From Civil Rights Activism to an International Development Career

Apr 4, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

An Interview with Julius Coles


Meet Julius Coles, former President of Africare and Director of Morehouse College's Andrew Young Center for International Affairs. For four decades, his career has been dedicated to international development work, a passion rooted in his own boyhood, growing up in a segregated American South before an opportunity to travel and study abroad gave him the confidence to pursue a career path that has meaning for him and the larger communities he has worked with over the years. Julius will be speaking at CAPA's Civil Rights reception at the Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta on April 7th, 2016.


CAPA WORLD: Since your last interview with CAPA’s Anne McDonnell back in 2011, we wanted to catch up with you again because of your involvement in CAPA’s Civil Rights reception during the Forum conference this year. Tell us briefly about your background. 
JULIUS COLES: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia where I received all of my education. My father was a mail clerk and my mother was an elementary school teacher. I also have a brother who is three and a half years older than myself. The neighborhood that we were raised in was not too far from Morehouse College and we lived in a totally African American community and had very little contact with the white community. My brother and I spent our early childhood as newspaper carriers for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. We also worked at one of the white country clubs in Buckhead called the Cherokee Town and Country Club where I served as a pool porter and my brother was a short order cook. These were the best jobs that my brother and I could get during our early career in college.

I attended all African American schools from elementary school to college. The first time that I went to school with people of different races other than one or two exchange students that attended Morehouse was when I was given the opportunity to study abroad in Geneva, Switzerland as a Merrill Scholar from Morehouse College. When I returned from Europe and completed my senior year at Morehouse College where I majored in Political Science and minored in Economics and French I applied to return overseas to study as a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics. To my surprise I made it to the regional finals and was interviewed for the Marshall Scholarship in New Orleans, but was not accepted. I applied as a back up to several graduate schools in Public and International Affairs and got accepted into all of them with various levels of scholarship funds being offered. I accepted a full scholarship from Princeton University to attend their top-ranked Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs. At the Wilson School I specialized in International Relations with an emphasis on Economic Development.  

After the completion of my studies at Princeton I was interviewed and accepted an appointment as a junior officer with the Agency for International Development. I spent a total of 28 years in the US Foreign Service and served in Vietnam, Morocco, Liberia, Nepal, Swaziland, Senegal and in Washington, DC.  After my retirement from USAID as a senior official and mission director I decided to accept an appointment to become the first director of the Ralph Bunche Center for International Affairs at Howard University. I remained at Howard for three years before accepting an appointment to establish the Andrew Young Center for International Affairs at Morehouse College. I remained at Morehouse College for five years before accepting an appointment to be the President of Africare, which is a private voluntary agency working in some 20 countries in Africa. I served in this capacity for a total of 7 1/2 years before deciding to return to Morehouse to direct the Andrew Young Center. I have served a total of 11 years at Morehouse as the Director of International Programs including Study Abroad.  

Photo: Julius on the high school basketball team, 1956

CW: How do you enjoy spending your time outside of your work? 
JC: My hobbies include travel and skiing, as well as being an avid fan of the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Falcons football team. My wife and I were married in Liberia. We have one daughter who is working for the Agency for International Development in Washington, DC and has two lovely children. I love spending time with my two grandchildren. 

CW: You’ll be speaking on the topic of civil rights at CAPA’s reception during The Forum Conference this coming April. Why is being a part of this event important to you?
JC: I was very surprised to be asked by CAPA to speak at its reception being held at the Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta on April 7th. I was not aware that they knew anything about my earlier activities during the student movement for civil rights during my college career at Morehouse College. During the period that I was at Morehouse from 1959 to 1964 there were many civil rights activities being carried out by the leadership of the African American community and the students attending the Atlanta University Center. Since I was very actively involved in student government and other academic activities I became deeply involved in the student movement. While at Morehouse I served at secretary of the student government during my sophomore year and vice president during my junior year before going to Europe.

I believe that it is very important for people of my generation to share their experiences with the younger millennium generation who do not have a real sense of what it was like to live in a segregated society and to have little or no contact with people of other races. The American Dream of a fully integrated society where people were accepted on the basis of the content of their character and not the color of their skin did not exist during the early part of my life living in segregated Atlanta. I also believe that even the older generation have forgotten about what is was like for blacks living in the United States during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. People tend to forget these bad dog days in American history, but I firmly believe that this history should not be forgotten and that Americans need to be reminded of this so that the society will never move back to this very sad period in American history. We must move forward in a more positive manner toward a fully integrated society that has yet to be achieved in America to date.

Photo: During the time Julius serviced as secretary of the SGA at Morehouse

CW: Having grown up around the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, what was it like during that time to come from a mixed race background? What personal experiences do you remember from those years that helped shape your life and career as it is today?
JC: I did not consider myself to be of a mixed race background in the sense that when I was growing up this term was used to describe a person who was half black and half white or other people with other mixtures along the same line. Even though I appeared to be of very fair skin I was always considered to be black and proud to be so. My father on the other hand was half black and half white whereas my mother was a mixture of Cherokee Indian, White and Black. Even with all of this diversity in my family background in Atlanta, GA we were always considered to be black and had the same racial discrimination directed at us as African Americans.

The personal experiences that shaped my career aspirations during this period came from the fact that I was raised in a very segregated society. From the 10th grade on when I attended a play put on by Moral Rearmament about people living together from various races in peace and harmony, I decided that I wanted to be a part of that world and leave my segregated environment in the United States. Therefore, all of my dreams and aspirations turned toward how I could become a "citizen of the world” and extricate myself from the racist environment that I had grown up in as a child. These experiences have led me to pursue a career in international affairs where I could become a part of the global community and be the citizen of the world that I dreamed of.

Photo: 1963 Lincoln Memorial March (public domain)

CW: Do you recall how you reacted to civil rights cases in the news at the time - for example, the civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi or the lynching of Emmett Till?
JC: Yes, I recall very vividly the civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi and the lynching of Emmett Till. I was a very young child 13 years of age when Emmett Till was murdered and I was selling an African American magazine called Jet. Emmett Till’s badly mutilated body laying in a casket. The very sight of this lynching and the terrible state of his body lying in a casket was very frightening to me and made me not to want to have any contact with white people for I became afraid that if this could happen to Emmett Till it could also happen to me. In regard to the white students who were murdered in Mississippi, I was in college and their death reminded me how careful African Americans had to be in carrying out their struggle for justice in America. The fact that these students were white and black and were murdered by whites who were never convicted of any crime was a testimonial to the lack of justice in America at that time.

Photo: Morehouse students at the Cape of Good Hope

CW: Let's talk about travel and your own study abroad experience. How did this international perspective change the way you saw your world and connected with the people around you?
JC: While at Morehouse I was given two opportunities to participate in study abroad and service abroad programs. The first program that I participated in was a service abroad program called CrossRoads Africa. I was a sophomore in college and 19-years-old. I applied for the program and was accepted as a volunteer to work in Senegal. My parents could not afford to pay the $900 for me to participate in the program, but I was fortunate enough to be the secretary of the student government and put a motion before the whole student body for each student to contribute $1 each to pay the cost of my participation in the program. The Morehouse student body readily agreed for each student to contribute to my service abroad program. I was one of two African American students participating the CrossRoads Africa Program in Senegal. Our service program was to build a one room school house in the fishing village of Popenguine, which is located about 60 miles north of Dakar. In this project we worked with five students from the University of Dakar and another five students from the Banhurst Boys High School in the Gambia. This experience really built up my confidence for I was able to be just another American student trying to successfully complete a service project in Africa. I also felt that I was just as knowledgeable as the other white students participating in the program and that they were not more intelligent than I was. This is important in the sense that I had been raised in an environment that had classified me as an inferior being. After this experience I felt that I could successfully compete in the majority world.

The second overseas experience was when I was selected to be a Merrill Scholar at Morehouse College, which offered me a full scholarship of $3,000 to go anywhere in the world to study or travel. This scholarship would probably be worth some $50 - $60,000 in today’s terms. With this money I was able to travel all over Europe from Moscow, Russia to Lisbon, Portugal and from Finnish, Lapland to Greece and North Africa. In addition, I was able to study for a full academic year at the University of Geneva in their French language school and the second semester in the faculty of economics and social sciences.

This experience really contributed to my growth, both intellectually and in maturity. I really felt after this experience that I could successfully not only compete with the majority population in my own country, but with people from Europe, Africa and Asia. I acquired an excellent knowledge of French and gained a wealth of knowledge about Europe and North Africa. I also participated in two Quaker camps, one to help the veterans of the Winter War in Finnish, Lapland to resettle on farms and another in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia to study the problems of urbanism in developing countries. Both of these study abroad experiences helped to launch me on my way to be the citizen of the world that I desired to become.

Photo: Morehouse students in Pretoria

CW: Briefly, how did your career progress from the time you were a college student to where you are today?
JC: I have been very fortunate to achieve most of my educational and career objectives. As pointed out earlier, I did my graduate studies at Princeton and went directly into USAID where I remained for some 28 years. During my career I rose from the level of being a junior officer in 1966 to becoming a senior officer some 10 years later when I was selected to be an assistant mission director in Nepal and at that point in my career I also entered the senior Foreign Service. I retired from USAID at the highest career level possible to achieve, which is that of being a career minister. After retiring from USAID I have spent 11 years in academia as an international program director and another seven and a half years serving as the president of a major NGO working on Africa – Africare. My dream of having a successful career in international affairs and being of service to humanity has been truly fulfilled in every respect.

CW: What is the main focus of your current research or professional interests?
JC: I am not currently engaged in any research, but I am very interested in following political and economic developments in Africa.

Photo: 1963 March on Washington (public domain)

CW: What does the fight for civil rights in the United States look like today? Which are some of the major areas where progress still needs to be made?
JC: From my perspective, the fight for civil rights today is quite different from that which I experienced as a student participating in the student movement for civil rights. In those days we were struggling for the very basic rights to vote, receive an adequate education, earn a credible living, be able to associate with other Americans freely and without restraints as well as to use whatever public facilities that were available to any other citizen. Today, the basic struggle is for jobs and the right to compete successfully for positions of leadership in the private and public sectors. The whole question of inequality and income disparity is a major issue confining African Americans in American society. In addition, the whole issue of the criminal justice system and law enforcement has to be overhauled due to the frequent injustices being experienced by African Americans in the United States.


CW: Do you think an international education is important for American students? Why or why not?
JC: Yes, I believe strongly that international education is very important for American students for we live in a global community that requires us to be prepared to compete in that global community. In order to be competitive in the global community we need to have a better understanding of how it functions and ways that we can operate effectively in that community. We also need to acquire language skills so that we can participate in negotiations and not be disadvantaged because of our lack of a foreign language or understanding of a foreign culture.

Photo: Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. & Mathew Ahmann (public domain)

CW: What advice could you offer to students who wish to pursue a career in a field related to the topic of civil rights?
JC: This is a career that I feel is severely needed in American society. There are lots of civil rights issues in American society that need to be resolved. One of the best careers that one could pursue is that of becoming a civil rights lawyer. This profession would allow the individual to pursue any number of issues in the area of civil rights including the inadequacies of the criminal justice system, the need to reform the American judicial system as a whole, the question of the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and the whole question of equity in American society to name a few issues.

Thanks Julius!

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Topics: Civil Rights