Dr. Howard Croft, DC Statehood advocate, professor and chair of urban studies at UDC and longtime member of Metro DC DSA from its earliest days, has died. Members and activists who have long memories of his tireless work for empowerment of all residents of the District of Columbia contribute their recollections....
“I am very sad. Howard was a friend for many years. In the fall of 2016, we collaborated with two other delegates to the historic Statehood Convention of 1982, organizing to confront the facade of a statehood convention convened by the Mayor and the rest of the 5 member Statehood Commission. The House bill for DC Statehood that is likely to pass on Friday, June 26, has the provision we fought for, passed by the Council in October 2016 requiring a real delegated Constitutional Convention no more than 2 years after becoming a state.
[That] likely passage of the DC Statehood bill in the House on June 26 will surely be in large part a result of Howard’s tireless efforts for DC Statehood, starting with his role in creating the visionary Constitution passed by voters in 1982 on the same ballot with the Nuclear Weapons Freeze.”
“I recall talking with Howard in 1992. The year sticks out for a reason: it was the 25th anniversary of the March on the Pentagon, a key event in the burgeoning movement against the war in Vietnam. Howard remarked that there should be a large-scale celebration of the action because people need to remember the horror of the war and the anti-war struggle that helped end it, and that we need to memorialize our own history. He then talked about the march in a way that made it clear that he had been there at that confrontation with the power of the US military, though he had to be prodded to talk about that. Modest about his own role in the struggles of the day, Howard preferred talking about others, not about himself. But he played an outsized role in countless arenas in the work to make this a better world – and his part in the history of the movement for social justice is a history we ought to recall and remember.
Howard joined DSA at the time of our founding in 1982. Raised in Harrisburg and later going to school in Pittsburgh, Howard and his family members experienced racism, experienced the injustices of working-class life, as a matter of course. Thus his lifelong commitment to racial justice and to economic justices as independent but intimately connected struggles was part of Howard’s outlook from the beginning and led him to his lifelong commitment to socialism.
As a DSA member, Howard was primarily engaged on urban issues – he was a delegate to the Statehood Convention in 1982, was a strong supporter of rent control, of housing the homeless, of the need to build and maintain low-income housing. He challenged District and federal budgets that failed to meet the needs of working people and the poor, he advocated resetting tax policy so that it would fall on the wealthy and business instead of on working people.
During the 1970s and thereafter, Howard worked closely with fellow SNCC veterans John Wilson, Lawrence Guyot, Ivanhoe Donaldson and Marion Barry who played key roles in District government from the moment Home Rule was won. He respected them, understood their ties to the community, shared a history of struggle – yet he was never hesitant to criticize or challenge one or the other when he believed an old friend was abandoning the needs of those without, or taking an opportunist path. That too defined his relationship with Hilda Mason, DC Council member at large (Statehood Party member and DSA National Vice Chair) and with Dave Clarke, one-time City Council Chair whom DSA consistently supported. Howard understood the importance of holding office, understood the need for compromise – but he never compromised on principle, he never gave up his ties to the community or the independence of an activist. And, unlike too many, the enticements of power never held an attraction for Howard.
For a number of years, Howard served on the DC parole board. And from that position, he stood out as a strong advocate of prisoner rights and an uncompromising opponent of mass incarceration. He foresaw the devastating consequences the so-called war on drugs and militarized policing would have on the African American community, at a time when too many others were willing to go along with “tough on crime” policing. The connecting link in his local activism was DC statehood – but not the statehood of today’s gentrifiers, developers, business owners and bankers. For Howard, DC Statehood was about ending Black disenfranchisement, ending poverty and homelessness, it was about strengthening labor and workers rights, expanding social services, health care, education. That was his program when he ran for DC City Council for Ward 6 in 1997.
A consummate organizer – because he knew how to listen, because he had empathy and compassion – Howard brought those skills to his teaching at the Urban Affairs Department at UDC (eventually serving as Department Chair). And let’s not forget – he was a unionist, having worked for or with many unions in DC and nationally – his last position before retiring was as Assistant Director, SEIU Long Term Care Division. And as that position should serve to remind, Howard’s vision, though rooted in DC, was national and global – he was deeply influenced by Olaf Palme’s Social Democratic government in Sweden, Michael Manley’s attempt to forge a path of independent development in Jamaica. He supported third world revolutionary initiatives such as those of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Fidel in Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Maurice Bishop in Grenada. He was deeply engaged in the fight against South African apartheid, against US covert wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, against our imperial wars in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan. Influenced by Frances Fox Piven, with whom he studied, he was an active supporter of the National Welfare Rights Organization and, decades later he was a supporter of the Rainbow and Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Howard even served one term on DSA’s national political committee (that our friendship survived the fact that I was the one who persuaded HIM to run for the NPC, says a great deal about his character).
And his character should not be forgotten – he was a caring person, all of us who experienced his friendship feel that now. No one who saw him with his wife Cynthia, heard him talk about his daughter, Helima (which he would do at the drop of a hat), could doubt the love he shared.
Howard always fought against racism, against health care disparities, against the lack of public health facilities in Anacostia as across our nation. That he died of COVID-19 serves as a reminder of the need to continue to organize to end the multiple evils that afflict our society in the here and now.
Expansive in his view of the world and the struggle to bring about radical change, nuanced and humane in his understanding of individuals, he will not be forgotten. Howard Croft presente!
Howard was such a vibrant figure that these words are very hard to write. I don’t think I’ve seen him since I left DC for Maine in 2002, yet I recall him vividly and his death hit hard. I think he left that impression with everyone he spent any time with. A political activist, champion of statehood, intellectual, educator, and jazz devoté, he led a life centered around achieving racial justice, social justice, even as he knew, as most of us do, that we aren’t going to get there anytime soon. For every two steps forward, you hope it is only one step back. Howard tackled that struggle with zest. A man of varied interests, he made being socialist cool. Committed to the movement broadly defined, he was forgiving of his white allies. As one of those, I feel awkward, to say the least, commenting on his personal identity, but to me he navigated the world with an unwavering commitment to African American solidarity, yet with a generosity that never shut anyone out. Back when, I was in attendance at a DSA meeting where we considered whether or not to endorse Marion Barry’s reelection to a second (or third?) term. The discussion listed the many ways we thought Barry had fallen short of being worthy of our blessing. It was a rather large meeting, so the list was long. Also rather white, so the context was narrow. Howard lit it into us, recounting Barry’s days in the movement of the Deep South, routinely risking his life, and the meaning of his initial victory to what a socialist would have called the black masses of the city. There was dead silence. I’m not sure what impelled me but with some audacity, as I look back, I tried to break the tension. “But Howard, what has he done for us lately?” Another few tense seconds. A broad grin enveloped his face. Everyone else laughed with some relief. His points made, he continued to engage; my interjection was accepted with grace, luckily for me.
Howard had an impact on so many fronts, and I barely know the half of it. Probably only a fraction. I try to focus on my memories of him and not be consumed by my bitterness over the criminal mishandling of this epidemic and the deep wounds it has inflicted, most obviously on black and brown people. To lose Howard in this particular way is especially devastating. But a luta continua. Howard Croft, presente!
It is ironic that D.C. Statehood is before Congress for a vote while we mourn the passing of a fierce statehood advocate, Howard Croft. Howard was an elected delegate to the D.C. Statehood Constitutional Convention of 1982 and remained committed to that cause his whole life.
I knew Howard as a fellow member of DSOC and later DC/Md/No.Va. DSA probably starting in the late 1970’s. A veteran of local politics and the civil rights movement, he had worked with many of those activists like Marion Barry who became the political leadership of Washington, D.C. While he actively campaigned for and supported elected officials like Concilmember (and DSAer) Hilda Mason and Council Chairman Dave Clarke on critical issues such as rent control, healthcare and education, he always retained his independence and did not compromise his core principles.
During the contentious D.C. Statehood Constitutional Convention, Howard, a delegate from Ward 6, acted as bridge between the factions. He knew the city’s elected leadership but he also had deep ties with community activists and with members of progressive organizations like DSA and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. With other members of the convention’s “Left Caucus”, Howard strategized to create a progressive document. The resulting constitution spoke to the needs of working class people, the disadvantaged and the marginalized and he had a major role in both crafting and adopting it.
Howard was a generous friend, always willing to give advice, engage in discussion and share a meal and drink. In particular, he had a full-throated laugh, often at his own expense.
Howard had a full resume- professor/chairman of Urban Studies at UDC, parole board member, labor organizer- but to me and many others he was above all a valued friend and comrade who will be missed.
Howard Croft’s untimely death from COVID-19 robs DSA and the local left of one of our most effective and knowledgeable activists, one with deep roots in DC politics and the progressive community. He was generous with his time in sharing his experiences in local politics, labor and racial-justice work to help DSA function more effectively. I last saw him at a DSA salon in the fall of 2016 when he shared his memories of working with DC political leaders and social activists such as Marion Barry, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Josephine Butler, Richard Rausch and Lawrence Guyot. During the talk he said that the DC left in the 1960s and 1970s was “ecumenical” in that it united activists from a wide variety of backgrounds and movements, noting that his philosophy as a DSA activist was to “have no enemies on the left.” That was the philosophy he lived by – to bring people together around the common goal of social change. We will miss him, but his memory and example live on.
The death of Howard Croft has affected me deeply, just as his life did. It has now brutally “hit home” how difficult it is to grieve in this pandemic when we cannot be together to share memories. I write this to share the profound impact of his life on me, both politically and personally.
I became friends with Howard mainly through Ward 6 (Capitol Hill) DSOC/DSA, a tight knit group of “parlor socialists” and activists who met in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Joel C., Cindy P., Rick R., Richard R., and a few others. Our discussions ranged the gamut, including Howard’s theory about baseball and socialism (which I admittedly never quite understood!). I worked diligently on his successful campaign for Statehood Convention delegate, in fact my boyfriend at the time did much of his publicity.
But it was not just the political that drew me to Howard. It was in the personal arena where my affection for and gratitude to him grew. During a difficult period in my life, as a new single parent no longer living on the Hill, I became politically disconnected from DSA. (In those days, it was verboten to bring a young child to a meeting.) For some reason, Howard threw me a lifeline. We spoke frequently on the telephone, sometimes for more than an hour at a time, about all sorts of things, mostly about racism…
I came to DC after 10 years at a university, where I studied what was called “minority relations” and Black studies, as much as one could in a racist southern university. Because of this, I arrogantly considered myself to be “woke.” But I knew nothing. What I learned came largely from Howard, who generously shared through his personal experiences and knowledge that which I could never learn from books.
From Howard, I learned about the toll that racism takes on Black people in general and Howard’s personal struggles as a Black man. Ever the professor, he taught me about the history of the civil rights movement, labor history, DC history and current DC politics.
I also learned what it literally meant to “burst with pride” about your children as he recounted many stories of his daughter Helima’s life during that period. I learned what friendship means when you are in need and someone as busy and important as Howard reaches out to you.
On a recent Socialist Heritage Caucus call, I recalled a conversation with Howard, not knowing that he had died. The conversation with him had to do with why there were so few Black people in DSA when DC was a majority Black city with lots of progressive activity. We discussed the question of why white people often want people of color to join “their” organizations yet rarely join organizations that are led by people of color. Conversations like this are at the core of why I have pushed for an explicitly Black anti-racism focus in DSA.
Over the years, Howard and I lost touch, as happens in life, but I was lucky enough to see him once or twice at Kurt and Lisa’s. We never spoke about that period of our phone relationship and my feelings about his importance to me. I sadly learned this week that I need to let people know how meaningful they are to me before it is too late. There is something that Jews often say when people die: ”may ‘his’ memory be a blessing.” My conversations with Howard will always remain in the forefront of my mind as I continue to engage as a white person fighting anti-Black racism, now working largely within Black led organizations.