Community leaders and residents are coming together this week in Durham to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the “North Carolina Fund.”
The “North Carolina Fund” was established by Governor Terry Sanford in 1963. The idea was to create programs to help address the state’s vast disparities in housing, education and jobs. It was North Carolina’s “War on Poverty.”
In 1963, Terry Sanford’s hands were tied. The liberal governor headed a state in which 37 percent of residents lived below the poverty line and half of all students dropped out of high school. The conservative legislature wasn’t budging.
So, Sanford came up with this experiment to help tackle the problem: the North Carolina Fund.
“In NC we want to go into a few communities and say to leaders of schools, and government and welfare, health and charity. Let’s see if together in a few neighborhoods near here we can’t break the cycle of poverty and give these children a better chance," said Sanford.
That’s Sanford in the documentary titled, “Change Comes Knocking: The North Carolina Fund.” Sanford and his team started the Fund as a non-profit. Instead of fighting the legislature for money, the fund secured a $7 million grant from the Ford Foundation. The Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundations kicked in another $2.5 million.
One community that benefited most from the fund was Durham. People who remember the city’s fight for civil rights and economic rights gathered at the Hayti Heritage Center Sunday afternoon, including Howard Fuller.
Today, Fuller is 72 years old and is a Distinguished Professor of Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee. In the 1960s, he was convinced to come to Durham to head “Operation Breakthrough,” a product of the Fund.
“What I learned 50 years ago working here are lessons that have stuck with me all of my life. I still feel the same passion that I felt back then, I feel it now. And I’m going to continue doing work as best I can to change people’s lives," said Fuller.
One of Fuller’s first acts was to go door to door to see what people needed. Ann Atwater was a single mother living in a home with no electricity and no working toilet. She was transformed into an activist and helped others fight for equal rights, even if it meant facing down the Ku Klux Klan.
Today, Atwater is 78 years old, and is still as feisty as ever.
“I’m not running on the streets and fighting is because I fell and broke my leg in two places, so I’m not able to get out. But I can still holler at folks once I get out I can holler and call them some things I want to call them," said Atwater.
Atwater and Fuller were part of a growing network of young political activists who threatened the establish power structure. Republican Congressman Jim Gardner of Rocky Mount criticized the North Carolina Fund at this 1967 news conference.
“The NC Fund is now a political organization, meddling in the affairs of local communities throughout the state of North Carolina," said Gardner.
It was no secret this political activism also grew leaders. Durham State Representative Mickey Michaux worked with Fuller and others during the five years the Fund was in operation. He ran for state office and lost three times between 1964 and 1968. Michaux finally won in 1972. He says Durham was a different place by then.
“Durham’s been fairly decent, haven’t had the upsets and whatnot, and people were able to talk to each other and this facilitated that, that talking during the changes. Some folks were for it, some were against it, but it facilitated the changes that came about and it made for a better Durham," said Michaux.
What many people may not know is the North Carolina Fund helped lay the ground work for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The North Carolina Fund also provided the model for Head Start and the VISTA national service program.
While Durham was a big recipient of help by the North Carolina Fund, regions to the far west and the northeast also received money. And the fund trained college students to reach out to the poor.
College students also organized marches to protest inequality. This Saturday, students and the community will retrace a 1963 silent march through downtown Durham.