An Uncommon Leader
As reviewed by Wilbur Rich
No Struggle, No Progress is the autobiography of Howard Fuller, a Milwaukee activist credited with playing a key role in the passage of the first and largest school-voucher program in the United States. It is a powerful self-portrait of a radical community organizer who kept his “eyes on the prize” by evolving to pursue intermediate goals, all the while remaining true to his origins, culture, and commitment to social justice.
Fuller’s story is most instructive when it deals with his formative years in the South. It calls to mind the early history of another community organizer, Barack Obama, whom Fuller debated on the issue of school vouchers in 1998, when neither had any idea what the future had in store. Both stories reveal the ways a black man can make the most of the resources given to him at birth. Fuller was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, but was raised to a great height (quite literally) in Milwaukee. Like many children of his generation, he grew up without his father. His mother and grandmother kept him out of trouble. Though his family wasn’t Catholic, he attended Catholic schools through the 8th grade, tuition-free. Relentless practice and his 6-foot-4-inch frame turned him into a basketball star, and the game opened the door to a full scholarship to Carroll College in nearby Waukesha, as the only black student. From there, he went on to obtain a master’s degree in social work from what is now Case Western Reserve University.
Fuller began a career as a social worker and community organizer in Durham, North Carolina, rising up through local and statewide organizations that were focused on improving public services and opportunities for poor black residents. He relates the story of his first arrest, after a peaceful protest staged by college students attracted police with fire hoses, and he recounts repeated death threats. After negotiations between black students and Duke University regarding a black studies program broke down, Fuller and a group of students cofounded Malcolm X Liberation University, which operated for three years. He embraced the nationalistic goals identified with Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (whom Fuller recalls encountering). He advocated Pan-Africanism, traveled to Africa, and even embedded himself as an observer and photographer in the Mozambique civil war. He met Armando Guebuza, the national political commissar of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and the man who would become president of that African nation. In the late 1970s, Fuller returned to Milwaukee to continue his work as a community organizer and to earn his PhD from Marquette University.
Howard Fuller’s early career as a protest leader fits the well-known model put forward by political scientist Michael Lipsky. According to Lipsky, protest leaders must create and nurture a diverse constituency and embed themselves in the community. They must care for followers and involve them in the decisionmaking process. Fuller himself said it well: “I refused to put distance between me and them and to view them from a prism that automatically assumed an unequal relationship.” This means sharing triumphs with followers and publicly acknowledging them (Fuller does this throughout the book). The leader is also expected to articulate goals for protest and engage the media in the struggle. The leader selects the protest tactics (marching, sit-ins, and building occupation) and identifies potential allies from among politicians, respected community members, and local opinion leaders. Leaders are also supposed to induce and maximize third-party participation in the political conflict, heads of foundations, for example. Finally, leaders must select goals that can be reasonably attained. In these respects, Fuller just about perfectly fits the Lipsky model.
Still, Howard Fuller was not a textbook protest leader. It was not so much that his street-level tactics and confrontational style violated protest orthodoxy, but that he had the capacity to revise his thinking dramatically to suit the circumstances that he faced—even to the extent of giving up some of the socialist principles associated with nationalist thinking to endorse market education reforms such as school vouchers, charter schools, and parental choice. These views did not endear him to the teachers unions and local politicians. When black protest leaders go against the generally accepted race progress dogma, they need to expect a backlash. Fuller received his share of criticism for taking a different approach to school reform. Here is Fuller’s own justification for abandoning public education orthodoxy:
One of the things that I have come to understand about the tough work of education reform—or any battle for social justice in this country, for that matter—is that a new battle, a new issue, a new problem is always on the horizon. There are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats. And so, to stay in the fight for the long term, you’ve got to stay ready, stay informed, and you’ve got to know where your line is in the sand. Better yet, you’ve got to know clearly why you drew that line in the first place. [emphasis added]
In many ways Fuller’s book is a preemptive strike, as he knows that when histories of school reform are written, others might overlook his background and distort his motives. Fuller refuses to shy away from his cultural roots, from acknowledging his personal flaws and missteps, or from candidly discussing the impact of his career choice on his marriages. He kept a diary, photographs, and notes about his work. Diane Bjorklund, a scholar of autobiographies, has suggested that black autobiographers tend to portray themselves as “beleaguered,” and guard the sources of their identities. She notes, “They [minority writers] may express the fear that pressures to assimilate will suppress their own unique culture and consequently the bases of their identity.” Fuller doesn’t fill this stereotype either, as I had trouble discerning any attempts by him to be guarded. His identity and views seem clear in this book. His commitment to justice and his willingness to put his career and life on the line have earned him the right to be called a dedicated school-reform advocate. Fuller is a unique political activist who became an administrator (serving as school superintendent in Milwaukee) and then, amazingly enough, returned to the life of an activist. He also built a national, black-led school-reform group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).
Throughout his political life, Fuller has remained a disrupter of the education status quo for inner-city children. He has not won all the battles, but he keeps on fighting. School reform activists, teachers, and others who care about American inner-city schools will find much to inspire them in his story.
Wilbur Rich is professor emeritus of political science at Wellesley College.