A fond farewell to Clement

Dec. 01, 2013 @ 05:37 PM

A remarkable political career will come to a close tonight at Durham’s City Hall. When a new council takes office, it will be the first time in 30 ½ years that Howard Clement will not take a seat at the council table. 

Clement was first appointed to the council in May 1983, when Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president. Sally Ride would soon become the first U. S. woman in space. The compact disc was the new thing in music, doing to vinyl records what by today MP3s and streaming music have done to the CD.

Three months earlier, 125 million Americans had tuned in to the final episode of M*A*S*H.

Clement has weathered enormous changes, obviously, in his public career. He took office as downtown was nearing the grimmest depths of its decline. Today, its renaissance is one of the great central-city comebacks in the state and region. Clement has had a consistent hand in that revival.

Clement’s role in shaping today’s Durham began well before his appointment to the council in 1981 (he was first elected in his own right in the fall of 1985). Almost upon his arrival in the city in the 1960s, he figured in the civil rights movement upending the long-standing legal and social structure that barred African Americans from many businesses and from full participation in political and civic life.

Although he has acknowledged being cautioned against being seen as a trouble-maker, he helped to organize a 1968 boycott of white-owned businesses in what became a successful effort to win more rights for black citizens and a commitment to hiring more in a broader range of positions.

But Clement could hardly be pigeon-holed in his involvement in civic and political parties. He has tacked in his partisan identification, leaving the Republican Party in 2006 and eventually registering as a Democrat in 2010 after supporting Barack Obama’s election as president.

“What didn’t change was his core principles,” however, fellow Councilman Steve Schewel told The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg. 

And Ken Spaulding, who defeated Clement for a State House seat in 1978, praised Clement’s ability to combine advocacy for civil rights with advocacy for business. “He was very much interested in seeing [that] there was full participation by everyone in the development of the community and the development process,” Spaulding told Gronberg.

Clement’s departure from the council and retreat from active civic participation – poor health has kept him from many council meetings and public events in recent months – also marks another chapter in the departure from the scene of a generation that helped bring the civil rights movement to success, a generation that vividly remembers and can remind younger generations of the humiliation and inequity of segregation.

Tonight, we’re sure Clement’s public life will be celebrated and his contributions honored. That is as it should be, as a major presence in our community for decades takes a final bow.