't have to agree with all of his policies. He made a good friend of mine the Secretary of Education, Rod Paige. And Rod is a very good friend of mine. And Rod did the best that he could do under the circumstances.
FULLERWhat people don't know -- and I don't even think I told this story in the book -- is that I had gotten a call when I was down in Charlotte. And I got a call from a man named Michael Joyce, who had been the head of the Bradley Foundation, which is another thing that people use against me, which is fine. And what Michael said to me was, "Look, man, we've heard that George Bush is about to appoint Governor Hunt, a Democrat, to be the secretary of education." Because Hunt had been taking positions on education.
FULLER"We need to float your name out there as a candidate." And I told them, under no circumstances. Because, A, I don't want to be the secretary of education. And, B, I don't want my name floated out there like that. But these things happen, you know, within a struggle and you have to deal with those contradictions. And anybody who can't deal with contradictions, you can't be out here fighting for change.
NNAMDIYou still see your life, you still contextualize yourself, your life, in struggle.
FULLERBecause if there is not struggle, there is no progress, man. I mean that. I mean I care deeply for my people. I look at the situation in our communities today, man. It's like I talk about it in the book, like, when Kenneth Clark (sp?) was in my office at Marquette, and he was looking out the window, and he made a comment, Kojo, like, you know, "All the work that I did," he was talking about himself, "I don't know that it has meant anything." And I understood it, man.
FULLERBecause when I look out at our communities today, I look at the violence, not just the violence that the police are perpetrating on us, but the violence that we're perpetrating on ourselves. I look at the level of poverty in our communities. I look at, like, the hopelessness that exists for so many of our children. I look at the fact that I see kids every day -- because I chaired a board of a high school. And I see kids every day, man, who have no boundaries.
FULLERI talk to young girls who are being sexually abused in their homes by fathers, by brothers, by uncles, by boyfriends, and you see all of this. And so then you go back to when we were struggling and you ask yourself, what difference did this make? And what I have to learn to do is to see the glass as half full, in the sense that we did make a difference at the time that we were engaged in struggle. And I'm still trying to make a difference in the lives of the children that I'm responsible for and fighting all over this country. So to answer your question, man, I don't know no other way to live.
NNAMDIA luta continua, as you learned when you were in Mozambique.
FULLERThe struggle continues.
FULLERBut you mentioned names that people should look up because we don't have time to describe exactly who Derrick Bell was. We don't have time to explain exactly who Kenneth Clark was, but you can -- these days -- Google. Why the focus on education? After years in academia and a stint in public health administration, you became the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. You had never been a public school teacher. You had never been involved…
FULLERYeah, they had a change in state law.
NNAMDI…in schools. They had to change the state law in order to get you that position. Nevertheless, your focus then and ever since then has been on education. Why did you decide that your struggle should be focused on education?
FULLERYou know, the most difficult that I've ever had wasn't being the superintendent. That was difficult, but in a different way. It was being the head of Health And Human Services. And I went into that job, Kojo, thinking, for example, that there was certain things that black people would not do to their children. I thought that until I read reports about a black man putting cigarette butts out on an infant, a black man raping an 18-month-old infant, a black woman holding her daughter down so that her boyfriend could rape her.
FULLERAnd I could go on and on. That job was -- you just -- the child abuse, all this stuff that I saw, I could not see any kind of positive light at the end of the tunnel. When I became superintendent, with all of the difficulties, I could see that if we could focus in on education, if we could create a way to educate our children, that we could change individual lives. Now, I say it that way because there's book that James Anderson wrote called, "Education of Blacks in the South, 1876 (sic) - 1935," which is a seminal book about black education. Right.
FULLERAnd although Jim -- it took -- I think it took him 10 years to write this book -- in detail, man, lays out what happened when we came out of slavery, how the Freedmen's Bureau operated, what happened between DuBois and Booker T. and the Tuskegee/Hampton model versus where DuBois was coming from. At the end of that book, what James says is black people have more faith in education than almost anybody else. And that in reality, economic policy is going to impact our life chances more than education policy.
FULLERBut what I -- when I was younger, what I thought was, I could change the world. And this is what I…
NNAMDISo did I.
FULLER…still want young people to think today. But I realized was if I cannot change the world, man, I can try to change the lives of individual young people who I hope will then change the world. And it came to me that the best way to do that was by focusing in on education.
NNAMDIHoward Fuller is distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. His new book is titled, "No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior's Life from Black Power to Education Reform." And what you just heard during the course of the past 40 minutes or so was just a little bit of the power of communication that Howard Fuller brings. He is still the best public speaker I have ever heard in my life. And some things just don't go away. Good to see you, again.
FULLERI really appreciate it. It was so great seeing you. And I really do appreciate you having me on your show.
NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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