As you might expect, A.J. Howard Clement III has mixed emotions about retiring from the Durham City Council.
“But I know it’s the right thing,” he said, “to allow for me to ease out of the picture and make way for some new blood.”
Monday night, Clement is easing out of a picture he has occupied for more than 30 consecutive years as a City Council member. Eddie Davis, who won the Ward 2 seat in November, will be sworn in and Clement will leave public office as the longest-serving council member in Durham’s history, and a figure in its civic life for even longer.
“He served as an elder in the village,” said former City Councilman Farad Ali. “He had the institutional knowledge to remind us where we had been and where we could go.”
Clement, 79, has Parkinson’s disease, and his condition led to his decision to not for re-election this year after winning election seven times.
“The citizens of Durham must have thought I was doing a good job,” Clement said.
“He loved being on the council,” said Mayor Bill Bell. “It’s just unfortunate his illness prevented him from being more involved this last year or so.”
Clement described his council experiences “very humbling and certainly pleasurable.”
He was appointed to the council in May 1983, to serve out the term of resigned Councilman Maceo Sloan, and won his first full term two years later. Downtown revitalization was a top concern at the time.
“I remember when the hotel, it’s now the Marriott, was built, one of the first big (recent) buildings, commercial, in downtown,” he said. “Then of course there was the ballpark, Durham Bulls Athletic Park; and there was the American Tobacco campus, there was DPAC, a very very successful endeavor that the city got involved in.
“Being a part of that process was really a privilege and a pleasure”
Clement’s first experience with downtown Durham was not pleasant. In March 1961, he arrived from his hometown of Charleston, S.C., to be a legal assistant at N.C. Mutual Life Insurance. Not wanting to live with relatives, he went to the Jack Tar Hotel, a 16-story landmark at what is now CCB Plaza.
He was told he couldn’t stay there, because he was black.
“That was a shock to me,” Clement recalled. “I shouldn’t have been surprised, but certainly ... that was a catalyst.”
The experience sparked Clement’s joining the civil-rights movement, despite some discouragement from his image-sensitive employer.
In August 1963, Clement was among the 100,000-plus in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington – the only N.C. Mutual employee there, he said.
He met King and, two years later, was invited to join King’s Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama. When the Mutual executives learned he planned to go, they sent him to California for three months to deal with some legal difficulties at the Los Angeles office.
Nevertheless, “During the movement time, Howard was very instrumental,” said state Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux. Clement took part in sit-ins and helped organize marches. He led a boycott of Durham merchants that, among other things, led city leaders to create the Human Relations Commission and saw a Black Christmas Parade through Hayti as a counterpoint to the traditional parade downtown.
“We took a strong stand against the way the public housing authority was being run,” Michaux recalled. He, Clement and several others encouraged tenants to pay their rent into an escrow fund, instead of to the Housing Authority, until some changes were made. Clement was the fund’s treasurer.
“We got in some trouble for that,” Michaux said.
‘An amount of friction’
Clement learned activism early on. His father, Arthur J.H. Clement, was head of the South Carolina NAACP and active in that state’s Progressive Democratic Party.
Arthur Clement took his son along to the 1948 Democratic Party convention – which saw South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond lead a walkout of segregationist “Dixiecrats,” and in 1950 Arthur Clement ran for Congress against segregationist L. Mendel Rivers – the first black South Carolinian to run for Congress as a Democrat.
Ironically enough, the elder Clement and Thurmond became close friends in later life, Howard Clement said, and in Durham the younger Clement cultivated relations with white power brokers as well as the movers and shakers he met through the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (now the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People).
In fact, it was a group of white City Council members who approached Clement about taking the vacant seat in 1983.
“I had more or less established a sense of independence, and the white folks appreciated it,” Clement said.
In 1974, Michaux was appointed a federal attorney and left his seat in the state House. Then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Clement to serve out Michaux’s term, over candidates the Committee preferred.
“That created an amount of friction,” Clement said, which was aggravated when the City Council picked Clement over a Committee choice.
“We worked all through that, but it took six elections before the Durham Committee would endorse Howard Clement for staying on the council,” he said
“He’s been highly controversial over the years,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, who served on the City Council with Clement for eight years in the 1990s.
“He’s been on the political ins and political outs over the years, but he always managed to dodge the bullet,” McKissick said. “He had the ability to bend and change over time and endure political turbulence in our community. …
“It says a lot about his fortitude.”
Clement said one of his most memorable City Council episodes came in the late ’90s when several black members of what was then a 13-member council pushed for, and won, a 35-percent increase in council salaries.
“I led the fight against the salary increase, and that did not endear me to that element of the council that was pushing for it,” he said. Two of the raise supporters even asked him to resign.
“They thought I was too old and out of step with the black community,” Clement said. He refused the request, and eventually the council rescinded the increase, but the issue galvanized public sentiment to cut the council down to size – from 13 to the current seven members.
Clement doesn’t drive, due to epilepsy resulting from a childhood skull fracture. He has depended on others to get him from place to place.
“People were very gracious,” he said. “They wanted to get me to the meetings, particularly those who wanted me to support what they were interested in.”
In 1997, Clement established the Durham Crime Cabinet along with County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow and attorney Patrick Byker. At the cabinet’s November meeting, Byker called him “a Durham treasure,” and state Sen. Mike Woodard – another former Clement colleague on the City Council – called him “a trailblazer, a pioneer and a champion in so many areas.”
Clement said he has been following recent controversies – the city-county dispute over planning department funding and allegations of racism in the police department. But only following them.
“I told folks I’m not taking any side on anything, I’m getting out of the way so you all can go ahead and do what you need to do with a minimum of interference from Howard Clement,” he said.
“I’ve had an opportunity to say what I want to say and I’m moving on. I think I deserve that kind of respite.”
Clement and his wife, Ann, went to Atlanta to spend Thanksgiving with family there, but he said they would be back in time for Monday night’s reception and swearing-in for the just-elected council members.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’ve got my 50-page speech, or I’m working on it.”