More than 2,000 people marched on the state capitol earlier this month during Historic Thousands on Jones Street, an event sponsored by the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Among them was Fred Foster, who was sworn in as president of the Durham branch of the NAACP at the end of last year.
The Durham branch has seen its share of turmoil in recent years. Former President Joe Bowser was forced to vacate his position after distributing fliers on Election Day 2004 that advocated a specific roster of candidates. A Durham resident since 1979, Foster has spent many years in local politics—he is also treasurer of the Durham Democratic Party—but many see his leadership as a chance for the organization to make a fresh start.
Have you ever run for office?
I ran for Durham County Commissioner in 2000, and I got killed, but out of that came the Durham Voter Coalition. Melvin Whitley, who is another community activist here and an old classmate of mine, came by my office one day and said, "What enticed you to run for office?" I said, "I was just sick and tired of none of the local people who were part of the community running." And he said, "With $110 and no campaign manager, you got 4,500 votes? Well, the next time you want to run, let's get together."
But we looked at the numbers again and decided instead we would start a nonprofit to get out and educate folks about the candidates. The Durham Voter Coalition has put on several candidate forums, from 2001 to 2004, every major election for the mayor or county commissioner or sheriff, district attorney. And we started Souls to the Polls—we partnered with the funeral homes, and every year the funeral home drivers take people in their limousines so they don't have any reason not to go.
What do you want to accomplish at the NAACP?
The national position is they want to do more outreach as far as membership is concerned, so that's always our main focus. But along with that, we've got to target our youth. We're kicking off a youth council on Feb. 24 at the main library. I've also tried to re-energize the Duke chapter and the NCCU chapter, and we're going to be working with the middle schools and the high schools.
I'm really excited about the prison ministry we've put together, bringing felons and people who have been in prison back into mainstream society. We think we're going to get 70,000 registered in Durham, and if we can get that many back on the books, that can make a huge difference. But our key focus is get 'em before they get in trouble.
How do you plan to do that?
I've been talking to the principals of the high schools who say they have so many bright kids there who, for whatever reason, are losing their way, dropping out. They just don't think there's anything for them. We've got to let them know that someone out there is watching and pulling for you to make it. I have to get approval from national before I can go ahead, but I want to start a scholarship program on the local level and target those young men and women who don't have the financial support or emotional support or community support to go to the next level.
When people talk about Durham, they often talk about its image problem. Is that something you're concerned about?
We shouldn't even deal with image. The image will take care of itself, because there's enwough things going on dealing with crime, the dropout rate, education. But there's a lot of positive things, too. The community has held together under a lot of difficult circumstances. We're not going to be divided over any issue.
The NAACP's next meeting is at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25 at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 2620 E. Weaver St., Durham.