A conversation with Howard Fuller (Part 1 of 2)

Aug 12, 2019

The civil-rights and parent-choice activist talks to Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann about basketball, his early life, community organizing, and being an organizer.

Born in January 1941 in Shreveport, La., Howard Fuller is one of the country’s foremost civil-rights and parent-choice activists. As described in his autobiography No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, written with Lisa Frazier Page, Fuller’s family moved to Milwaukee after his preschool year. In Milwaukee, he attended St. Boniface for grade school and then North Division High School—for which he played basketball, and well.

After getting his undergraduate degree at Carroll College in the western-Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha and his master’s degree at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he was a community organizer in Chicago and Durham, N.C.

In the 1970s, Fuller returned to Milwaukee. He continued his activism—later helping organize efforts to save North Division from closure, for example, and to protest the death of Ernest Lacy while in the custody of the Milwaukee Police Department, among many other activities.

Fuller went on to earn a Ph.D. from Marquette University in 1986 and then filled several top positions in public service, including with Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin. He was Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools system from 1991 to 1995, after which he founded the Institute for the Transformation of Learning (ITL) at Marquette and assumed a high-profile role in the fight for parent choice, including nationally.

With many others, of course, Milwaukee’s conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where we worked, supported many choice groups and projects—including several with which Fuller was and is affiliated, ITL and the Black Alliance for Educational Options among them. Other choice supporters, including of Fuller’s work, included the Walton Family Foundation.

Fuller is now a distinguished professor of education at Marquette and emeritus board chair of the Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, which was founded in 2004 and renamed earlier this year to honor him.

Fuller is charismatic and approachable. He is decidedly unafraid of controversy. And he is conversational and forthright.

Below is the first of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that he was kind enough to have with us at his ITL office in July. The second part, in which he talks about philanthropy, education reform, and the principles driving his work, is here.

This first part begins with basketball at North Division in 1957.


Fuller: There were no fieldhouses in the city, so all of the sectional games were played in the suburbs, and we always went to the Whitefish Bay sectional.

When we were juniors, nobody expected us to do anything. We beat Shorewood at Shorewood, so then we went to play a game at Whitefish Bay High School, against Racine County. This is the honest-to-God truth: I had no idea until I was an adult where Whitefish Bay High School was. We went out there, and I have no idea where we were. We beat Racine County.

Waukesha High School was next. [Robert] Duckett was their coach. They had already made their reservations to go to the next round, in Madison. We beat them by 40, to go to the state tournament.

Schmidt: You had a hell of a team. That was a great, great team.

Fuller: And then we get out there and with [Jim] Bakken—the guy who kicked for Wisconsin, then the Redskins—on their team, Madison West beat us. We ended up getting to and winning the consolation championship.

Then the next year, Waukesha and Shorewood were both going to take care of us. In fact, Shorewood had [Tom] Rebholz and Mike Spector. I got a picture of Mike Spector crying on the bench as we were beating them, like 60 to 27, and I always used to tease Mike as we were about to do something at some “important” meeting.

Schmidt: I can’t remember. Did you press? Certainly, Lincoln [High School] pressed.

Fuller: Oh, we pressed. …

It’s my senior year, and Waukesha and Shorewood were co-champions again of the Suburban Conference. They had sworn revenge on us. First, Waukesha was going to get their revenge. We had beat Waukesha by 40 the last year. This year, we beat them by 39. And then we beat Shorewood by 30. I mean, we were rolling, and then we got to the finals of the state tournament.

[Madison East’s] Pat Richter—I don’t know if you remember, but he played football and he was athletic director at Wisconsin—was just the biggest human being I’ve ever seen.

Schmidt:  And he was good, though football was his thing.

Fuller: Well, he was a hell of a basketball player. They beat us 62-59.

Schmidt: It was a close game.

Fuller: They called four fouls on me in the first half for pushing Richter. They put me back in the game because our coach was like, “You got to put Howard back in the game.” He put me back in.

The score was 62-59. They threw me the ball. I drove in. Got fouled.

Schmidt: I remember this.

Fuller: The ball went around the rim and popped out. I had two free throws, but we were going to lose, and I’m crying.

The referee who called all these fouls on me was Bud Lowe from Oshkosh.

Schmidt: By the way, that was controversial in the papers.

Fuller: Yeah. Yeah.

Schmidt: It was a big issue. It had these other overtones.

Fuller: Yeah. So I go up to shoot these two free throws and he tells me—I’ll never forget these words—“Son, somebody has got to lose.”

I just threw the ball up, because it didn’t matter. It would have been 62-61.


Catholic preschool to Carroll College


Schmidt: What about your early life and your own educational process?

Fuller: I never really talked to my mother and grandmother about this. You always regret things that you didn’t ask your grandparents and your parents. Once they’re gone, you think, I should’ve asked them about this.

What happened with me is that my mother and stepfather came to Milwaukee in one of the migrations when Black people moved from the South to the North. There were these different historical periods that are really well-documented in this book called The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s one of the most-beautiful books I’ve ever read, and it is one of the few books that documented the movement of Black people from the South to the North. She uses three families as the way to talk about it.

My mother actually brought me up here when I was like six years old and somehow when I was in Louisiana, in Shreveport, where I was born, my grandmother had put me in a Catholic preschool. So when I came to Milwaukee, my mother continued that by putting me in St. Boniface. There were only two or three Black students. In fact, I have a photograph of third grade. I’m the only Black student.

Schmidt: What year did you come up here?

Fuller: We came up here, I want to say ’46, because I remember the big snowstorm in ’46, or ’47. I went through St. Boniface up until eighth grade. My behavior wasn’t all that great. I also wanted to go to “public schools” with my friends.

We were living in the housing project in Hillside, so I went to eighth grade at Lincoln, because that was the attendance area. In my eighth-grade class that year was Al Jarreau.

Then we moved to the housing projects on 11th Street between Reservoir and Vine. At that time, if you lived on the west side of the 11th Street, you went to North. If you lived on the east side of 11th Street, you went to Lincoln. That’s how I ended up going to North, which was obviously the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

Schmidt: Funny, it brought you back to St. Boniface in a way.

Fuller: St. Boniface was right across the alley, right.

Schmidt: My dad’s family grew up on 18th and Wright St.

Fuller: Yeah, what separated North and St. Boniface was the alley. So I had the Catholic-school experience, which really was phenomenal and prepared me for everything that has happened to me since then, from an educational standpoint. Then going to North and playing basketball, and because we really had a great basketball team, it opened up a lot of doors when I made All-City and all of that stuff.

My senior year, I was actually being recruited. I tore ligaments in my ankle my senior year, and I was very afraid that if I went to a big school and got hurt, I would lose my scholarship. So I ended up going to Carroll [College in Waukesha, now Carroll University] because they put me on what was called a Trailblazer scholarship. It was an academic and basketball scholarship, so that if I got hurt, I could still keep my scholarship. It was set up where I had to get a higher grade point each year to keep the scholarship. By the time I got to be a senior, it had to be a “B” average in order to keep the scholarship.

Schmidt: Who recruited you out of Division I?

Fuller: Marquette, interestingly, because [Marquette basketball coach Eddie] Hickey came and saw me play. We used to come down to Marquette to play in the old gym, so he saw me doing one of these summer games, but by then I had actually decided to go to Carroll.

I think I’m the first Black male to graduate from Carroll. I thought I was the first Black student, but I met a woman who I think graduated before me and we were not able to find any other Black males. Now, there were some who went there during the war, but there was no record that we could find of any of them graduating. I graduated in ’62.


Early community organizing, in Cleveland and North Carolina


Hartmann: Then what did you do first with your new degree?

Fuller: I decided to go to graduate school. I got the first Whitney Young Scholarship from the Urban League to go to graduate school. I went to Western Reserve in Cleveland, which is now Case Western Reserve. I went to the School of Applied Social Science [SASS]. At that point in history, there were two major forms of social work—case work and group work. But I always thought that both of those help you manage oppression, and I wanted to try to figure out how to end it.

There was this new field of social work coming into being, called community organization. At the time, there were only two schools that I knew of that offered it, the University of Chicago and Western Reserve. Western Reserve had this thing called the Hough Project, which was this big community-organizing thing in Hough, a neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. The dean of SASS, Dr. [John B.] Turner, was connected to the Hough Project.

When I went out there for my interview, that was the first time I ever got on a plane. I got accepted and it was a two-year thing to get your master’s degree in social administration, but the emphasis was community organizing.

Hartmann: What else do you remember about Cleveland?

Fuller: The first time I actually got arrested for civil-rights activity was in Cleveland. We had sat in at the school board because we were fighting for integration. Two things were happening. One is that they were busing Black children to Little Italy, but it was intact busing—meaning that when they got there, they kept them separate. They wouldn’t let them eat together, when they had the same classes. We had sat in all night at the school board, protesting intact busing.

But at the same time, we were also protesting the building of three schools in the Black community, because they weren’t going to be integrated. In the demonstration, I was actually there laying in the dirt at the same time as Rev. [Bruce] Klunder. He was crushed by a tractor. They had been throwing dirt on us, but instead of throwing dirt that day, the guy started the tractor up and backed it over Rev. Klunder.

Presbyterian Rev. Bruce Klunder, after he had been crushed to death

Hartmann: You must think that could have been you. Is the rest of your life all “bonus time”?

Fuller: Correct. The other interesting thing that happened while I was in Cleveland is in April 1964. I was in Cory Methodist Church, and this is the first time I heard Malcolm X. He gave “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, and it was that speech that actually changed my whole life in terms of how I saw myself as a Black man and as a Black human being.

It’s a lesson that I’ve learned. You all know I speak a lot. I really try to pay attention to what I’m saying, because I know that a speech could actually change a person’s life, because one changed my life. I’m always aware that you never know who’s in the audience, what they’re hearing, and how that may or may not impact what they do going forward in their lives.

Hartmann: So what’d you do first with your new master’s degree?

When I got my master’s degree, I owed the Urban League one year for the Whitney Young scholarship. At that time in history, the Chicago Urban League was known as the most-active and -militant Urban League, because of Bill Berry in part. They were also the largest. I went to Chicago, and my job was getting Black candidates hired into jobs in the Chicago area. But I still wanted to do community organizing. I thought I was going to be able to do that at the Chicago Urban League.

Then the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, with the Great Society and the War on Poverty, and cities created what we called Community Action Programs. In North Carolina, Gov. [Terry] Sanford came up with a thing called the North Carolina Fund. They were going to attack poverty statewide. Some of the ways that they organized in North Carolina, the United States used when they created the Office of Economic Opportunity.

It just so happened that a guy named Kwame McDonald, who had been with the Urban League in Milwaukee when I was in high school, was working for the North Carolina Fund. So was another friend of mine that I graduated with from Western Reserve, Morris Cohen. They were all working for the North Carolina Fund, and they told me about this job in Durham to be art of the Community Action Program. It was called Operation Breakthrough.

I went down there to be interviewed to be the head of Target Area A. I must have been safe enough, with a master’s degree in social work. They needed a Black person. So I went down there on May 3rd, 1965, to become the head of Target Area A, and the job was to was to figure out how to change the living conditions in this area. It was the largest of the target areas.

When I got the job, I had actually read the legislation that created the poverty program and the term in there that struck me was “maximum feasible participation” by the poor. First of all, I actually thought the War on Poverty meant that we were going to try to fight a war against poverty and try to win. I was naive enough to think that we could eliminate poverty, and that was the whole reason to have this thing.

And what “maximum feasible participation” by the poor meant to me was that we should organize poor people so that they will have power to change conditions, and they should get some of the money. Some of these jobs shouldn’t just go to people with degrees and all of that. I thought the idea was to hire poor people. I thought that one of the things that should happen is that poor people should get money from this stuff, not just that we should talk to them about what they want to have happen.

I became this “radical” community organizer, organizing people to get houses fixed and streets paved. We actually ended up organizing a group called a Mothers’ Club in a housing project. This really led to the idea that you couldn’t kick people out of a housing project without giving them a reason. We’re the reason why that came into being. They tried to kick someone out, once we formed the Mothers’ Club, without giving her a reason. This case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. It gave rights to people living in housing projects.


Being an organizer


Schmidt: Is there something different about what goes on today? I think a lot of people don’t think about organizing the way you’re talking about it.

Fuller: I think the major difference, of course, is the tools that people have. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram and whatever else people use for organizing, and the kind of electronic targeting and all of that stuff. You actually had to knock on people’s doors. I think a lot of that still happens, but even when you knock on doors, you can have an iPad with you and you can put information and all of that right in there.

Schmidt: But then, the speech made a difference when you knocked on the door. Here, you can rely on a tool which may not present you as you presented yourself back in those days.

Fuller: It’s interesting. This movie just came out called The Best of Enemies. It’s about this Black woman who struck up a friendship with the head of the local Ku Klux Klan. That Black woman is Ann Atwater, and I knocked on her door in Durham.

She just passed about a year or so ago. She nicely gives me credit for bringing her to be the kind of person that she became. I remember knocking on her door, because I was trying to organize this neighborhood group. The issue was trying to ask them what they all wanted to organize around. She said, look at this house. It was all broken down. So one of the first things I did was to organize a rent strike to try to force the landlords to fix up their houses.

Hartmann: You have a line in your book No Struggle No Progress that says “I realize that my work, and that of many others involved in the parental choice movement, is more of a rescue mission that a fight for broad societal change.” Would the current Howard say to the young Howard that your aspirations were too broad, make them more realistic?

Fuller: I understand why people ask those types of questions, but to me, the current Howard can’t say anything to the young Howard, and the reason why I say that is because I could only do back then things based on what I knew back then. It’s an interesting question, but to me, it’s not possible. It’s anti-historical in a sense. It wouldn’t mean anything, anyway.

Hartmann: Well, okay, what does the current Howard say to other young idealistic, aspirational people about broad societal change versus incremental progress?

Fuller: What I tell them is that I think the most-important thing for whatever they’re going to decide to do is you have to have a passion for it and if you don’t have a passion for it, you shouldn’t do it. The other thing that I talk to people about is the distinction I make between a job and work.

For me, I’ve been fortunate in my life that my job has almost always corresponded with my work. The job is what you do so that you can have a house and a car and whatever. Your work is what you’re really about. With the exception of the 11 months that I spent selling insurance, I think that in some way or another, my job has always corresponded with my work.

I’ve always tried to make another distinction. In my work, there’s the question of what constitutes principle and what constitutes strategy and tactics. For example, in my book, when I talk about meeting with George Bush, for some people, that’s an issue of principle. For me, it was issue of strategy and tactics. But today, I would never meet with Donald Trump, because for me, that’s a matter of principle.

I think that when you do the kind of work that I tried to do over the years, and this is what I tell young people, everybody has to draw a line, and they’ve got to decide when I will cross that line or whether I will cross that line—ultimately, how you define the principles that drive your work.


The conversation continues in Part 2 of 2 here.

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