Today in our “August 1963” series looking back at North Carolina at the time of the March on Washington, we meet Howard Clement. Howard, as his friends say, is one of the few people in Durham everyone knows simply by his first name. He first moved to Durham in 1961, shortly after finishing law school, to work as an attorney for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.
My name is Howard Clement. I had the privilege of participating in the March on Washington, August 28th, 1963.
There were seven people separating my body from Martin Luther King as he mounted the platform to give his “I Have a Dream” speech. And that was a thrill—just sent thrills through my being.
I was the only representative from North Carolina Mutual in Durham that participated in the March on Washington. And, of course, that caused me great concern. The next morning I got up and dictated a letter to Mr. Spaulding, A.T. Spaulding, who was my boss—signed my paycheck—and questioned, why wasn’t he there? Why weren’t other officials from North Carolina Mutual at the march? And Mr. Spaulding, he was very unhappy with my letter, and that sort of sealed my fate at North Carolina Mutual.
I remember telling Mr. Goodloe, who followed Mr. Spaulding as president, I said, “Mr. Goodloe, I’m not leaving this company. You gonna fire me.” And, of course, I had to add a phrase that I wish I hadn’t. I said, “I dare you.” And I pointed my finger at him. He said, “Who are you pointing your finger at?” I said, “Who does it look like, Mr. Goodloe?”
You know, experience is a wonderful teacher. And, see, my father was involved in civil rights. He was a state president of the South Carolina branch of the NAACP. He was state president for years. But a lot of my colleagues, and employees, not having the benefit of that kind of experience—it was just a matter of course. You would be frightened, too, if you didn’t have the kind of background and training that I had through the leadership of my father, in particular. That gave me strength and wisdom, yes, to do what we had to do.
But I was determined that I was not going to allow them to dictate my conduct. And as long as I felt that what I was doing was right, on principle, I was going to adhere to what I had set out to do. And while I never achieved a growing status at North Carolina Mutual, I had—in my mind—I had nothing to apologize for.
Howard Clement was active in civil rights demonstrations throughout the 1960s, facing arrest three times as a result of his participation. He spent his career at North Carolina Mutual, the oldest and largest African American life insurance company in the United States, and first joined the Durham City Council in 1983. He will complete his 30th and final year as a councilmember this fall.