When Charmaine Fuller Cooper opens the files on her desk, the words she finds inside sear like a slap across the face. Promiscuous. Unattractive. Imbecile. She imagines how the people whose names are printed on these medical records would feel if they read what others thought of them.
For decades, doctors, teachers and social workers in North Carolina used the derogatory descriptors as justifications to strip the victims of their ability to have children, with the ultimate goal of ridding the human race of the undesirable. By the time the state's eugenics program ended in 1974, an estimated 7,600 women and men had been forcibly sterilized.
"How do you say, 'I'm sorry that nobody stood up for you'?" says Fuller Cooper, executive director of the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which is working to get compensation and other help for an estimated 3,000 living victims.
It's often Fuller Cooper, 31, who answers the phone when someone calls the state's hotline for victims of forced sterilization. Some callers aren't sure what happened to them, or to a deceased relative who couldn't have children. They want Fuller Cooper to check confidential state medical records for the name. Others already know what occurred and remember it well—the smell of the procedure room, whether it was stifling or chilly, and the name of the doctor. When she answers their calls, Fuller Cooper affirms their pain. When they cry, she cries, too.
Their anger is justified, she says. "They want answers."
It's Fuller Cooper's job to help find them. But it's also her passion—like many other challenges she's taken on, from campus elections when she was a student at N.C. Central University to the monumental social issues facing our state.
Before working for sterilization victims, Fuller Cooper spent three years advancing the Racial Justice Act, a controversial law that allows convicted killers to use statistics to prove racial bias impacted their cases. Inmates with successful cases would be allowed to serve life in prison without parole instead of being put to death.
As an advocate with the nonprofit Carolina Justice Policy Center, Fuller Cooper advanced the RJA and other causes by lobbying state lawmakers, a formidable task she began as a 24-year-old. She took to the halls as a woman of color from Henderson, the daughter of a health professional and a long-distance truck driver. She didn't come from a political pedigree. She was from a rural town. She wondered whether anyone would take her seriously, she says. But many say they were impressed with her savvy.
"I don't know that [the Racial Justice Act] would have ever got the legs it did without the groundwork she has done on the issue," says state Sen. Doug Berger, a Democrat from Youngsville. "She's pretty tenacious."
Berger is a former assistant district attorney who helped the RJA become law in 2009. Like most prosecutors, he initially didn't support the legislation, but he was persuaded after long negotiations with Fuller Cooper.
It was her honesty and open-mindedness that helped the dialogue, Berger says. "She solicited my input in a sincere way," he says. "To be an effective advocate, you have to be able to understand the other side and the folks that may oppose you. If you have that ability, they you're in a better position to find common ground."
She's a natural, says Courtney Crowder, legislative director for Gov. Bev Perdue. Crowder met Fuller Cooper when they both studied at NCCU. Persuading people on matters as socially complex as the death penalty, racism and personal freedoms is tricky work.
"That's a delicate process that it normally would take a professional years to master," Crowder says. "And she seems to have it innately. I think part of that is because her heart is in the right place."
Fuller Cooper's high school classmates say there was no "Most Likely to Succeed" ranking in the yearbook for Northern Vance High School's Class of 1998. But if there were, a cousin says, you can imagine Fuller Cooper's bright white smile would have taken up the page. She was on the honor roll and spent two years atop a step stool on the sideline of the football field, directing the marching band as its drum major. She was leader, but a humble one. If someone was "out of line," she says, the entire band had to huff-and-puff through laps, including the drum major.
Fuller Cooper received a scholarship to NCCU, which prompted her parents to buy her a two-door, hunter-green Monte Carlo. She drove it into the ground during and after college, most often carrying herself and her friends to volunteer, observe or protest.
"We've stood outside of prisons, protesting the death penalty. We've slept outside to raise awareness for homelessness," college roommate Courtney Brown-McFadden recalls.
"I think the beautiful thing about Charmaine is her passion is contagious," Brown-McFadden says. "So whether or not it's your cause, you end up adopting her cause because you want to help Charmaine."
Fuller Cooper's first experience working with state lawmakers was a happy accident. Brown-McFadden saw a notice about an internship with state Sen. Jeanne Lucas of Durham at the NCCU career center and brought the paper home to Fuller Cooper. At the time, Fuller Cooper knew little about eugenics. But in her year-long internship at the Legislature with Lucas, who has since passed away, she learned of the horrors of North Carolina's 45-year program.
"I had no clue what she was talking about," Fuller Cooper says. "It took me a matter of years to grasp the concept of what actually happened to people."
Now, with Fuller Cooper's encouragement, several living victims have come forward in the past year to tell a state task force what it meant to be forcibly sterilized. Some of the victims were children. Several were women who had been raped, even by family mem bers, and were sterilized after they became pregnant. The tales Fuller Cooper hears from callers and reads in the confidential state medical records are unimaginable, she says.
"I have to be sure I can see through that lens of anger and frustration and sadness to make sure that we get to the finish line," Fuller Cooper says.
Last week, the task force announced it would ask Gov. Perdue to fund services for living victims and award them with lump-sum payments of $50,000 per person. Perdue is expected to address the recommendations in her budget this spring.
Fuller Cooper often reflects on her experiences as a grassroots organizer, zigzagging across the state with pamphlets and posters about the RJA strewn across the backseat of her Monte Carlo. She ponders how she can be the most effective social activist, whether that's in the community or behind a desk in state government. It appears that, right now, she's exactly where she's needed.