Millard Fuller and his wife, Linda, founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976. Now an international organization, Habitat is a Christian ministry that seeks to provide decent housing to those unable to afford it through traditional channels. In 1995 the couple founded the Fuller Center for Housing.
Millard Dean Fuller was born on January 3, 1935, near Lanett, Alabama, the only child of a sharecropper. His family was poor, and from a young age Fuller was determined to leave poverty behind and to attain wealth. As a child he began his own business, selling pigs, chickens, rabbits, and fish bait. For a short time, Fuller was a minor-league baseball pitcher, but his hopes of becoming a great athlete ended when he injured his arm. He then became a door-to-door salesman, selling silk hosiery and underwear, and later worked as a waiter while attending the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His drive for wealth remained with him as he pursued a college education.
Fuller graduated with a degree in economics from Auburn University in Alabama in 1957 and went on to attend the University of Alabama Law School. Expanding his entrepreneurial horizons, Fuller sold Christmas trees and mistletoe with another law student, Morris Dees, who became Fuller’s partner. (Dees later cofounded the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights law firm and educational publisher in Montgomery, Alabama. The center’s first president was Georgia politician and activist Julian Bond.) They began their first lucrative undertaking, a direct-mail business, by selling imported Italian wreaths to the Boy Scouts. The business, named Fuller and Dees Marketing, eventually began selling cookbooks and knickknacks. In 1959 Fuller married Linda Caldwell; the couple had four children: Christopher, Kim, Faith, and Georgia.
Upon finishing law school, Fuller began an industrious career as a lawyer while also continuing to run the marketing firm. Working long hours, Fuller managed by 1964 to become a millionaire at the age of twenty-nine. The preoccupation with increasing his wealth led to health and family problems, however, and Fuller reassessed his priorities. He and his wife, members of the United Church of Christ, decided to simplify their lives by living simply, selling their possessions, and focusing on their religion. The Fullers sold their share in the marketing business to Dees for $1 million and donated the money from the sale of their possessions to Tougaloo College in Mississippi, a rural Christian community in Sumter County called Koinonia Farm, and various missionary projects.
The Seeds of Habitat
In 1965, as they began their new life, the Fullers visited Al Henry, an old friend and former pastor from Alabama who was living at Koinonia. During the visit Fuller met Clarence Jordan, the farm’s founder, and the two quickly became close friends. Jordan had established the farm in 1942 as an interracial Christian commune, which supported the belief that all people are brothers and sisters of God and that people of different races should live side by side in harmony. This concept, however, was unpopular at the time in rural south Georgia.
Fuller and his wife remained at Koinonia for several months, until he accepted a position at Tougaloo College in early 1966 to establish a development office. The job took him to New York, and Fuller often traveled over the next two years, speaking on behalf of the school as well as the United Church Mission Board. Although their correspondence was irregular, Fuller and Jordan remained connected, and in March 1968, Fuller resigned his position and returned to Koinonia. It was during this period that the two men explored possible ways to accomplish the mission they envisioned—to grow closer to God while uniting all people as partners and ridding the world of racism, poverty, and ignorance. As a result, Jordan suggested the establishment of the Fund for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that would provide funds to build modest homes. The men envisioned a partnership between those who could not afford to own a house and volunteers like themselves. No-interest loans would be made to the homeowners, which would allow them to make affordable mortgage payments to the fund. That same year Jordan and Fuller, after reincorporating Koinonia Farm as Koinonia Partners, launched the new housing program. Jordan passed away in 1969.
From 1973 to 1976 the Fullers and their four children lived in Zaire, Africa, using the fund concept to build sufficient housing for 2,000 people. Upon their return to the United States, Fuller established Habitat for Humanity in Americus. By 2008 the organization had provided more than 250,000 affordable homes for more than 1 million people throughout the world. Numerous volunteers have worked with Habitat over the years, including U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who together head the Jimmy Carter Work Project, an annual “blitz” build.
In 2004 a dispute arose between Fuller and Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors, after a former Habitat employee made allegations of sexual harassment against Fuller. The board ultimately found “insufficient proof of inappropriate conduct.” In January 2005, after serving as the president of Habitat for nearly thirty years, Fuller was dismissed by the organization as the result of unresolved disputes, including Fuller’s unhappiness over the move of Habitat’s administrative headquarters to Atlanta. Later that year the Fullers founded a new organization, the Fuller Center for Housing, a nonprofit Christian housing mission that develops grassroots partnerships in communities around the world to build new homes and repair others.
Awards and Publications
The Fullers received the Harry S. Truman Public Service Award in 1994 and the Bronze Medallion from the Points of Light Foundation in 2002. In addition, Fuller has received numerous awards and honorary doctorate degrees, including the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award from the King Center. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also named him one of the Twenty Georgians Who Most Influenced the Twentieth Century. In October 2005 the Extra Mile Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, an evolving monument in Washington, D.C., was unveiled. The Fullers were among the twenty inaugural honorees represented on the monument, which commemorates those who have led significant volunteer efforts for the nation.
Fuller wrote nine books, including Bokotola (1977), Love in the Mortar Joints (1980), No More Shacks! (1986), The Theology of the Hammer (1994), A Simple, Decent Place to Live (1995), More Than Houses (2000), Building Materials for Life, Vol. I (2002), and Building Materials for Life, Vol. II (2003). He and his wife cowrote The Excitement Is Building (1990).
Fuller died at age seventy-four, in an ambulance traveling from Americus to Albany, on February 3, 2009. He was buried at Koinonia.
The papers of Millard and Linda Fuller are housed at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.