Former Panther says King would have supported income equality

by Eric Ginsburg

The list of keynote speakers at UNCG’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration is long and impressive, with names like Ralph Abernathy, Michael Eric Dyson, Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable, as well as the more recent ones like Franklin McCain, Angela Davis, Julian Bond and Al Sharpton. This year was no exception, as Elaine Brown, former chair and defense minister of the Black Panther Party, took the stage at Aycock Auditorium on Jan. 17.

As she began, Brown acknowledged her longtime comrade Larry Little — former leader of the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party, city council member and current political science professor — who was seated in the audience.

Brown quickly launched into a pointed critique and analysis of the nation’s current political climate and material conditions, arcing through history to include her experiences as a Panther and political struggles later in life and reaching back to the first European colonizers in Virginia.

She began by saying some people whitewash King’s legacy by ignoring parts of his analysis and sticking to more polite or palatable statements taken from the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and saying she identified as part of the freedom movement rather than the term “civil rights.” In her opening remarks, Chancellor Linda Brady said how lucky the school was to welcome someone who advanced civil rights.

“Martin Luther King was a revolutionary who did not die, but was assassinated, because of it,” she said, adding that the US government was responsible for his murder. “People don’t want to remember King’s full memory.”

Through a majority of her speech, Brown focused on the ways black people in particular continue to deal with the same oppressive systems they have throughout history, citing statistics around economic inequality, health disparities and the prison population.

Brown spent a significant amount of time discussing the relationship between oppressive conditions and crime, and said black people are the victims of but are blamed for being the cause for the conditions.

“Crime is a political question,” rather than a moral one, she said. “It’s just a question of who gets killed and who is doing the killing. We went from a slave class to a criminal class.”

A few times she asked what King would say about what is happening in the United States today, pulling from different speeches he gave to argue he would have stood for free healthcare, ending wars, more equitable wealth distribution, housing and income for all and freedom for all people.

After her speech, Brown answered questions from the audience, encouraging people to struggle against oppression and do so from a place of love. She also said the few people who are able to make a positive future for them selves should “bring the rest of the people up with you.”

One of the questions came from Richard Koritz, an officer with the National Association of Letter Carriers and a board member at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Despite her strong critique of a number of people and organizations, Koritz said in an interview that she let the Obama administration off the hook with her response about its lack of involvement in the Troy Davis case.

By coincidence, Koritz had recently finished reading her book, A Taste of Power, and said overall he felt very positively about her speech.

“To have her make a speech in celebration of the King holiday was refreshing, and she made it clear that oppression continues,” he said. “Instead of getting a lullaby to keep the people asleep, her speech was, to some extent, a wake up call.”

Daniel Carlson, who recently graduated from UNCG with a master’s in women & gender studies and wrote his thesis about gender in the Black Panther Party, said Brown did a better job connecting the issues of the Panthersera to today than other former Panthers he has seen speak.

“She brought it home and made the point that the struggle is the same,” Carlson said. “She brought up the fact that it’s not important what people are wearing but it’s about their material conditions. It’s important that people remember the social issues that went down in history… those injustices still exist and that’s the condition of today. We have to do our best to change it.”

The program included short musical and poetic presentations as well as a presentation of the MLK Service Award to someone in the UNCG community who has made “outstanding contributions in the area of social justice through service” in the spirit of King.

After introducing the three finalists, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Cherry Callahan presented the award to doctoral candidate Parker T. Hurley for his work creating MORE, a mentor collective for LGBTQ students, faculty and staff as well as other organizing efforts.

Hurley was among a small group who ate dinner with Brown before the celebration, and said he was happily surprised the school chose such a radical speaker for the program.

“She was very accessible,” Hurley said. “If she can start a revolution than anybody can. That message was conveyed to us and was especially important for young people to hear. She spoke so much outside of what is relegated to the Civil Rights Movement.”

In addition to her work with the Black Panther Party, Brown continues to be involved in a variety of projects, spending much of her time working for radical prison reform and on certain prisoners’ cases. She is currently a union representative in California, and one of her books, A Taste of Power, is used in classes at UNCG.

Mark Villacorta, assistant director of the office of multicultural affairs, organized the event and said people can learn a great deal from Brown’s life experience.

“There were several topics that stuck out for me that evening, and one of them was the power of building coalitions,” he said. “[The BPP] built strong relationships with groups such as the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, the young Patriot Party and others. It’s important to remember that… connecting with others is not only more productive but more in line with Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community.”