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Duke Vigil reunion: A tribute to Oliver Harvey

One chilly early morning in 1964 when I was an undergraduate at Duke University, a friend and I made our way across campus to find Oliver Harvey, a janitor on the night shift who had been involved in the black freedom movement in Durham since the 1940s. 

Harvey explained to us why nonacademic employees like maids and janitors needed a union, but I didn’t need convincing—the maid who cleaned my room was paid something like 50 cents an hour. I also constantly saw her slighted by the college students on the hall of my dorm, reflecting affluent backgrounds unaware of racial indignities.

Harvey asked us if students from the Duke chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, which I had helped to organize, would back the workers’ effort to affiliate with Local 77 of the American Association of State, County, and Municipal Employees. We did. 

Over the next several years, a growing number of students became active in support of the unionization campaign, and we organized a group called “Friends of Local 77.” Highly charged discussions and debates about nonacademic employees and the union spilled out of classrooms into countless conversations. 

The organizing generated a myriad of “free spaces” across the campus. The year after I left Duke—1968—more than 1,000 students staged a Silent Vigil to support the union. The following year, university trustees chose a new president, Terry Sanford, who recognized Local 77. I don’t think there are longitudinal studies of our cohort of students, but I am certain that the organizing effort shaped our education and view of the world in profound ways. My own lessons included learning about what makes for great teaching. 

Oliver Harvey, invisible according to the customary credentials at Duke, was my civics teacher in public work. He played a similar role for many others. Harvey taught me about union organizing among white and black tobacco and textile workers in Durham in the 1930s. He told me about a campaign in Texas he had been involved in against the poll tax used to keep poor whites as well as blacks off the voting rolls. I learned from him about the rich blues tradition of the city.

Most important, he taught me about everyday politics. Such politics are not about trying to get other people to agree with you or do what you want. They begin with understanding where people come from and the public possibilities stored even within one’s enemies. 

This is what I have come to call “public love” in the tradition of Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence. In practice, this meant that the language of the organizing campaign of the maids and janitors was framed by deepening the public purpose of their work, enabling them better to contribute to Duke University. 

Indeed, nonacademic employees often championed the purpose more eloquently than faculty and students, as Harvey’s comments in a debate with an anti-union faculty member in 1966, illustrate. He challenged the grievance procedure created by the administration, called the “Proudfoot” system, because he felt it was stacked against the maids and janitors.

But he ended with an eloquent statement of nonacademic employees’ aspirations to contribute: 

“Each authority that these maids will face along the road of the grievance procedure knows that the authority above him wants the Proudfoot system to work… No one along the line of authority that we must travel can possibly be unbiased when listening to our complaints. Until there is neutral arbitration of these grievances...[we] have no job security, no dignity, no chance of becoming employees who share in the goal to make this a great and quality institution.”

This is a lesson in nonviolent citizen politics that I have never forgotten. 

Drawn from Prospect Park United Methodist Church Lenten Devotional, 2018. I also tell the story of Oliver and the Duke organizing in Boyte et al, Awakening Democracy through Public Work: Pedagogies of Empowerment (Vanderbilt University Press, forthcoming 2018).

Harry Boyte (Trinity ’67) is the Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University and Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. The Boyte Family Papers are housed at the Duke Archives.

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