By Debra Stephens
If someone had told Vernon Fontenette, Jr., he would change his last name to Sukumu and run an organization that advocated for the rights of mentally ill adults, laughter and skepticism would have abounded. But as he and I sat and talked about the path that led him to who he is and what he does today, the outcome is not so unbelievable.
As the oldest of thirteen children born to Vernon and Irene Fontenette in New Iberia, Louisiana, Sukumu had excellent role models in survival, perseverance, and the importance of "standing up" for yourself. Although Irene Fontenette had only a sixth-grade education and a limited ability to speak English, ten of her thirteen children attended college and some went on to earn graduate degrees. It was her determination and solid support that encouraged her children to achieve. Sukumu's mother was a firm believer in being compassionate and treating everyone with respect. He recalls her constant admonitions to "keep your head down" and "always say sir and madam" in the company of white people. His father's example, however, was just the opposite. At the age of nineteen, when Sukumu's father found himself in just one of those situations with a group of whites and had to defend himself, the result was the beating of three white youths, one of whom happened to be the sheriff's son. Sukumu's grandmother, with a recent lynching of another young man weighing heavily on her heart, immediately sent her son to New Orleans to live until he was twenty-four years old.
New Iberia was a town that experienced the deep racial strife and intolerance common to most southern cities during the 1930s and 1940s. For instance, when Sukumu's father joined the NAACP in 1942, the correspondence that he received in the mail from the civil rights organization was routinely opened by the post office. In 1947, a group of black doctors in New Iberia asked the school board to include black history in the school curriculum. The reply they received was hardly what they had hoped: their offices were burned down, they were beaten, and eventually run out of town. Sukumu, then eight years old, recalls this as his first experience of seeing and feeling fear.
Like so many young men looking for new opportunities, adventure, and most importantly, a respite from racism, Sukumu left New Iberia, to join the U.S. Navy at the age of seventeen. While in the service, he was stationed in San Diego, California. It did not take long for him to realize that the racism and prejudice prevalent in his hometown were waiting to greet him in the Navy. Blacks had no access to the technical trades, only service positions such as cooking and working the deck. After his four years with the deck force, he bade the Navy goodbye.
After being discharged from the Navy, Sukumu settled in San Diego. However, he soon discovered that the old habits of racism die hard, no matter where you are. He realized this when upon entering a bus he immediately went to sit in the rear. Now, however, it was the early 1960s and the civil rights movement was in full swing. This was a time of deep personal introspection for Sukumu. In an act of self-determination, he changed his name from Fontenette to Sukumu in defiance to those who had enslaved his ancestors and continued to oppress his people. Although he knew this might be seen as an act of disrespect to his parents, he felt that it was something he had to do and hoped they would understand.
Remembering his father's support of the NAACP, he decided to become involved and joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Through the structure of SNCC, he learned to organize and actively get others involved. One of his primary projects with SNCC was raising funds to send down South for voter registration efforts and the Freedom Riders. But his activism was just beginning.
Although San Diego was a long way from New Iberia, the issues facing the black community were not that different. Sukumu soon formed the Citizen's Patrol Against Police Brutality to address the inhumane treatment and harassment of blacks by law enforcement officers. The patrol's activism kept continual pressure on elected officials to address the problem, and together they developed workable solutions. Difficult times when the Citizen's Patrol did not have the support of the community made Sukumu recall, and appreciate even more, the efforts of his best friend's father in New Iberia.
After his friend's black doctor was run out of town and opened a new office in Texas, the father of Sukumu's friend-in appreciation of the sacrifices the doctor made-drove their family from New Iberia to Dallas every summer for their annual checkups. In Sukumu's mind, that was the epitome of the kind of personal support each citizen could regularly give to make a difference.
Growing weary of what he considered the slow pace of the Civil Rights Movement, Sukumu joined the Black Power Movement and found himself demanding fair treatment from those in power instead of asking them for dialogue. In line with his more militant leanings, he founded the Black Federation in 1972. Here again, the actions of his father and others in New Iberia impacted his own activism. Tired of being allowed to attend only one mass and sit only in a designated area of the Catholic church they attended, his father and others in the community had founded their own church.
Sukumu used his organizing skills and study of social welfare at San Diego State University in his work with the Black Federation, which became one of the main community forums for black organizations and activists to share ideas, exchange information, and collectively attempt to address pressing social issues. From this leadership position, he found himself in the center of civil and human rights activism throughout the San Diego area.
The words and efforts of President Jimmy Carter helped Sukumu realize that civil rights are human rights, propelling him to expand his efforts and rededicate himself to human rights. He became the lead organizer in a successful effort to have the City of San Diego divest itself of holdings in South Africa. He brought together the Latino and progressive white communities, persuading them to join the fight. By lobbying city council members and attending the council meetings, Sukumu and his group achieved their goal. He had successfully convinced members of various communities that this was a human rights issue that deserved their fierce support.
Sukumu soon found himself championing the efforts of California's farm workers, fighting for a safe working environment, decent living conditions, and fair wages. Sukumu felt strongly that people who worked simply so they could provide for their families should not have to endure inhumane treatment. He rallied the African American community to become involved with this cause and participated in rallies at the U.S./Mexico border, demanding that brutality and unfair treatment of immigrants stop. Although their struggle for human rights and dignity on this front still continues, Sukumu believes they have implemented positive change.
While Sukumu's public life and activism flourished, he had to overcome challenges in his personal life. He faced the loss of his twelve-year marriage, and the feeling that his commitment and priorities might have been better managed. Having just resigned from the Black Federation to continue his education, he had to make one of the most crucial decisions of his life. He was adamant that his children, then eight and nine years old, not grow up without him. So at the age of forty-one, he became a single parent and totally immersed himself in his children's care, nurture, education, and extracurricular activities. With the exception of a period of involvement in Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984, he never missed any of their activities. To accommodate his community activism and devotion to his children, he gave up his dream of becoming a college political science professor but has never once regretted his decision to make his children his main priority. While some may say it was a sacrifice, Sukumu says it was a privilege.
In 1990, Sukumu began a career as a social health advocate. After working initially with the San Diego Urban League on the issue of sexually transmitted diseases among youth, he eventually went on to help the mentally ill and homeless through Episcopal Community Services (ECS). Although some of the players had changed, the challenge was still the same: Sukumu was once again advocating for those being treated unfairly and attempting to bring dignity and honor to their lives.
One of Sukumu's current projects is a special labor of love. Seeing the ever-increasing need for organizations such as the NAACP, he is convinced that paid staff are necessary to keep such organizations focused and effective, and he has embarked on an effort to raise funds to hire an executive director for the San Diego branch of the NAACP, using the relationships and organizing skills he's developed over the years.
As we reflected on the foundation, challenges, and accomplishments of his life, Sukumu didn't seem very impressed. He feels there is still much to do in order to realize that perfect world we all hope for. He continues to oppose the militarization of the world. Even when not politically popular to do so, he opposes groups such as the Buffalo Soldiers, the African American regiment that served on the western frontier fighting Native Americans and whose achievements he feels were garnered at the expense of others. He also is concerned that countries like Pakistan and India have developed the ability to engage in nuclear war, at great financial costs, while their populations suffer from starvation.
Some people require limelight and lots of fanfare, but Sukumu's activism has been quiet, steady, and extremely effective behind the scenes. Although he knows the "perfect world" will not be achieved in his lifetime, he is still amazed by those who know the right thing to do but will not take the time to help. It is a good thing that he had Vernon and Irene Fontenette of New Iberia, Louisiana, to set him on the right path.
Debra Stephens is an executive committee member of the San Diego branch of the NAACP, in San Diego, California.
As published in Human Rights, Fall 2000, Vol. 27, No. 4, p.21-22.