Friday, December 18, 2009

They Cared About Me

“I really like my new principal,” one of the students at Hillside said. “He really cares about us.” He sat and recounted the story told during a meeting with the students. The student talked about not being able to keep the tears away.

Hans Lassiter shared the story of a student caught stealing food from the cafeteria. “She was taking food to feed her mother and brothers and sisters,” the student continued. “He told us it was okay. They made sure the family had food.” Now I had to fight back my own tears. The story reminded me of the days when schools did more than prepare students for the big test at the end of the year. It’s hard to focus on academics when a person has no food at home.

Then my mentee got to the root of the matter. “He told us we shouldn’t have to pay for lunch,” I considered the students plight. His mother struggles to pay the $5 per day per child to eat at school. That’s $50 per week. That’s $200 per month. “He told us he wants to change the rules so we can eat for free.” What matters isn’t that Lassiter can move to make that change. What matters is that he cares enough to try.

The words of the student echoed after I heard them-he cares about us. Isn’t that all anyone really needs? Doesn’t it make a difference when students know they’re cared about? I had to pause to reflect after that story. It took me back to High School in Columbia, Missouri. There was a moment there that changed my life. I knew I was cared about.

It came after the death of my sister. Her death crippled me. I could not study. It was hard for me to find the strength to go to school. My grades dropped. My parents were unable to help me due to their own pain. Drugs entered the picture. First it was marijuana, then pills, then cocaine and then shots of heron. I became addicted. I entered a world removed from the pain of my baby sister’s death.

Mr. Battle, the counselor at the school, showed up at my house after I missed a week in school. He knocked on the door when I was high after taking a hit of weed. He told me to get dressed. He cared about me. A few days later, I sat to take a test. My body trembled. There was too much pain left. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t write. I signed my name, ran to the nearest bathroom and cried. I cried until the end of the class period. I ran from the bathroom and existed the building. I sat on the bleachers where fans cheered while I ran around the track. I wept until the end of the day. I couldn’t move.

The next day the teacher asked me to stay after class. She waited for everyone to leave. She looked down the hallway as the students departed. Then, she locked the door. She took a chair and placed it in front of mine. She looked at me-silent. I began to tremble. There was something about the look in her eyes. I looked for my rebuke. I did not see it there. I felt compassion.

“My husband died from cancer earlier this year,” she told me. “When it happened I could not function. I know about your sister’s death. I will not let you fail.”

She took the test from the day before and placed it before me. I had prepared myself for my F. Instead, there was an A marked in bold red that covered the page. She said it again, “I will not let you fail.” Those words rung inside my head. She cared about me. I could only cry as she held me. She cared about me.

There are countless others that cared about me-Coach Fred gave me a place to stay when I had no place to go. My American History teachers loved me through the pain. I was surrounded by teachers and administrators who refused to let me fail. They loved me too much for that to happen. They cared about me.

So, Mr. Lassiter and the good folks over at Hillside, thanks for holding the torch long forgotten. Thanks for reminding us of the pain that comes to school each day. Sometimes they lack the strength to learn. They are more than numbers measured at the end of the year. They are people working through the madness.

If it hadn’t been for people like you, I would not be here today. Thanks for the memory.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Time to Make That Change?: Durham Committee Election Tonight

Tonight’s the big night. Black residents of Durham will gather at the White Rock Baptist Church to vote on the next chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. It’s the most anticipated election since Ken Spaulding defeated Pete Allison. Spaulding promised change and a more youthful Durham Committee. Allison’s wife, Lavonia, has led the organization for the past 12 years.

Those on the outside regard the Durham Committee as a mere shadow of its former self. Melvin Whitley has promised to move the Durham Committee past its divisive ways. The group is plagued with internal battles that have become the subject of a public conversation related to impact the group has in making a difference. The internal mess is marred even more by a public perception that has many ashamed to call themselves members.

Most outsiders agree there is a need for change. The Durham Committee maintains a system of exclusion that spits in the face of the advances made due to the work of the group. The time has long passed for the Durham Committee to consider a broader agenda-one not limited to the color of one’s skin, and one that isn’t rooted in a culture of classism.

Under Allison’s leadership, the Durham Committee has remained stuck in a time long gone. Allison and her supporters continue to function under the presupposition that “The Man” is out to get us and that the best way to make change is to embark on an agenda that pits us versus them. Sadly, the Durham Committee failed to embrace the Barack Obama magic of the past election. They failed to mobilize people to support the platform of America’s first black President. How sad it is that the Durham Committee continues to function as if the nation hasn’t taken a major shift!

Allison is out of touch with the world in which most of us live. She refuses to talk to the press. Help me understand how one can be effective as a leader of a major organization while refusing to utilize the most powerful tool at your disposal. She has minimized the influence of the Durham Committee to the few who continue to attend meetings. Those on the outside who care aren’t privy to what happens at those meetings. They only need the rest of the black folks when an election comes around.

It’s offensive to be approached with a slate of candidates endorsed by a group that has failed to reach out to voters. The organization has no website, no communicated agenda, policies that are changed to fit the purposes of those in charge and a reputation that screams for change. Is Allison to blame for all of this? That may be overstating the truth. Allison represents an age of black leadership that has faded with time. She has served Durham well, and she did so within an historical context that demanded her style of leadership.

Time has changed. Most of us no longer desire an approach that limits based on race. Youth aren’t beholden to the barriers of race. As much as I love the color of my skin and the history of my people, I refuse to continue to exist within a world that forces people to stay locked in the bounds of race. Most of us are sick of having to answer that question that continues to divide-it’s not enough to be black in Durham, at issue is whether you are black enough.

Does being black mean you have to fight every white politician just because they’re white? Does being black mean you can’t write about black people because it divides the race? Does being black mean you support projects proposed by black people when there is enough evidence to prove they lack the ability to follow through? Who qualifies blackness?

Allison has stood on wobbly terrain for a long time. The slippery slope is all those assumptions made-that her way of functioning is the only way, that she has the right to determine authentic blackness, that the work of the Durham Committee is the work Durham’s black community. Sorry folks. The power of one’s voice should never be circumvented by the mandates of a few. We have fought too hard to step back into the world of fear.

Tonight is the big election. Some think its Allison versus Whitley. It’s more important than that. This is about views surrounding the state of Durham’s black community. Is it time to move forward, or will the masses decide to stay locked in the days of Bull Conner and hooded white dudes holding confederate flags.

It’s time to stop whistling Dixie.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Letter from Melvin Whitley

Note: This is a letter I just received from Melvin Whitley regarding the elction for the Chair of the Durham Committtee on the Affairs on Black People.

I am Reverend Melvin Whitley, Candidate for Chairman of the Durham Committee for the Affairs of Black People. I ask that you cast your vote for me at The Durham Committee meeting on December 10th.

A vote for Melvin Whitley is a vote that will move The Durham Committee forward into a new day—to operate in a new way. Let’s put the past behind us.

I am ready to serve and lead The Durham Committee forward to be the organization that addresses the needs of the people it represents. I am ready to welcome everyone that love Durham and is willing to use their skills to empower the African American community. The African American community has a wealth of untapped Black talent. I am ready to ask our brightest to serve on a committee of interest. I am ready to lead an organization that seeks solutions and avoids alienation. I am ready to lead an organization that encourages community participation and utilizes the skills and interests of it members.

“I am here, and I am ready to serve.”If I am elected Chairman of The Durham Committee, it will not continue its “business as usual”:
ü I will work with the membership to set attainable goals for the organization and evaluate our progress every six months. You will tell us how well we’re doing.
ü I will work with the membership to implement standard operating procedures that are consistent with the constitution and bylaws of organization.
o I will ensure that agendas are available for review prior to Committee meetings.
o I will ensure that minutes of meeting are available to our membership.
o I will ensure that treasury reports are presented at Committee meetings.
ü I will work with the membership to create a public presence of The Durham Committee that is open and responsive to issues affecting our community.
ü I will work with the membership to utilize communication tools like websites and social marketing sites to engage the public.

Under my administration as Chairman the organization will set out to accomplish three goals.
It is important that the Committee generate annual revenue to supports a base budget for planning and operations. I support membership dues.
Consistent with utilizing communication tools we must build a database that extends our communication reach in communities we serve with efficiency and effectiveness.
The Durham Committee will reinvest in its future by training the people we serve. We will invest in the future of our organization by sponsoring training programs that implement our mission and service. For example sponsoring training sessions in community organizing, fundraising, and campaign training.
“I am here, and I am ready to serve.” I have worked in 42 political campaigns over 44 years, winning 36 of them. I know how to win. When my Country called for me in the 60’s to serve in Vietnam “I said here I am”.

When the people of Virginia in the 70”s asked me for help in building coalition to successfully reduced utility increases and eliminated of taxes on food and prescription drugs, “I said here I am” and we won.

When Governor Hunt decided in the 80”s to close Dorothea Dix Hospital the employee began to organize. This decision would have put 1,300 state employees out of work. They asked me to serve as chairperson for the Save Dix Committee, “I said here I am” and we won.

When people in the 90”s asked me to implement Neighborhood Safety Initiatives in Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte, “I said here I am”.

In just one year I organized a state- wide campaign for the passage of the Safe Storage of Hand Guns Bill, which was made law in 1993. “We won”

When people in East Durham wanted organize a coalition to help politicians understand that the appearance of our neighborhoods impact crime, “I said here I am” and we won.

When Joe Bower, Chair of the NAACP, wanted me to build a coalition to work on reducing plea-bargains in violent gun –related crimes, “I said here I am” and we won.

When Joe Bower, Chair of the NAACP, ask me to help get an in-parent drug treatment faculty “I said here I am” and we won. It took years and now we have it.

When East Durham wanted the City to closed down all of the Strip Clubs in East Durham, “I said here I am” and we won.

When asked to help pass an enactment of a Housing Impact Policy that would restrict developers from building more subsidized rental housing in poor neighborhoods, “I said here I am” and we won.
When asked to help pass enactment of a housing impact policy that would restrict developers from building more subsidized rental housing in poor neighborhoods, “I said here I am” and we won.

When my neighborhood had a boarded up school, but needed a Recreation Center they asked me to engage local Government to develop The Holton School. Upon its completion the 17.9 million dollar school project was renamed Holton Career and Resource Center. “I said here I am” and we won.

The Question is will you vote to maintain the status quo and keep the Durham Committee the same, or will you vote for a new way to operate.

At no time did I ask what’s in it for me. This work has nothing to do with my employment. I’m un-owned, and un-bossed. No one asked me what I did when I was young. They did not ask me who my white Democratic friends are. They asked me for help, and “I said here I am”.

ü Vote Yes for Rev. Melvin Whitley on Thursday night, December 10th, 2009, at 7:00 PM, White Rock Baptist Church

* Eligible voters must of African American decent, must live in Durham County, and be present to vote.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Melvin Whitley: Flash Forward

Note: This post was first published in the Durham News section of the News & Observer

Melvin Whitley was a minister at the church I pastor. I remember the first time I heard him preach. He stood broken. He shared being out of control. The flashbacks kept coming. The memories of Vietnam stayed locked in his head.

From the pile of ashes that once stood as a souvenir of days gone bad, Whitley is positioned to lead the influential Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Thursday's election at White Rock Baptist Church could bring an end to the 12-year tenure of Lavonia Allison.

This election is the classic battle between old money, pedigree and education, and dirt poor, homeless and addicted. Whitley has been called quick-tempered. Some question his motives. Others point to his criminal record. "I can't work with him because he refuses to listen," a member of the political arm of the Durham Committee told me. That person recounted a frenzied altercation between Whitley and Allison at a Durham Committee meeting.

Conversations surrounding Whitley have more to do with his past than his achievements as a grassroots organizer. People want to know more about that indecent exposure charge back in 2005 and the 18 assault charges filed against him.

"I was the first man in America to get arrested for using the bathroom," he told me. It happened during an NAACP executive board meeting at the North Carolina Mutual Building. A female custodian was mopping the floor. According to Whitley, she asked him not to use the bathroom. She went to the supervisor, who fired her for making the complaint against Whitley.
"After she was fired, she called and asked me for money. I wouldn't do it," Whitley said. The woman filed charges against Whitley. The case was thrown out of court before he faced a judge.

It reminded Whitley of days before the change. "Sixteen years ago I went from having dinner with the governor to being on the soup line," Whitley said. One day he sold his shoes for a hit. It started to snow.

"I lived in boarded-up houses. One day I saw this house people had moved out of that day thinking I could find something to sell not to get shoes but to get another hit. In there was a hymn book. I got out the hymn book and started singing 'Jesus keep me near the cross'."

The next day, Whitley began his journey to recovery. "I went in the prayer room at the rescue mission in Raleigh to cuss God out about my wife dying, Vietnam, being homeless and attempting suicide," Whitley said. "Right then I said to God if you don't let me die, then you would have to fix it."

Whitley says he was arrested 18 times on assault charges dating back 30 years. He called himself a moral thug. He would attack drug dealers who failed to show up in court. He says his rage was connected to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. "I hated white people to the point I wouldn't wear a white T-shirt or underwear," he said.

I asked him the biggest difference between him and Allison. "I'm capable of saying I made a mistake, and I'm willing to forgive people," he said. He talked about his shortcomings and how he listens to his critics. If it fits, he puts it on; if it doesn't, he takes it off.

His goals for the Durham Committee are simple: bring back trust into the Durham Committee, bring people back to the table, to create goals that are measurable, to evaluate leadership every six months, identify future leaders and to establish a membership fee.

From that day at Compassion Ministries Whitley stands on the brink of leading the Durham Committee. It's funny how a story of change can be celebrated in some places and used to hinder in others. Those of us who have been addicted understand what it means to endure change. It's hard to talk about the passion that inspires one to make a difference. "I left people on the streets who are still there," Whitley said. "We need to go back and help them."

Count me in, Melvin. Let's go get them.

Letters From Murphy and Watts Regarding the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People

Note: Posted below are two letters. The first is written by Lois Murphy, a supporter of Lavonia Allison in the upcoming election for chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. The second letter comes from Chuck Watts. Parts of both letters were recently quoted in my blog. Many have requested to view the letters in their entirety. Enjoy

Lois Murphy's Letter to members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People
Dear Members,

Melvin Whitley has announced he is running against Dr. Allison for the chair position of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People (Committee) this year. Allow me to emphatically inform you that for years Melvin has been working with Katie Munger, who wrote an e-mail several years ago vowing to dismantle the Committee. Melvin has no interest in the mission of our Committee and only wants to chair it so he can usher in the demise of our organization, which has been in the works since its inception in 1935.

Certainly, I do not deny change is needed; however, change fueled by lust for power, vengeance, and with the intent of dismantling the Committee is not the answer. There is not a one of us who has not at one time or another been disenfranchised with the Committee’s leadership. However, one thing that we must not ignore is that Dr. Allison has a long standing record of protecting the mission of the Committee. She regularly attends meetings to voice concerns about the conditions of our people, and she is black and bold enough to publicly divulge racist discriminatory practices, which stifles the advancement of blacks in Durham.

Melvin along with others (Bill Bell, Cora Cole McFadden, Howard Clement – just to name a few) within the organization were instrumental in unseating Joe Bowser several years ago. Therefore, Bowser supporters, a vote for Melvin is a vote against Joe. Thelma White is unseating Dr. Allison really worth it since for sure if Melvin became chair, Joe and those of like mind would never be endorsed by the Committee.

Therefore, we must not allow the Committee to fall into the hands of those who want to dismantle our organization, not willing to equally share power and resources, as well as continue the Jim Crow mentality. Katie Munger, the People Alliance, and Melvin Whitley desire to see the only independent organization for blacks destroyed because they cannot control it or our leaders. We must lay aside our personal difference to protect this organization from them, as well as those among us who seek to destroy this Committee for their own self serving interest.

Dr. Allison needs our support in this battle to protect the mission of the Committee. Thus, NOW is definitely not the time for infighting. Do not destroy our organization and allow it to be controlled by Katie Munger and the People Alliance through self-proclaimed minister, Melvin. Give Dr. Allison your VOTE at the 7 pm, December 10 meeting instead of Katie Munger, the People Alliance, and their agent of destruction Melvin Whitley. The meeting will be held at White Rock.

By the way self proclaimed minister Melvin, is it true you served time for assaulting a women and been arrested for indecent exposure? If so, your manhood and commitment to God is questionable, as well as your mental capacity. Whatever happened to the Durham Voter Coalition? Why are you not chair of that organization or seeking to be chair of the People’s Alliance?

In addition, the great Reverend Wannabe Chair of the Committee Melvin Whitley is no more than an agent for those who want to dismantle our community. His appearance of representing our community is for self serving purposes ONLY!


Lois Murphy

Chuck Watt's Letter to Members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People


I am, frankly, not sure how I got on a mailing list to receive this broad side attack on Rev. Whitley, but since you included me, let me respond with my thoughts about the issues that you raise.

First, let me say that Dr. Allison's history of commitment to the Committee is unquestioned and really cannot be challenged by any knowledgeable person.

Second, I think it needs to be acknowledged that Dr. Allison's truly historic commitment is just not relevant to any question regarding future leadership of the Committee. The past is the past and any functioning organization needs to be focused exclusively on its future when selecting a leader. Black folks in Durham owe her a lot but they do not owe her the Chair of the Committee.

Third, you make a lot of charges against Rev Whitley that, in my view, are also irrelevant, of course everyone will have to make their own judgement about that. However, political in fighting can result in strange bedfellows from time to time but in politics there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. I would caution you against reaching the conclusions that you have about Rev. Whitley and would advise that you raise your attacks as questions for him and ask him to provide a response. You can then more fairly reach a conclusion about his intentions and alliances.

Finally, I feel that I have to say something about one of your charges. You claim that Melvin's purpose in running for Chair of the Committee is to destroy it. I feel compelled to say that it has been under Dr. Allison's leadership that the Committee has reached its current level of low regard and low participation. In my lifetime, I cannot recall a time when the Committee has been at such a low level and has become all but irrelevant to matters of significance to black folks in Durham. You essentially acknowledge that fact in your comments, as has every person with whom I have had private conversation about the state of the Committee over the last few years. I will say it maybe more clearly than you have, IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP AT THE DURHAM COMMITTEE. The destruction of the Committee is more likely to occur from a continuation of the current leadership than it is from almost any change in leadership.

I applaud Rev. Whitley for putting his name out there. The sort of personal attack that you have provided is what, I am sure, he expected and yet he was willing to stand up to these sorts of assaults.

Due to the bizzare rules that have been put in place to give the Chair control over voting, I am sure that I will not be allowed to vote in the selection of a new Chair. However, I do recall when Dr. Allison ran against Judge Johnson for her first term as chair there were huge numbers of Committee members energized and voting. That will not be the case this time. This change is but one piece of evidence of the declining state of the Committee & it's relevance to the lives of Black folks in Durham.


Chuck Watts.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Durham Committee Election:Allison Vs. Whitley

It’s time for the biggest election of the year. On December 10th, there will be a vote to determine the next leader of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. It will pit long time Chairwoman Lavonia Allison against grassroots organizer Melvin Whitley. Make no mistakes about it. This has become personal.

Responses to my previous blogs have made two things clear. To begin, even those within the historically powerful organization weren’t clear regarding who could and couldn’t vote. “Although I can appreciate your opinion as an outsider looking in; I think that if you would like to post the voting procedure that you should get it correct. You have to attend more than 2 meetings per year,” wrote Joy Morgan, a member the Durham Committee’s political committee. “The prerequisite is that you attend 2 meetings per quarter and 1 political committee meeting per quarter.”

It was Morgan’s way of taking a stab at those who haven’t attended meeting. Her contention is that folks need to be a part of the process, and, if you’re not, keep your mouth shut. Excuse me for speaking out of turn. Later it was determined Morgan’s inside information was wrong. According to the groups constitution all that is needed is that a person be black and live in Durham to vote.

The truth was exposed after former city council candidate Darius Little went hunting for the truth. It turns out the Durham Committee had agreed to alter the rules related to eligibility to vote in the 2007 Durham Committee officers election.

It took loads of investigation to uncover the truth, and when I spoke with one of those insiders regarding eligibility requirements, I got a rude awakening. “I knew the truth but didn’t want to tell you because I was scared you would show up and vote for Melvin Whitley.” Now that’s taking things too far. Is it possible that members within the Durham Committee are keeping those rules to themselves in order to dissuade people from voting? That’s deep. I felt like a Negro in the late fifties unable to vote after failing the poll test.

The comments on my blog speak to a deeper issue-the lack of unity within the Durham Committee. “How can change be created, when people who express wanting change, sit on the sidelines screaming at the participants; yet without joining-in and adding fresh perspective,” Darius Little wrote. “I've heard Dr. Allison talk hot trash about Joy (Morgan), but Joy comes and makes her presence felt, no matter what others may think.”

The remarks kept coming. “Darius if you have a shortcoming as a young man, it is always wanting to be nice to everyone,” Idontcare wrote. “People like Joy (Morgan) and Jackie (Wagstaff) aren’t your friends. That is why I voted for Howard over you in the committee.”
From there the writer took stabs at Morgan. “Joy has only come to the committee the past 2 months, after being gone for years and she is more obnoxious now than she was before. Joy can’t vote herself, but is here giving advice. Joy needs to shut the hell up, sit down and not worry about everyone else. Joy should use her energy looking for a damn job, instead of talking about and then asking those same elected officials for help getting a job.”

I marveled at the low blows. I wondered about the sanity of the person attacking Morgan. I was prepared to jump to her defense when she came out swinging. “Thank you for your concern idontcare; it seems as if you do care, but please know that I am fine,” Morgan wrote. “Also, if trying to help make a difference is obnoxious, then I'll be obnoxious all day everyday. You should try it sometimes, maybe it will help you ease your negativity and childlike behavior.” Dang girl.

The torrent of blog post is frail in contrast to the myriad of emails circulating. Lois Murphy, a passionate backer of Joe Bowser and active Durham Committee member, submitted a letter championing the candidacy of Allison. She argued a vote for Whitley is a vote against Bowser and will lead to the dismantling of the Durham Committee.

Then it gets personal. “By the way self proclaimed minister Melvin, is it true you served time for assaulting a women and been arrested for indecent exposure? If so, your manhood and commitment to God is questionable, as well as your mental capacity,” Murphy wrote.

Chuck Watts came to Whitley’s defense. “I feel compelled to say that it has been under Dr. Allison's leadership that the Committee has reached its current level of low regard and low participation,” Watts wrote. “In my lifetime, I cannot recall a time when the Committee has been at such a low level and has become all but irrelevant to matters of significance to black folks in Durham.” Get the point? Things are out of control.

The big election is on next week. Sadly, many are still under the impression they can’t vote due to some rule prohibiting their participation. So, this is the deal. If you are black and live in Durham, show up at the White Rock Baptist Church on December 10th to vote.

In my next blog I will share a conversation with Melvin Whitley. I asked him about his past and reputation for being hot tempered. We talked about the confrontation with Jackie Wagstaff at a recent Durham Committee meeting and why he decided to run for the chair of the Durham Committee. He talked about having Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and how he has grown over the years. We also talked about his plans to lead the Durham Committee.

Fasten your seat belts folks. This could get interesting.