There is a marked resemblance between Mary Hatwood Futrell, 43,the black Alexandria activist elected president of the National Education Association today, and 7-year-old "Deadeye Hatwood," the young girl who mastered a wicked stone-throwing defense to the taunts of her classmates.
"They used to call me 'Seemo--see mo' holes than clothes,' " she says, laughing, "and 'Boney Maroney, stick of macaroni.' I weighed less than 100 pounds until I was about 18. Kids can be cruel, you know. You have to learn to fight."
And that she did. Her election makes the outspoken Lynchburg, Va., native the highest-ranking black or woman in the U. S. labor movement. Futrell, the first in her family to attend college and an admirer of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, takes over the largest teachers' union in the country at a time when education is a leading national political issue and the NEA is becoming increasingly politicized.
"Where were you when we needed you?" Futrell rhetorically demanded of the ever-growing number of education critics, in her speech before a cheering crowd of 7,000 convention delegates. "The president of the United States shall be held accountable for his actions as fully as he holds us accountable for ours."
As NEA president, with salary of $71,263 a year, Futrell intends to do what she can to deliver the NEA bloc--1.7 million strong, as large as the Teamsters--to a candidate with national educational polices the NEA supports.
"I can't promise 100 percent of the vote," said Futrell. "And we can't buy every plank and every nail" in the candidates' education platforms. "But I am a motivator, and I believe I can galvanize the membership into involvement in not just the presidential campaign, but congressional and state . . . everything from local school board candidate on up."
That tough attitude still seems brash to some of the NEA's older members who dragged their feet through the 10-year politicizing of the union. The NEA made its first presidential endorsement in 1976, and although its 10 percent representation at the 1980 Democratic National Convention made it the most powerful interest group there, an estimated 40 percent of the NEA membership voted for Reagan.
"I am a little strong for some of them," Futrell says. "That's why I've campaigned hard, as though I were the underdog. I've talked to them about reform. I've told them we'll have to get involved. I've told them we can't run away from the merit pay/master teacher issue. I've told them we have to put forth positive ideas for reform to stave off threats of tuition tax credits.
"And when they stand there and say, 'I want Mary!' they'll know what I stand for."
Futrell, who attributes her unopposed election to the strength of her "network in every state," is herself testimony to the effectiveness of grassroots organizing. An Alexandria teacher who started her teaching career 20 years ago in the all-black Parker-Gray High School, Futrell took her first political step by organizing a minority caucus within the Virginia Education Association, which had merged with a smaller black Virginia teachers group.
She became president of the Education Association of Alexandria and then the Virginia Education Association before being elected as secretary-treasurer of the NEA in 1980. She is Virginia Gov. Charles Robb's appointee to the national UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization) commission, and has represented the NEA at world conventions in France and Switzerland.
She is equally well-known for her staunch civil rights and women's rights positions. For five years, she headed ERAmerica, a coalition of groups in favor of passing the Equal Rights Amendment.
Futrell says she cannot separate being black and being female. "I'm very conscious of both," she says, "but I didn't use either of them in this campaign."
Nor did she have to struggle past them. The NEA is deeply committed to minority representation throughout the organization: four of nine executive committee members and more than half the directors are women or minorities. The NEA is one of the largest organizations that refuse to meet in states that have not ratified the ERA.
In fact, had a black president not emerged by 1985, an NEA resolution would have mandated the election of one. "If anything, we err on the side of fairness," says an NEA staffer.
Futrell is an attractive woman with a direct gaze and fast, emphatic speech. She is an intent listener, an effective debater and given to telling sudden, disarming stories about herself.
She is unusually forthright for a politician. "And I do think of myself as a political person," she says. "I just think people ought to be honest. I never play poker--I have no poker face."
There are people who say she uses that bluntness as a weapon. One NEA employe who habitually ignored Futrell made the mistake of coming to mend fences a few weeks ago when Futrell's election seemed assured. He was gushing on about how close their friendship and working relationship had always been, when Futrell fixed him with an unwavering eye: "I never thought we were close at all," she told him.
"I'm offended by people who shake your hand without grasping it, who talk past you, not at you," Futrell says. Adds a staffer, "And she never forgets."