The Rev. Melvin Whitley has received dozens of condolences since his attempt last week to unseat Lavonia Allison as chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, a historic and influential all-black activist organization. Many of the callers have said the same thing: If you can't beat 'em, start your own group.
But Whitley said this week he's resisting pressure to launch his own organization and will focus on working within the committee, which is almost 75 years old.
"I announced myself as a candidate to lead because I wanted to bring the Durham committee back to a place of respect and integrity," Whitley said. He has requested a meeting with Allison and the other newly elected leaders of the committee to establish some of the goals he outlined in his candidacy, he said. Whitley wants to improve record keeping and make agendas, meeting minutes and treasurer's reports readily available to members who want to see them.
Many of those documents aren't accessible, which was one of the many complaints several Durham leaders mentioned last week when backing Whitley over Allison. But the overarching sentiment, circulated in e-mails and newspaper columns in the weeks leading up to the election, is that many Durham leaders believe Allison's better days are behind her—that despite her history of work on issues such as civil rights and equality in education, she is a divisive leader who is controlling instead of collaborative. It's time to move on, they said.
Despite the efforts of many people, including City Council members Cora Cole-McFadden and Howard Clement, to elect a new member to lead the committee, Allison won her seventh term as chairwoman.
Although more than 200 people showed up to White Rock Baptist Church to vote, only 18 voted, due to an attendance rule many said they felt was incorrect, unfair or both. The result was a 15-to-3 finish in favor of Allison, who declined to make a comment to the Indy after her victory.
Most attendants said they had heard of previous voting rules that only required participants in the election of a chairperson to be a black resident of Durham. But Democratic state Sen. Floyd McKissick explained that to vote, members had to be considered "active," attending a certain number of meetings per quarter of the calendar year. The rule, which McKissick said was instituted in 2004, precluded him from voting for a chairperson, even though he had attended 90 percent of the committee's meeting this year, he said.
Several people contested the attendance requirement, saying it applied only to members of the political subcommittee, who vote in endorsements of political candidates.
Media was not allowed into the meeting to view the proceedings. But according to Whitley, when Allison announced the rules, several members asked for proof that the rule was implemented and applied to the election of a committee chair. No documentation could be provided, Whitley said.
Once it became clear to participants that the attendance rule was being enforced, many began streaming out of the room, shaking their heads.
"There's a new time and a new day for everything," one man said to reporters as he walked hurriedly from the meeting. "It's not today."
McKissick said he sees the reason for limiting who can vote, but that the attendance requirement seemed excessive.
"I think perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, becoming more restrictive than necessary," he said.
The election of the committee chair, held every two years, was seen as a turning point for the organization, with its record of civil rights engagement and political activism. Many local leaders have come out in recent weeks to criticize the state of the committee, in part pointing to the endorsement of the less experienced Donald Hughes over two-term incumbent Cole-McFadden in last month's election.
Allison's supporters said last week they were pleased to see her re-elected.
"I think she's worked very hard," said Elaine Cardin, an Allison supporter who wasn't allowed to vote in the election. "When she's ready to get down, she should go on. I don't think she should be forced out of anything."
Shea Neville, 38, said he also supports Allison, despite not being allowed to vote.
"She's got the energy to do the work," he said. "She's really resourceful. She's in contact with people in key positions."
He added that the only change he'd like to see is more engagement from residents under the age of 45.
"We have to take over at some point. Somebody has to step up," he said.
Whitley supporters, including Cole-McFadden, said that change could still be possible but it would take longer.
People came out in droves because they were interested in the committee, Cole-McFadden said, and she thinks they'll be compelled to attend more meetings for a chance to vote in a future election.
"They will be back. I think they are just that committed," she said. "And as Dr. Allison said during the endorsements, a change is needed."
Clement stood beside Cole-McFadden after the meeting and added: "We lost the battle, but the war continues."