The burgeoning political skills of Howard Clement III, then a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance executive, were tested rigorously as he helped lead a boycott of white Durham merchants from 1968–1969. It was then that he began building his legacy as a local civil rights icon.
Clement would go on to serve thirty years on the city council, longer than anyone else in Durham’s history, before retiring two and a half years ago. He died last Wednesday of complications from Parkinson’s disease at the age of eighty-two.
In 1968, Clement, then in his midthirties and fifteen years away from political office, chaired the newly formed Black Solidarity Committee. The boycott was set off by that year’s union-busting dismissal of thirty-one black employees of Watts Hospital.
Ed Stewart, president and CEO of UDI Community Development Corporation, was part of that movement, planned in meetings at St. Joseph’s and other churches. Clement, he says, was a major force. “Howard did most of the walking,” recalls Stewart. “He was a strong organizer.”
The seven-month boycott is regarded as the most successful effort of its kind in the city’s history. Northgate Shopping Center (later a mall) and several white businesses with discriminatory practices suffered an estimated $1 million in losses.
That gave the Durham Chamber of Commerce and Merchants Association reason to pressure the city to seriously consider the BSC’s list of eighty-eight demands regarding employment, education, housing, representation on local boards, recreation, and policing. Several of those demands were met. And because of the boycott, the city established its Human Relations Commission.
As a businessman from an upper-middle-class Rowan County family, Clement had to be careful not to exacerbate class tensions within Durham’s black community.
“Here was a person who works at a respected business entity in the Durham community,” says Mayor Bill Bell, who befriended Clement in 1968. “But still he found time to get out on the streets and advocate for those issues that were of concern to the African-American community. It’s not something he had to do.”
Appointed to an unexpired term on the city council in 1983, Clement became known as a passionate but respectful debater with an irresistible smile and immense institutional knowledge. Bell figures Clements’s inability to drive (he was diagnosed with epilepsy) may have given him the extra empathy for people who used public transportation. He advocated strongly for the city’s acquisition of the bus system from Duke Power, which happened in 1991 and made the expansion of services possible.
Durham County commissioner Ellen Reckhow was with Clement at the creation of the Durham Crime Cabinet task force in 1997, after a six-year crime wave. She recalls how Clement insisted that neighborhood representatives be given a strong voice in discussions about police strategies.
“The thing I remember the most about Howard is that when he felt strongly about an idea or issue, he was dogged about it, in terms of bringing it up regularly,” she says.
Clement was adamant that he did not want a memorial service, says his wife, Annie. Instead, a public event will be held, likely this summer, to celebrate the Howard Clement Educational Fund.
“Mr. Clement’s entire family believed in education,” she says, noting that Clement’s great-grandfather Rufus A. Clement, who was born into slavery in 1847, was the main benefactor of a Cleveland, North Carolina, school that was named in his honor in 1880. “I started the fund several years ago, and I think it’s appropriate to have that legacy in his family continuethat he truly wanted to support young people in their endeavors to become educated.”
But perhaps the best tribute to Clement is one he offered himself, at his retirement ceremony on December 2, 2013: “I want all of you to remember that Howard Clement never worked on his behalf. He worked on behalf of the citizens of Durham.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The Legacy of Howard Clement”