Howard Watkins

Credo: Profiles of Activist Elders

Howard Watkins, having retired from the legal profession, is best known these days as the Ubiquitous Photographer, the guy who asks the prinicpals of every civic event to please gather up front to have their pictures “took.” And this photographic hobby (or obsession, as wife Chris calls it) has grown from random snapshots as a boy to a calculated activity as an adult to an archival pursuit in retirement.

“I finally took seriously the comments that my pictures constitute a chronicle comparable to Pop Laval’s,” Howard says. “I have photos of thousands of newsworthy Fresnans taken over the past several decades, and who’s to know which pictures will be important―which person will become a Supreme Court justice, or a figure in a national scandal? When Judy Solely was murdered last month, most of the pictures used to memorialize her were from my collection.”

Under the aegis of the Madden Library at Fresno State and the Regional Foundation, Howard has raised more than $100,000 to create the archive. All that’s left is to put in the incalculable hours needed to catalog the collection, which is still growing by the thousands every year. (Tax-exempt donations can be made to the Howard K. Watkins Photographic Archive Project via the Fresno Regional Foundation, 5250 N. Palm Ave., #424, Fresno, CA 93704.)

But Howard’s life and legacy are not defined by the archive but rather by his long career as a champion of social justice. “I was a progressive in utero,” he jokes, referring especially to the life his mother exposed him to in the bosom of John Birch-ian Orange County.

“I got used to name-calling early. My mother was not especially political at first; she just made friends with people who supported Henry Wallace in 1948, and she wound up as Chair of the County chapter of the Progressive Party.

“I remember being taken to sit in at the L.A. Board of Education to protest the inequity of their busing plan, and picketing the Bank of America for their lack of Black employees in a branch serving a Black community. My mom was also kicked off the PTA for advocating that the children of farmworkers be allowed to use the local library.”

His family attended a Unitarian church that welcomed the blacklisted Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger and fought against the loyalty oaths then in vogue coercing people to swear they did not belong to the Communist Party.

“At the same time,” Howard continues, “I saw our neighbors act with great generosity toward people in crisis…as long as they weren’t perceived as outsiders. I saw that so much ideological difference is a matter of perception―not good versus evil.” This understanding has been a key element in the shaping of his political activism.

“I truly believe, not just because it’s a Unitarian principle, that we are all part of one web of life, and that we need to act knowing that what we do affects us all.”

As he approached college (and draft) age, Howard tried to register as a Conscientious Objector. His refusal to participate in ROTC made him forego a scholarship at one university and to attend UC Berkeley instead, where he observed and participated in a series of student actions. On one occasion, when Students for a Democratic Society was denied the right to have a table to counter military recruitment, a group of 10 or so students tried to form a ring around the Army’s table. “The administration called for the police to arrest us, and the next day 10,000 students protested the presence of cops on campus. It was a great teaching about unintended consequence. And also, when I saw the major media’s spin on the news, it was an unforgotten lesson about mistrusting the official reports.”

From his days in Orange County watching the ACLU work to protect the rights of the underdog, Howard had considered law as a profession. He was pushed harder in this direction by seeing what he considers the joke of a report from the Warren Commission on the JFK assassination. “I saw the importance of legal training to get at the truth.”

And become a lawyer he did, working initially for Fresno County (later Central California) Legal Services. Then he moved to the County Legal Counsel, working in such areas as conservatorship and Child Protective Services. “What I liked about this kind of law,” he says, “is that it is basically non-adversarial. You try to get the facts straight, and seek a just result.”

Howard says the biggest change in his political philosophy over the years has been in seeing past the heat of a given moment―whether it be an apparent gain or setback. “I’m not immobilized by feelings of ineffectuality, but I have learned to say, ‘This too shall pass.’ It’s a matter of perspective.

“I’m still buoyed up by hearing the fact-based but passionate reporting of folks like Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman, and seeing the work of groups like Food Not Bombs and individuals like Mike Rhodes and my minister Bryan Jessup affecting scores of people. But again, there’s no way of knowing what the ultimate effect of your work will be, you have to trust the intention.”

For every major election, Howard takes out an ad in the Community Alliance to list “Howard’s Hopefuls.” In that spirit, here’s a list of favorites I’ve compiled for him:

Books: “Two I highly recommend are George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, about the importance of framing issues to give them importance, and Ghosts from the Nursery by Dr. Robin Karr-Morse, about the correctible causes of personal violence from neglect in early childhood―correctible if we move from a preference for punishment to one for caring.”

Films:Mr. Holland’s Opus is a salute to teachers and their impact on hundreds of students. Avatar enacts the Unitarian principles about the web of life and the need for mutual respect.”

Mottoes: “Let your word be your bond (based on my years as a lawyer, and seeing what happens when you don’t).” “When tempted to fight fire with fire, look at the Fire Department―they use water” (from my parents). “I have compassion for people who act badly out of ignorance, but I have no forgiveness for those who know better and do not speak up.”

Looking at Howard’s long career as a professional and citizen, we see someone trying “to make things better” while following his passions. Even his intense interest in genealogy led him back to his New England forbearers and the understanding that his family’s―and we could well say the country’s―prosperity rests on the slave trade, and that White privilege is an injustice that demands compensation. But for now the great task ahead is indexing the archive. “I can put in four hours a day for 10 years and not be finished,” he says. A good man’s work is never done.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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