Numbers Are Power at Carolina Action

Black and white photo of people holding signs walking down a sidewalk

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 3, "Passing Glances." Find more from that issue here.

Two years ago, Jim Harrison worked as a research technician for a Greensboro, North Carolina, textile firm and held down two part-time jobs as well. He worked hard, trying to make a decent life for his wife and kids. But the bills kept piling up. 

Since then, Harrison’s life has changed a lot. He’s still the same soft-spoken Arkansas native, still trying to make life good for his family, still religious, and conservative about a lot of things, still works too hard and doesn’t get to stay home enough. And by day he has the same job at the textile company. 

But the two part-time jobs have been traded for a new one that doesn’t pay anywhere near as well, at least not in the sort of coin that Harrison can take to the bank. He calls it “selfish volunteer work.” Self-effacing as this might sound, it’s not a bad description of what he does. 

Harrison is the president of the state executive board of Carolina Action. And while other members of the North Carolina organization may not have as much responsibility as Harrison, their stories are very similar. Since 1974, when Carolina Action began, it has involved a lot of people who had never thought of spending willing hours doing things like marching with picket signs in front of the state Utilities Commission, staging protests at the state headquarters of one of the nation’s biggest automobile insurance companies and making speeches in front of city councils. 

In its first year, Carolina Action attracted about 350 dues-paying families in Durham, the first city in which it organized. Today, the organization thrives in four of North Carolina’s five major cities, with a membership of about 1,600 families paying annual dues of $10. The executive committee that Harrison presides over makes policy decisions for the entire organization and consists of representatives from 37 semiautonomous neighborhood chapters and 22 issue or action committees in the four counties now organized; like the membership as a whole, the board is roughly 60 percent white and 40 percent black. Other cities are begging Carolina Action to form chapters in their neighborhoods, and only the lack of funds keeps the organizing teams away. By the end of 1978, an affiliate, Georgia Action, will be firmly established in Atlanta, the organization’s first leap outside North Carolina. Given the discontent over utility rates, the price of car insurance and sluggish city governments unwilling to make neighborhood improvements, the possibilities for expansion appear limitless. 


Until two years ago, Braxton Jones made his living painting houses in Raleigh. It was the only job he had ever had; he left school at 15 to help his father. 

Today Jones, 50, is retired; he had a heart attack and can no longer climb a ladder. But bad health or not, Jones isn’t sitting around warming park benches and feeding pigeons. He, too, has gone to work in Carolina Action, spending the bulk of his labor fighting car insurance companies. 

When he talks about himself, Jones has a touch of amazement in his voice for, like Harrison, he had no experience with the work he’s in now. He, too, was a family man, busy with his painting and rearing five children. He worked hard, paid his bills and cussed the cost of living. 

But while he was recuperating from his heart attack, a canvasser from Carolina Action came by and knocked on the door one day. Jones took a liking to the young man right away — “He’s about my son’s age” — and liked what he heard about Carolina Action as well: “It was accomplishing things.” 

There were things that Jones and his neighbors could see, such as more street lights, stop signs and a victory which kept a threatened part of the neighborhood zoned residential. That was in the fall of 1977. Jones decided to join the ranks of Carolina Action himself, and since then he has helped fight a Southern Bell Telephone Co. rate hike request, tried to get cablevision in his part of town, lobbied city hall for parking signs and, most important, fought the insurance companies. Today, when Carolina Action issues a press release in Raleigh on its insurance battle, the release refers the reader to Braxton Jones for more information. He is president of his neighborhood organization (Caraleigh/ Fuller Heights Action), and a member of the Wake County committee working on the insurance campaign. 

As Jones sees it, the issue at stake in the insurance fight is the principle of fairness. “It don’t seem American to me to take a man’s money and put him in this high risk facility and not notify him or anything,” Jones says. 

The “high risk” or reinsurance facility is a pool authorized in 1973 by the state legislature. The state requires all car owners to buy liability insurance, and it requires insurance companies to write a policy for any owner who requests one. But a company can turn over to the facility as many policies as it wishes, for any reason. Today, about 30 percent of the state’s auto owners are insured through the facility — even though two-thirds of them have never filed a claim. It’s obvious that many good drivers are shoveled into the facility with the statistically “poor risk” cases. The problem, says Carolina Action, is that nobody knows whether they are in or out of the facility. 

The issue surfaced in 1977 when the insurance companies won approval for a rate hike for all drivers, plus an added surcharge on the bills of drivers in the reinsurance facility. The penalty for being in the pool thus greatly increased, but insurance companies still refused to tell people whether — or why — they were among the chosen many to suffer the extra consequences. 

That’s what got Jones and the rest of the members of Carolina Action teed off and that’s why they’re spending a lot of time browbeating insurance companies these days, exerting enough public pressure to make the companies squirm in the unflattering light of bad publicity. Automatic notification of reinsured drivers is Carolina Action’s first goal, and Allstate Insurance — the largest automobile insurer in the state - is its first target. 

Jones is optimistic about getting changes made. “We’ve got them under a lot of pressure. We’re already hurting them,” he says. Most recently, the fight has taken a turn in Carolina Action’s favor: Allstate replaced its former state director of public relations with a new man whose first official act was to announce his willingness to meet with Carolina Action. 

(Last minute update: In early June, 1978, Carolina Action won its first goal when Allstate and other insurance companies agreed to automatically notify policy holders if they are placed in the reinsurance pool. The organization applauded the victory — and immediately began pressuring the companies on their next demand: drivers should be told exactly why they are in the facility and should have a mechanism to appeal the decision.) 

Such victories may seem limited; however, it may help to reiterate that most members are not radical nor even liberal. They want only a fair shake for their money, and they are willing to fight for what they believe. “You’re not going to bust up a big insurance company, that’s for sure,” Jones says, “but something is going on behind some dark green doors that they don’t want to let out.” 

The low- to middle-income families who make up most of the membership roll of Carolina Action may not be asking for socialization of utilities or insurance companies, but they aren’t willing to play their part as members of the silent majority either. 


Joe Fish joined Carolina Action long before either Braxton Jones or Jim Harrison, having jumped in almost at the very beginning when he heard that the organization was gearing up to oppose a request for a rate hike from the Duke Power Company. “It was the first time I’d heard of somebody fighting a rate increase,” he recalls. 

A Durham native, 51 years old and employed by one of the nation’s largest computer firms as an electronics technician, Fish is a big man, tall and broad, and his size is underlined by his taste in clothes — leisure suits and tropical colored shirts. Even if his manner were not so determined, Fish would be impossible to ignore in a confrontation. 

But his grit and determination are mixed with an innate sense of courtesy and an unflagging sense of humor. When asked to describe how well Carolina Action gets along with the utilities companies it fights, he stops for a moment to consider the question, and then says in measured tones, “They watch us and watch their step accordingly. And we watch them.” Then he adds with a chuckle, “But I wouldn’t call it a good working relationship.” 

Actually, Carolina Action had its beginning fighting utilities. Back in 1974, in conjunction with the United Mine Workers’ strike at Duke Power’s coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, the original organizers for Carolina Action took some seed money, began canvassing neighborhoods and sponsored meetings for North Carolina ratepayers opposed to Duke Power’s fresh bid for a rate increase. Research showed that Duke made its customers pay over $1 million a month for coal from other mines so the company didn’t have to settle the strike in Harlan County. It also showed that residential customers were subsidizing the cheap electricity Duke sold to its industrial clients. After several weeks of publicity and organizing, ratepayers turned out by the hundreds at a series of night hearings Carolina Action forced the Utilities Commission to hold in cities across the state. It was a major achievement and instantaneously established Carolina Action as a force to reckon with. The Utilities Commission eventually sweetened the victory by putting the burden of Duke Power’s rate increase on the industrial customers instead of on the residential customers. 

Since those days, Carolina Action has been less successful in scoring big wins against the power companies. But they have kept up a steady campaign in the state legislature and at the Utilities Commission to get reforms which will hold down the price of electricity, especially for the amount needed to meet a home’s basic necessities. 

Joe Fish has been around long enough to know how to take the defeats with the victories. He has been a leader both at state and local levels, having served as president of his neighborhood chapter, the Durham executive board, the state executive board and currently as vice president of the Durham board. He believes you don’t stop fighting city hall just because you lose now and then. The Durham City Council, he says, “thinks we are a force to be dealt with. They asked our opinion on what to do with the Community Development money this year. Two years ago, we couldn’t even get on the agenda.” 

Fish recalls two particularly bitter losses in Durham. One involved a campaign to force the city and county governments to merge their operations under one new roof. Since both governments were planning to build new quarters, Carolina Action members reasoned that the governments might as well co-exist under one roof and save some tax money. The two sparkling municipal buildings in downtown Durham reserved for city and county are solid proof of a lost battle. 

When the city planned its third parking garage downtown, Carolina Action went to work again, this time to get an official referendum to see if the public wanted the garage. Although a recount later proved them right, Carolina Action’s petitioners were told after their deadline that they had not collected enough signatures to call for a referendum. Today, the third parking garage sits downtown, and if pigeons paid rent, the city budget would show a surplus. 

Despite the battles and the wrangling, city officials have generally good things to say about Carolina Action. Occasionally, an official will say that some members are hotheads, or that they sometimes come to meetings ill-prepared or misled by erroneous information. But mostly, Carolina Action draws praise, especially for its work for senior citizens, including reduced bus fares, drug prescription price posting and the work on lifeline electricity rates (lower rates for basic necessities). 

“They’re tenacious and they don’t let go,” said a Durham City Council member. “It’s hard to judge if we’d be working on condemnation of houses if Carolina Action hadn’t pushed us.” 

On at least one occasion, that tenaciousness got Carolina Action in real trouble. In May 1977, near the end of a campaign to get lifeline rates passed in the legislature, the organization published a newsletter listing opponents of the bill in the House Utilities Committee. The Committee had tied up the bill for almost three months, indicating someone, probably the chairman, hoped the bill would die a slow and peaceful death. Indeed, Rep. Hartwell Campbell, committee chairman, had shown no love for electrical rate reform in the past. But by listing Campbell and other committee members as opponents without even asking them how they intended to vote, Carolina Action snuffed out any hope that lifeline would get through that session. 

As soon as the news release came out, Campbell took the opportunity to publicly berate the group for trying to force action on the bill by embarrassing the committee. Carolina Action in fact gave the bill’s opponents the very ammunition they needed to dilute the legislation. 

Joe Fish is philosophical about such incidents. “Sometimes I think we came on too strong and sometimes not strong enough, ” he says, but on the whole, he thinks the group has learned “that you can get by with a little more demanding” than you might think at first. 

Citizen pressure is what the organization is all about. And the victories testify to its frequent effectiveness. In Durham, Carolina Action recently won a major battle, convincing the city council to use Community Development money to pay for street assessments in Community Development target areas. In Raleigh, organized citizens in the southern part of that city stopped an expressway in its tracks and kept their neighborhoods intact. Greensboro is on the verge of winning a Homeowners Bill of Rights in a drive to make the city more responsible for deteriorating conditions in neighborhoods. And in Charlotte, Carolina Action has championed an issue with state-wide repercussions by urging the city to offer school bus service to children who live within a mile and a half of their schools; the issue will come before the legislature this summer with the support of Speaker of the House Carl Stewart, thanks to the lobbying efforts of Carolina Action. 

Still, the question must linger: What can bring together thousands of low and middle-income people from all walks of life, black, white, union members, anti-union people, old people, young people, professional people, blue-collar workers, die-hard liberals and former Wallaceites? What glue unites these people into an organization with an increasingly strong and flexible muscle for change? 

Counterattack from the Conservatives 

On May 2,1978, when Durham voters went to the polls to vote in the state primary, many of them encountered card tables outside the polling places staffed by citizens who asked them if they cared to sign petitions calling for a recall vote on two city council members who had failed to pay their city and county taxes. 

Peripherally, at least, Carolina Action was involved in the affair. One of the council members under fire was Howard Harris, a long-time Carolina Action member and former member of the Durham executive board who had received the organization’s endorsement in the November, 1977, election. On the opposite side, directing the recall effort, was Harry Rodenhizer, a man with whom the organization had tangled previously. Rodenhizer is an outspoken figure in Durham politics, considered by most observers to be allied with the town’s conservative forces. He was also a city council candidate in the election that saw Harris elected, but unlike Harris he did not receive an endorsement from Carolina Action. 

Because of that, the organization accused him of sour grapes when, immediately following the election, he asked state officials to investigate Carolina Action for what he claimed were violations of the state campaign and solicitation laws. Rodenhizer pointed out that it was illegal for a corporation to engage in political activity. However, although Carolina Action is incorporated, it had set up a political committee outside the corporation which endorsed candidates during the election. According to a ruling handed down by the state attorney general’s office, the organization was cleared of any improprieties, although it did have to pay a penalty for filing its campaign expense statement late. 

Rodehhizer’s other gripe, relating to solicitation procedures, still awaits a final ruling from the state Department of Human Resources. He claims that the organization spends more than the legal 35 percent of its revenues to raise money. Carolina Action denies this, claiming that it spends only 33 percent of its revenues to pay canvassers who tour neighborhoods, asking for donations and plugging Carolina Action’s programs. 

Thus far, Carolina Action has escaped official censure, but the charges pale when compared to the delinquent tax question involving Howard Harris. 

The Durham executive committee of the organization has said publicly, both before the city council and in a letter to the Durham Morning Herald, that it considers the recall petition effort purely political, and, while it disapproves of not paying taxes, it stands behind those under fire. The majority of black and liberal leaders have remained silent on the issue, but there is considerable public sentiment favoring a recall or, more directly, the resignation of the delinquent council members. 

Carolina Action’s reputation may not suffer irreversible damage from the controversy, but its members may shy away from getting involved in overt political activity next time. The organization’s endorsements in the last election helped elect a city council far more open to Carolina Action’s demands; but many members privately express doubts about getting wrapped up in the fickle nature of electoral politics and elected politicians. 

Even if it avoids partisan politics; one thing is certain: Carolina Action, at all levels, can expect to receive much more fire as it gains power across the state. Other officials will counterattack with their own version of Rodenhizer’s favorite charges: “I would not want to see the thing they set out to do crippled. Their original purpose was looking for good, responsible government. Now they’re advocates for poor government, the very thing they’re organized to combat. They’ve become a haven for young people who want to make money off of old people.” 

Joe Fish just smiles and says, “When you get into the business of asking questions and raising issues, you’ve got to expect this sort of attack.” - M. J.  


Jay Hessey is 32 years old. He came to the Carolinas four years ago to build Carolina Action by way of Kentucky, the Northeast, Africa, VISTA, the Peace Corps and a childhood in the mountains of California, the son of, ironically, an electric company employee. He dropped out of college in 1966, joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa. Two years later, he came back to America, crisscrossed the country playing country music to make some money, and when he couldn’t sing for a living, enjoyed the generosity of what he remembers as amazingly kind people all over America. Then he got into community organizing and has been there ever since, with one brief spell to work and recruit for VISTA. “But all I saw were these young college kids, and all I talked about was organizing.” 

He still picks a little guitar now and again, drinks a few beers occasionally and takes snuff, a more manageable substitute for a former tobacco chewing habit. Last book read: Democratic Promise, a book on the Populist movement by fellow Durham resident Larry Goodwyn, a professor at Duke University. A copy of Power Shift, a study of the southern rim by Kirkpatrick Sale, lies on Hessey’s desk at Carolina Action’s headquarters, a nest of offices stuck over a downtown restaurant in Durham. He hopes to read it one of these days, if he has the time. He hopes to take a day off, too, maybe in a month or so. Getting in touch with him isn’t hard: “Just call my office, and if I’m not there, leave a message. I work seven days a week.” He was not exaggerating; it’s the truth. 

Despite his schedule, which requires constant traveling across the state to the regional Carolina Action offices, Hessey is utterly self-deprecating about his job. He thinks the people who pay dues to the organization — the rank and file membership — are the important people to discuss and write about. But he is not naive, and he knows that the organizer is absolutely essential to such an outfit. He scoffs at the old theory of organizing where the skilled worker went into a neighborhood, got it mobilized and then moved on to let the group move ahead under its own steam. That won’t work, he says, not if you’re dealing with an organization as extensive as Carolina Action. Coordination is the key to success; Hessey and a staff of 16 hardworking organizers provide that coordination, organizing meetings and marches, mimeographing flyers and distributing press releases. 

They work on a relatively meager budget. In 1977, Carolina Action took in $132,312. Of that, $30,000 came as a grant from the Campaign for Human Development, a Catholic foundation. The rest came from dues and contributions. Salaries for the canvassers amounted to $29,034. The rest was spent paying the staff, the rent and the cost of running the operation. 

In the end, the essence of the organization is its members and what they want. The rest could change tomorrow but the people would still be there. 

It is this simple fact that makes most of the criticism of the organization look foolish. For instance, one of the common jibes is that Hessey and his little band of organizers are pursuing their own radical ends using the membership of Carolina Action as a front, as a collection of pawns. While one conversation with Jim Harrison makes the idea look silly, Hessey has a broader answer. 

“If the people ain’t hot, you ain’t got an issue,” he says. “I don’t care what anybody says, I couldn’t get somebody to go up in front of the city council if they didn’t want to.” And while people who have never had their share of the limelight may stumble and fall the first time they get up before the Utilities Commission or the board of Aldermen, “once our people have done that a couple of times, they don’t feel intimidated by those characters,” Hessey says. 

Black, White and Green 

The importance of racial difference can never be underestimated in any study of things Southern. Carolina Action is no exception. In fact, race is the central riddle of the organization, conspicuous because members almost never mention it. If asked, they shrug, as if to say, it’s not that important. But can a shrug erase 200 years of racial unrest? 

Probably not, but one color cancels out black and white: green. The pragmatism of the pocketbook works a heady spell on the members of Carolina Action, whether former Wallace voters or angry blacks. 

So says Barbara Harris, vice-president of Carolina Action’s East End Neighborhood Council in Durham. Mrs. Harris, 32, is one of the most articulate and forceful members of the organization. Her three years of experience with the group have been mutually beneficial. Carolina Action has given her the framework necessary to help herself and other people, a desire which she says was partially frustrated when she tried other community organizations. In return, she has given the group untold hours of work, boundless energy and a way with words that not only silences opponents but converts many of them as well. No one writes the script for Barbara Harris; she is one of a kind, a truly free spirit. When she graduated from high school, a college in Tennessee offered her a scholarship. She turned it down, deciding instead to attend Cortez Peters Business College in Washington, DC, because she had heard that Mr. Peters was the fastest typist in the world, “and I just had to find out if it was true.” 

Her curiosity satisfied, she returned to Durham after her graduation. After a frustrating stint with an anti-poverty agency and a job for an insurance company, she now works for the Employment Security Commission as a claims investigator. “I don’t regret coming back,” she says. “The more I do for the community, the better I feel, because I see myself help someone.” And her work with Carolina Action has proved to be the best way to do that. 

She thinks other groups, such as the NAACP and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People (the city’s powerful black political machine) are fine organizations. But their scope is limited. Carolina Action attracts her because it can accommodate local and statewide issues, blacks and whites, poor and not so poor. 

That broad scope is not only its charm but its very reason for success. She won’t say that racism has been eradicated in the minds of Carolina Action members; she just thinks that the members have learned to leave their prejudices at the door when they sit down together to do Malcolm Jones is an editorial writer for the Durham Morning Herald. the business of the group. Or, as organizer Jay Hessey says, consciousness-raising isn’t Carolina Action’s business. If it happens, fine. But it won’t happen unless the pragmatic alliance on consumer issues comes first. 

Mrs. Harris thinks that the only reason government and business officials pay attention to Carolina Action is that “blacks and whites have joined together to fight them,” something she considers a breakthrough. She believes that government leaders and the special interests have long taken advantage of low- to middle-class people by successfully pitting blacks against whites. Self-interest was sacrificed to racism. 

To survive, Carolina Action cannot tolerate racism. “We meet together as one. There’s no tension,” Mrs. Harris says. “We’re supporting each other.” She goes so far as to say that blacks and whites will help each other even when the interests of one group do not serve the other, because only the combined forces can make a difference. “Your numbers speak,” she says. When she says the word, Mrs. Harris gets an edge on her voice, and the emotion shows in her eyes. “You get the power to change things, and that’s what’s important.” 

Then she relates an incident that she thinks sums up the way she feels about blacks and whites working together: “I was telling someone at my church who asked me about that the other day. I said, ‘A lot of these issues don’t affect us (black people), but we do it anyway because we deserve a say-so. We’re paying those bills, and those industries are listening to us because they know we’re not going to stop — that’s the important thing.’” 

As Duke Ellington, another strong-willed, individualistic black once said, “Necessity is the mother.” -M.J. 

In fact, many people in Carolina Action have had so much experience dealing with the powers that be that the pendulum has swung the other way: Carolina Action members have lately taken some heat from a Greensboro newspaper for failing to pay deference to some political figures who came to an organization gathering to state their campaign platforms. 

“But hell,” Hessey says, “we had a board up to rank those guys and we had three categories for answers: Yes, No and Runaround. They either said it or they didn’t. Our people are working people. They got jobs to get up and go to in the morning, and they say, ‘All right, we came here tonight to hear what you have to say, so say it.’ ” 

Working people. It is a phrase that you hear again and again from anyone talking about Carolina Action. It is the common denominator. It matters not that many Carolina Action members are retired or without a paying job. They, too, want to work to help themselves, and they are willing to fight anything that gets in their way. “It begins in selfinterest,” Hessey says of what motivates Carolina Action members. “You want your neighborhoods working together to overcome racial and economic differences,” but those are issues and issues are secondary to the main point: power. 

As Joe Fish points out, people will organize around issues that are near and dear to their hearts; they proceed from there to do what Jim Harrison calls selfish volunteer work. And pretty quickly they find out that the only way they can succeed is to band together. And as Jim Harrison says, “Numbers are power.”