Red-baiting emerged in the Bull City on April Fool’s Day.
It’s a helluva accusation that would make ol’ Joe McCarthy proud: communists in the Bull City are secretly working to overthrow democracy.
That’s the reason a lifelong Durham resident and county school board candidate alluded to this month when he announced he wouldn’t seek endorsements from two of the city’s most influential political action committees, the People’s Alliance (PA), and the Durham Association of Educators (DAE).
Donald Hughes, a 2014 school board candidate who is now vying for a District 2 school board seat said he could not in good conscience participate in the endorsement processes” of the Durham People’s Alliance or the DAE because of their desire “to use Durham to build and push a national agenda.”
Hughes cites as evidence a blog account by journalist, activist, and pastor Carl Kenney, who wrote last month that organizers trained by Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) and the Workers World Party met to discuss taking control of local government.
“The plan involved infiltrating People’s Alliance and Durham Association of Educators to impact who gets elected,” Kenney wrote. “They set their eyes on the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, but white guilt couldn’t be used to penetrate one of the nation’s most prominent Black political action committees.”
Kenney told the INDY earlier this month that he wrote the blog post after having conversations with people who are directly connected with both organizations “who believe [they] are putting forth a strategy to propel Durham forward in a positive way, but the agenda is not good for Black people.”
Kenney adds that “people who are not from Durham are sending resources and organizers to shift the political canvas in Durham,” and that it becomes “problematic” because the PA and DAE are not being “honest about what their agenda is.
“Durham is being infiltrated by people not from Durham,” Kenney says. “This is not a red scare. This is not anti-union. This is not anti-socialism. I’m supportive of all that. It’s about not being honest and transparent, and we can’t have that.”
Hughes in his April 1 statement echoed the sentiments in Kenney’s blog.
“Over the last decade, I have watched many politicians and political groups use my hometown of Durham, North Carolina, as a pawn in their efforts to build national profiles and push agendas that do not include the very communities and individuals who they claim their advocacy efforts support,” he wrote.
This month, the non-partisan Friends of Durham political action committee endorsed Hughes, who is challenging school board chair Bettina Umstead, as did the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People PAC. The People’s Alliance did not endorse Hughes and endorsed Umstead instead.
Sheila Huggins, a Durham attorney and the FOD’s PAC co-chair struck a moderating tone, saying not every candidate wants to interview with the political group that endorses elected office-seekers based on what’s best for Durham.
“Everyone is looking for their place, their fit, when it comes to finding the organization that aligns with their thoughts around policies and values” Huggins told the INDY. “Sometimes that’s an opportunity for self-reflection for the person and the organization.”
The pushback against Hughes’s and Kenney’s claims are considerable.
Nana-Asante Smith, a Durham attorney who chairs the PA’s PAC, told the INDY that for decades, the organization has “worked tirelessly to advance a progressive vision for Durham.”
She called Hughes’ accusation of socialism an old Republican trope often aimed at progressive, left-leaning politicians, activists and organizations.
“Untruths like theories of a nefarious takeover are akin to the dangerous rhetoric espoused by far-right politicians and media outlets like The Epoch Times,” she wrote in an email to the INDY.
Smith says that like any organization, the People’s Alliance has been, and continues to be, imperfect.
“However, it is indisputable that we are a member-led, member-centered, and member-powered organization,” she says.
Smith also notes that “criticisms that call into question the integrity of our endorsement process are meritless and opportunistic, particularly when those criticisms augment untruths disguised as forward-thinking critical analysis.”
The People’s Alliance, Smith adds, “is not a dictatorship, it is a democracy.”
But Hughes says he has participated in the local endorsement process several times as a candidate for elected office in Durham and that each time, he “was struck by the same few individuals who were members of the interview committees and endorsement process of both organizations—the People’s Alliance and Durham Association of Educators.”
“This is about the influence of outside money and individuals on Durham’s political process,” Hughes told the INDY. “This is about transparency. If organizations are going to pour money and resources into Durham to win elections, then we want to see the outcome of this work. Growing income inequality, health disparities, housing insecurity, and educational achievement gaps in Durham do not represent the progressive values I hold close to my heart.”
At the center of Hughes’ one-page statement is the People’s Alliance 2014 endorsement of Sendolo Diaminah, who won a District 2 school board seat.
Hughes says that Diaminah, starting in 2008, “had only voted in three elections in Durham before his run for the school board seat.”
Hughes says that after Diaminah won the election, he “resigned from the Durham School Board after only two years in office and devoted his efforts to pushing an agenda with ties to the national Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO).”
Hughes says those individuals “set out on a mission to infiltrate numerous Durham organizations and give the appearance that these organizations represented different individuals when in reality they were being controlled by the same small group of people,” who are part of a movement funded by individuals and organizations outside of Durham with no connections to the community’s unique challenges and needs.
Diaminah is a native of Michigan, who moved to Raleigh from New York in 2007.
Given Hughes’ accusation, in Diaminah’s estimation, perhaps now is not the time for Bull City progressives to abide by Michelle Obama’s axiom “when they go low, we go high.”
“There’s a Youruba word, ‘bolekaja,’ that means, ‘Come on down. Let’s fight,” says Diaminah, who is a member of Liberation Road, (formerly known as FRSO), a socialist organization here in Durham.
Diaminah says he lived in Raleigh for a year not to become involved in a political conspiracy but because he wanted to escape an abusive relationship and live where he didn’t know anyone as a Black queer person who had just come out to his family.
Diaminah says he moved to Durham 15 years ago because of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), a social justice organization that advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community.
Diaminah says before moving to Durham, he talked with SONG’s co-director, Paulina Hernandez and board member Caitlin Breedlove, who “listened to me crying my eyes out.
“They heard my story before telling me about the South and Durham specifically as a refuge for exiles. That’s why I’m here. I’m not closeted about any of my identities.”
“I think when people don’t want to do the hard work of organizing, they like to throw out the conspiracy thing,” Diaminah adds. “It’s not conspiratorial at all to knock on doors, and talk to people and earn their trust. When I moved here I met people who were committed to doing the hard and beautiful work of earning peoples’ trust.”
DAE president Michelle Burton issued a statement in response to Hughes’ accusation.
“The Durham Association of Educators represents educators across the Durham Public School System,” Burton wrote. “We are also parents, neighbors, church-synagogue-mosque-goers. We work second jobs, and we are sorority, and fraternity members. Learning that DPS School Board candidate Donald Hughes’ decision to not meet with Durham Public School educators, a diverse constituent group, ahead of this year’s election is disheartening.”
Hughes concluded his statement by saying that he would continue to listen to and talk with students, parents, school staff, teachers, and voters across District 2 about the challenges faced by Durham Public Schools.
“In a school system where 75 percent of the student population is Black and Hispanic, and Black students perform at 35 percent proficiency on average compared to 78 percent for white students, we must put our students above politics,” he says.
Burton clapped back, hard.
“For a school board candidate who “refuses to meet with, listen to and answer questions from teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other support staff after everything educators and students have gone through over the last two years is indefensible,” she wrote.
“It’s an insult to the voters and our representative democracy when those who seek elected office refuse to listen to the people they seek to represent.”
Editor’s note: This story, including the headline, has been updated to reflect that the reference to Marxists infiltrating the Durham PACs is from Carl Kenney’s blog and not from Hughes’s statement, and that, in addition to being endorsed by the Friends of Durham PAC, Hughes was also endorsed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.