On Thursday night, members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People could finally demonstrate on paper ballots what many have hesitated to say out loud: The city's most historic organization is in jeopardy. It's time for a change in leadership, even if that means standing against longtime Chairwoman Lavonia Allison—arguably one of the most powerful political leaders in Durham.
The group's contentious chairwoman has overstayed her welcome, several local leaders say. For the first time in a half dozen years, a member of the committee is challenging Allison's 12-year reign: The Rev. Melvin Whitley, a self-described grassroots organizer with a record of tackling crime in his neighborhood in Northeast Central Durham, wants to take charge.
Whitley and his supporters have described Allison as a passionate and committed activist, but also as a divisive leader whose desire for control has alienated the committee's formerly sizeable membership. Allison's ironclad grip on the committee, her critics charge, has diluted the agenda that has characterized its 74 years: advancing educational equality and employment opportunities for black residents, holding public officials accountable to taxpayers and mentoring the region's future black leaders.
"A lot of changes have happened in the past 30, 40 years. But the issues of racism, sexism still prevail," said Durham City Councilman Howard Clement, who supports Whitley for chairman. "The committee is uniquely formed to address those issues. But in recent years that hasn't been the case. We need to get back to what we used to do."
For years, political observers have speculated whether the credibility and influence of the committee is waning due to shrinking membership, diminishing cooperation with other activist groups and infighting. What goes on behind the organization's closed-door meetings is out of view to many, as it is open only to Durham residents of African-American descent. Recently, several high-profile members of the group questioned the fairness and validity of the committee's endorsements in last month's municipal elections, in which Mayor Bill Bell nearly lost its support. The committee also favored City Council candidate Donald Hughes, a recent college graduate with no previous professional experience in public office over two-term incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden. Hughes is the son of committee member Jackie Wagstaff, who ran against Cole-McFadden for City Council in 2001.
In recent weeks, there have been increased calls for new leadership in open letters to the committee, blogs and newspaper columns. Thursday's election, unquestionably, will be a turning point.
"What's at stake, in essence, is the life of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People," said Cole-McFadden, who supports Whitley's candidacy. "It will determine citizen participation in the committee ... It will determine how much we care about what happens to black people in the Durham community, and folks who don't have a voice ... It will determine whether we are at peace among ourselves or at war."
Both Clement and Cole-McFadden, who won re-election last month, were careful to say they weren't anti-Allison—only that they are pro-Whitley.
Allison did not respond to several requests from the Independent seeking interviews about the election. Her tenure has capped a lifetime of political and community work for African-American residents. She was a professor and trustee at N.C. Central University and has received several prestigious plaudits, including a 2006 Humanitarian award from the N.C. branch of the NAACP. But the hard-bitten, unyielding manner that might have long ago won Allison admirers and influence has now become a hindrance to the committee's success, members say.
Nearing 80, Allison still attends plenty of public meetings of city and county boards with stacks of papers in hand, questioning elected leaders on development and economic incentives. She often pushes boundaries by exceeding time limits on her comments, interrupting or grumbling audibly from her seat. Occasionally, an elected official will grant Allison's demands, whether out of deference, intimidation or just to keep the peace.
"Dr. Allison is a very effective advocate. She's not an effective leader," said Darius Little, who recently ran against Clement for City Council and was not endorsed by the committee.
Little said he spent the past year working closely with Allison as a volunteer in the committee's office. He lamented the lack of organization within the group and confirmed complaints by Whitley and others that many of the nine subcommittees established to address issues such as affordable housing, economic development and youth affairs are idle.
Little says he doesn't trust Allison based on several factors, including a 2001 investigation by the Indy revealing that as a landlord, Allison didn't correct unsafe living conditions in properties she managed and even went so far as to retaliate against tenants who reported violations to the city by evicting them.
Though he praises her long record of service, Whitley calls Allison vindictive, intimidating and divisive. The organization has "nowhere near the clout it once had," he said. "That's one of the reasons I'm running."
Whitley, a 61-year-old outreach minister at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, says he's been a member of the committee for eight years and also recently served as treasurer of the Durham People's Alliance, another progressive group, with membership open to all Durham residents.
Critics of Whitley have pointed out his criminal past. He has been arrested 18 times on assault charges and indulged a crack cocaine habit for three years in the 1990s. Whitley says he has been clean since 1997, when he moved from Raleigh to Durham and sought a life in the ministry. Since then, he's worked with citizens and police to curb crime on some of the most drug-infested streets of East Durham. He also implored city and county leaders to create a jobs training program in the unused Holton Middle School, which opened recently, and managed a coordinated campaign to get Clement, Cole-McFadden, City Councilman Mike Woodard and Mayor Bell re-elected last month.
Whitley says if he defeats Allison, he'll focus on grooming other committee members for leadership positions, giving them experience and training. He says he'll cooperate with other community groups in Durham, such as the People's Alliance.
Some Durham residents have aired suspicions of Whitley's work with the People's Alliance, which is racially mixed. But Whitley said collaboration with other groups is key to accomplishing goals.
"There are plenty of committee members who are also members of the P.A.," Whitley said. "I don't think [critics] can find any record anywhere that I'm tearing down the black community."
Whitley also promises to be open with his members, making agendas, minutes and financial statements readily available. The availability of records to committee members has long been an issue, as has the political endorsements process.
Little has expressed suspicion over the committee's endorsements process, specifically in the city election last month. In recent years, the committee implemented new rules requiring that members of its political subcommittee attend at least one meeting per quarter to vote in endorsements. Although many participants, including Little and Cole-McFadden, said they believed they had sufficient attendance to vote, they were not permitted to do so. The rule left just 10 people on the political subcommittee to recommend a slate of candidates to the committee's general membership, which would then approve or overrule the choices.
After the election, Allison said she would supply the rules to Little if he made a formal request. Little e-mailed Allison a letter but has received no response: "No phone call, no e-mail ... no smoke signals. Nothing," he said.
The committee also came under fire for its endorsements in 2008, when it backed only male candidates for the Board of County Commissioners, and in 2003, when its members initially supported Diane Catotti for a City Council seat but changed its endorsement to Republican Thomas Stith.
Such inconsistencies may erode the committee's clout, or even backfire, said Frank Hyman, a political observer and former city councilman.
"I would say that [the committee's] ability to turn out votes for candidates that have African-American support is still very good. But because they've made the political endorsement meetings less democratic, their endorsements have become more erratic and contrary to the interests to the average African-American voter," said Hyman, who managed the 2008 county commissioner campaign for Brenda Howerton. Howerton won without the committee's backing.
"These recent decisions could be dismantling some of the trust that African-American voters have had in the recommendations of the committee," Hyman said.
The committee might need to try harder to engage young professionals, beyond the recent creation of its stagnant page on Facebook. Little said he and Hughes are the only two active members of the group under age 40. Just last month, Little said, he invited five young professionals to a meeting, but his guests' preconceptions of committee infighting were confirmed when Wagstaff physically threatened Whitley, cussing at him inside the church where the meeting was held. The session ended abruptly, both Little and Whitley said. Wagstaff did not respond to requests from the Indy for comment.
More than 100 people are expected to turn out for the election, as the organization's constitution allows any African-American resident of Durham County to attend and vote.
In addition to Whitley and Allison, longtime committee member Keith Corbett said early this week he is considering running for chairman. Corbett, executive vice president at the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending, was an officer in the committee but left years ago to avoid working under Allison, he said.
Although Corbett, Little and others have been outspoken on the state of the committee and their concerns for its future, most members have appeared to observe the historic privacy of the organization. But on Thursday, provided the shield of an anonymous voting process, members of the committee may give a bolder representation of their true feelings.