For Dr. Howard Fuller ’62, his many contributions to civil rights and advocacy during his lifetime might be traced to the day he decided while studying social work at Western Reserve University in Ohio to not just read about change but to be about change.
“It just occurred to me, by the way, there’s this effort out there trying to make change and you’re sitting here reading books. Why don’t you go get involved? Don’t just be talking about it. Go do it. So I did,” said Dr. Fuller, who protested for the first time at age 22 over integration of local schools in Cleveland, Ohio.
He enrolled at Carroll a true Pioneer, becoming one of the first black males to graduate from the school before going on to Western Reserve University in Ohio to pursue a master’s degree in the School of Applied Social Sciences. He later received a Ph.D. at Marquette University in the Sociological Foundations of Education.
A nationally known civil rights activist and education reform advocate, Fuller retired in June from Marquette University as a distinguished professor of education and founder/director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning. We talked with him about his early days on the protest lines and his thoughts and insights on American protests for civil rights in 2020.
You are recognized as a civil rights leader. What does that term mean to you in the way you have lived your life?
Honestly, I've never seen myself quote as a civil rights leader. For me, it's been more of a focus on how do people gain greater control over their lives and it is a civil rights issue to the extent that when you talk about civil rights it's the rights that should accrue to you because you're a citizen; but I believe, in fact, there are human rights, that there are things that should accrue to you because you're a human being irrespective of your status in any particular society. For me, it's been a constant pursuit of how do poor people gain more control over their lives? The greatest society was allegedly set up to have a war on poverty and so when I got engaged in it, I actually thought we were trying to win the war, that we were actually trying to eliminate poverty. I was like, “O.K. I want to sign up for this army to end poverty.” What I realized was that wasn't really what was happening, but then what you try to do is use the opportunity that you've been given to at least make as many people’s lives better as you possibly could.
I've always felt—to go more directly back to your question—that what I’m actually trying to do is to make sure that people have greater control over their lives, to make sure that people have the resources that they need to live a decent life. And that when people ask me today how am I doing in light of the pandemic, I say that I am blessed because I have food, clothing, shelter, resources while many of my people have little of any of that and they’re in pain and it's like what Martin Luther King described. Then the question is: How do you try to eradicate that pain or lessen that pain for as many people as you can?
In what ways do you think you have been able to lessen that pain? Is it through education?
I don't know if you know but there are about 24 books where people talk about me—and then there’s my own book (“No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform”)—but people choose to talk about whatever part of me fits whatever their frame is, right? So, some people will only see me as someone who worked on parent choice because that's all they know. Other people will see me as someone who spent 30 days with a guerilla colony in Mozambique. Other people will see me as this organizer in a poverty program. Other people say, “Oh, you worked for (former Wisconsin Gov.) Tony Earl,” so it's like if you look at my life and the history of my life, I've tried to function inside and outside the system at different levels and have had the opportunity to do that, right? I look out and I just I don't feel I’ve done enough. I mean, I'm not trying to act like I could've changed the entire world but I do feel whatever I was trying to do it wasn’t enough. Even though I may have lessened that pain for a certain number of people, it’s not enough people and it's not a deep enough lesson is sort of how I see it.
Why do you see it that way?
Because there's so much pain that's still there. Just think about this. July 9th, 1981 a young man named Ernest Lacy is headed to the store (in Milwaukee). He never gets to the store because he’s stopped by the tactical police. They kill Ernest Lacy with a knee on his neck. I led, along with Michael McGee Sr. (former Milwaukee alderman and community activist) a coalition for justice around Ernest Lacy. Here I am sitting 40 years later and George Floyd gets killed with the same knee on his neck as Ernest Lacy. So that's what I see, right? And it's not like I don't think that I've helped a lot of people during my lifetime; I think I probably have but when I started out it wasn't just to help individual people; it was to see a level of systemic change and that really has not occurred.
What do you think have been some of the greatest obstacles to preventing that change?
Well, I think the thing is I'm a big believer and follower of Derrick Bell. Derrick taught me a lot and we became friends. Derrick has written a lot of books but in one of his books “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” he talks about the fact that racism is not just tangential to American society, it's really foundational and I believe, like him, racism will never be eliminated in America.
If you're really going to talk about fundamental change, you can't talk about fundamental change without understanding the historical roots of the things you are trying to change, whether it be the larger society or various institutions within that larger society. There are two ways we can go about change. Radical change, at least in theory, is you go after a specific institution and you root out whatever it is that you envision needs to be an equity. And then, I would hope that the accumulation of rooting out the inequity in each of those institutions would lead to a fundamental structure of the whole society, or you go at the fundamental change in the whole society and then hope that will reflect back on the various institutions that make up the society.
Either way it's just an overwhelming thing if you look at America. America happened because of a revolution so the first thing that the founding fathers did was to set up a structure so there couldn't be a revolution against them. All the checks and balances are really a way to thwart radical change and to, in fact, force any change that's going to take place to be minimal. I'm just like a pessimist when people start talking to me that this is the reflection moment and we are going to see a lot of change. We may see some things that are different but I don't see fundamentally rooting out the nature of the society itself.
So, going back to the point you made about being a little bit of a pessimist, what would need to happen in our society to change your hope for the future?
Well, I guess it depends on what you're hoping for. Go back to the question you asked about lessening the pain. You can't envision that happening to a certain degree, right? But that still would require significant change.
It’s always interesting how people use Martin Luther King. In 1967 he was invited to give a speech at the Georgia Teachers Education Association, which was a black educators’ association in Georgia, and it's in a book called “The Lost Education of Horace Tate,
" so Martin Luther King got up and he said, look a lot of black people in this country and white people in this country look at integration in terms of numbers. I look at integration in terms of sheer power and I'm not for integration that leads to the annihilation of black people. I'm not for something that integrates me out of power, and he said that you really can't have integration in America without shared power. So, my response to your question is, without shared power, what does this change look like and then what constitutes shared power in 2020? At what level?
It’s like Obama always used to use this quote that's “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I'm looking at it saying, no, it doesn't, that it's long but most of the time it bends toward injustice, and it takes a tremendous amount of work to move it in any way towards even limited justice, right?
So, again, the only way I can respond to that is to say it depends on what your goal is, if your goal is like a radical reconstruction of American society, but if your goal is we'll make some modifications in the way the police operate or some modifications in this system or that system, maybe that can happen, but I don't want people to confuse that with we can now wash our hands.
Let's talk a little bit about what you're seeing in the protests of 2020 and share a little bit about a comparison to what you experienced in your lifetime. When did you first get out there to protest and what are some of the areas or issues that you took on?
The first time I really did it was the first time I got arrested, which was in Cleveland, Ohio. We had been sitting in at the school board all night and I was fighting for integration actually and we were fighting against them building two things. One, they were building a school, and a new school in the black community meant it was going to be all black, and then the second thing was that they had intact busing and they were busing black children to Little Italy and they forced them to stay in a separate class. They couldn't have lunch.
And so, we were protesting that and demanding real integration, not just desegregation. And so, we got arrested and that was the first time I’d ever been arrested, and the cops threw us down three flights of steps. They beat us with sticks as we were tumbling down the steps. Then we were over at the site where they were building the school and we were lying down in the dirt to stop them from construction. And one of the days I was over there lying down in the dirt with a Presbyterian minister named Bruce Klunder. The guy started the tractor up and instead of dumping dirt on us he went backwards and crushed Bruce. That was my first experience with demonstrating.
I’ve been beaten. I’ve been jailed. You name it and I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve sat in the rooms because of what I was able to do later on in my life. So, I’ve been in both positions. I’ve had all of these experiences.
So, when I look at what’s happening today and all those multiracial and all of that. Again, I just hope that I’m wrong but I’ve seen massive demonstrations before and people keep saying there has never been anything like this. Well what was the anti-war movement? Do you all think that was just one day? There were massive demonstrations. There were massive demonstrations during the civil rights. People are saying, “But this time there is so much multiracial.” Maybe that is a difference but let’s see how much of a difference it makes when it comes to change.
So even with the protests that are going on today, and with as much as they have spread not only nationally but internationally, are those voices not loud enough at this point?
I think they're loud enough they're just not in power. It's just like we tell high school kids - you're the future. And also, we tell them, “Well, you all are going to be the ones.” It will be 30 years before they get to a place that they are going to be in any kind of power situation. It’s not like you walk out of high school in a position of power to change a society. I think demonstrations and those voices are critical. And it isn’t that I don’t think they are loud enough. I think they are falling on people who many of them don’t want to change the power alignments in this society.
They may modify some of the institutional arrangements but not to fundamentally change the power. And that’s going to be the frustration that some of these young people may experience. They are out there with all this energy and, “Man, the world is really looking at us,” and to a certain extent they are, but not in the way they think. I keep hearing people saying, “This one is going to be different because it’s multiracial.” Yeah. I hope that I’m proven wrong and I will be the first when this all happens and there is this great change to say I was wrong. I hope to be wrong, actually.
Do you think that type of sentiment might be disheartening to the people who are out there on the streets every day protesting for equality?
Again, if you read “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” one of the points that Derrick Bell makes that I totally agree with is you have to fight even if you don’t see victory being possible. Because not to fight is to co-sign on the injustice. I believe you have to get up and fight every day even if you don’t think where you’re trying to get is possible. Things may change. And it may be possible but even if it isn’t you have to fight because otherwise, you’re saying it’s OK. So even though I’m a pessimist, I’m not a pessimist who then just says, “Oh, my God. Let me go and sit down because nothing can happen.” Yeah, I’m pessimistic but I’m still going to fight to make whatever change is possible to make it happen. To not do so would be to say, “This is OK,” and I’m never doing that. I’ll never concede to oppression.
I want to touch a little bit on your recent announcement of your retirement. Why now and what are you planning to do after retirement?
What I realized was that no matter who you are there comes a point when people quit listening to you and it’s not even that they are being nasty or anything. It’s just they are trying to make their way in the world. The world has changed. You’re there, but they are not listening. And I don’t think I’m there yet but I’m headed there and so my view is before I get there, I’m going to stop on my own terms.
I want people to say, “He helped the community. He did what he thought was right,” and or people who think they can learn something from me I’m willing to give whatever I know. And although I don’t have a plan, one thing I plan on doing is continuing to learn and trying to read so that I can better understand stuff.