Curtis Austin
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Good afternoon. I've been known as many things over the course of my life. I've been known as a son, a brother, a husband, an educator. But in 2008, I became known as a felon. And I became known as a felon through a very curious set of circumstances. I was teaching at a university in Mississippi at the time, teaching the History of the Civil Rights Movement, and I needed a car. So, I did what most people would do. I went on the Internet and I found a car. This car I found was in Des Moines, Iowa. So I was going to fly to Des Moines and drive the car back. A few weeks before that, I'd had a book signing, and I actually ran out of books at this book signing, but people wanted the books, so they gave me cash, and wrote me checks, and said, "The next time you come through town just bring the books with you." And I said, "OK." I'd do that. I knew that when I was driving this car back from Iowa, I was going to have to pass through this town, so, I took the books with me. I packed my stuff up, went to the airport, checked in, made my way through security. And then I hear my name over the intercom. "Curtis Austin, return to the check-in counter." And so I do. I get back to the check-in counter, and there's this bevy of airport police and TSA agents surrounding my bag, just hovering over my bag. And they've got these books, and they're looking at these books. And the book has this picture on the cover. It's a book about the Black Panther Party. And they're flummoxed. They're taken aback, you know? They've got this black man, he's got a one-way ticket to Iowa, no clothes, no toiletries, and all these books. And so they said, "Well, we're going to have to call the FBI." I said, "Whoa! The FBI? Why?" He says, "Well, that's what we do in situations like this." And that's what they did. They called the FBI. And the FBI came to the airport. TSA and airport security escorted me upstairs, put me in a room, and this FBI agent came in the room and began to interrogate me, but he had this book. He was going through this book, and then he'd ask me questions, he'd look in the book and ask me more questions, and this interrogation went on for hours. And I finally worked up the nerve to say, "Am I under arrest?" And he said, "No, we're just asking questions here." And I said, "Well, does that mean I can leave?" And he said, "Yeah, you can leave." So that's what I did. I left. I found another flight. I went to Des Moines. I bought the car and drove it back and dropped the books off and went back to work. I didn't think much more about it. I mean, I thought it was bizarre, but I grew up black in Mississippi and so you get used to the bizarre. (Laughter) And I don't think about it anymore until one day I'm talking with my boss, and she says, "Curtis, we have a problem." And I said, "OK, what kind of problem do we have?" She said, "Well, it's come to my attention that you're a felon, and we can't allow felons to teach at the University." A felon?! Wait a minute. This is a classic WTF moment for me, right? (Laughter) I don't know what's going on and she doesn't either, but she says, "I think you should call the FBI." That's what I do. I call the FBI, tell them who I am and why I'm calling, and they look me up on their system and the woman I'm talking to says, "Yeah, it says you're a felon." I said, "Well, what did I do?" She said, "I don't know." I said, "When did I do it?" She said, "I don't know." I said, "Where did I do it?" She said, "I don't know. In fact I don't have any more information. Maybe, if you call the U.S. Attorney's office, they can give you more information. She gave me the number for the U.S. Attorney's office. I called them. They looked me up in their system, and the person I spoke with said, "Yes, It says here you're a felon." And I asked the same set of questions, and got the same exact set of answers. "I don't know." It literally takes me more than two years to get this felony removed from my record. I came to understand that the felony was on my record because I had written a book about the Black Panther Party. Some of you may be familiar with the Black Panther Party. For those of you who are not, it was an organization that started in 1966 in Oakland, California, as an effort to prevent the police brutality and murder of black people. But it also organized around a range of other issues that were affecting the black community, like healthcare, and housing, and full employment, and fairness in the courts. They wanted blacks to be tried by juries of their peers because to that point they were being tried by all whites. While they were organizing around these issues, the press was vilifying them and demonizing them and telling lies about them. In fact, one of the lies is that it was this group of black men who wanted to go out and kill white people. That's what they were about. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is the Black Panther Party, the majority of the people in the Black Panther Party were not men, they were women. And a few years after their party started, the majority of the leadership of the Black Panther Party were women. So, It just wasn't true that there's this group of black men going around and killing white people. Another lie that has been told about this organization is it was racist and anti-white, and they just didn't like white people at all. Well, also not true, and I'll prove that to you. The Panthers would find out what the problems were in their communities and attempt to solve them. For example, they realized that children weren't learning in school, and they weren't learning because they were hungry. So they decided to feed the children. They were going to feed them before school, so they created these free breakfast programs. And the way they created these programs was to go to the grocery stores in their communities, ask the grocery store owners if they would donate milk, and bread, and eggs, and meat, and cereal, other things people eat for breakfast, and these store owners said yes, and they donated these items. All over the country, in every city where there was a chapter of the Black Panther Party, - and there were about 40 - there was a free breakfast program. It's not likely that these white business owners would donate to the Black Panther Party if they were actually racist. Another thing they did in the community to serve the people was they created free health clinics. Again, they went around and found out there were a range of health problems that needed to be attended to. Black people were rather poor, so they couldn't afford to go to doctors, couldn't afford to go to hospitals. So the Panthers went to hospitals and medical schools and asked the doctors and medical students whether they would come to the black community and deal with some of these medical issues. Overwhelmingly, they said yes. Again, all over the country, in cities wherever the Black Panther Party set up chapters, there were these free health clinics; although they were being run by the Black Panther Party, they were peopled by white people, so I don't know how they could be racist and anti-white if their signature programs were actually being supported by fairly wealthy and often middle class white people. One of the people who was very, very good at pulling individuals, white and others, into the Black Panther Party orbit, was a guy by the name of Fred Hampton. Fred Hampton was the leader of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was a very eloquent speaker. He was very persuasive. Fred Hampton could persuade people that there was actual injustice. More importantly than that, he could persuade people that they should do something to combat that injustice. So in addition to going to these hospitals, and grocery stores, and getting the things they needed for their programs, Fred Hampton also worked with other groups and organizations who were Latino, Asian, Native American, even large groups of poor whites who had moved up from the South or into Chicago from Appalachia. They would work with these organizations and set up the same kinds of programs in their communities. They were very successful at this, but the government didn't like what they were doing, so in addition to vilifying and discrediting them in the press, they began to arrest its members and in very extreme cases, to kill its members. And thats exactly what happened to Fred Hampton. On December 4th, 1969, the Chicago Police Department, the Illinois State Attorney's Office, burst into Fred Hampton's apartment at 4:30 in the morning, while he and everyone else in there were asleep, and just began spraying the place with bullets. It wounded several people. There was a person guarding the door named Mark Clark. They shot him straight through the heart, and he died immediately. They make their way through the house to Fred Hampton's bedroom, find him there, he's asleep, because he's been drugged, but he's asleep next to his girlfriend who's eight and a half months pregnant, and they grab Fred Hampton by his hair and shoot him in the back of the head at point blank range twice, killing him instantly. That's the end of Fred Hampton. So we have to ask ourselves, what is it about this organization that prompt's such an irrational, over the top, and extreme response, that 40 years after the organization has died, a lowly professor like myself can be stopped in an airport, detained for hours, questioned, then labeled a felon for simply writing a book about the organization? Why does Fred Hampton have to pay with his life for simply organizing around issues, that everybody — there's nothing wrong with feeing kids, and taking care of sick people. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to be killed by the police. So we have to ask ourselves, what is it about this organization? And I'll tell you. The thing about this organization is that it was actually anti-racist, and it made a point to work with all people whether it was upper and middle class whites, lower class whites, Asians, latinos, Native Americans. Anybody who wanted to help solve these problems, this organization was willing to work with them, and that was the problem. If this interracial organization was not effective, people would not have been so dead set against it. So it wasn't just Fred Hampton who had to pay. It wasn't just me who had to pay with being labeled a felon. You probably saw this a few weeks ago. Beyonce performed at the Super Bowl, at the halftime show, and she and the women who were dancing with her, dressed up in these black leather outfits, these black berets, and they were dressed that way to pay homage to the Black Panther Party. 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party and they were trying to honor this community service organization. But what they got in return was a ton of hate mail. People all over the country are saying they are racist and anti-white, they are cop haters. Police officers has said that they don't want to give her the security she needs at her concerts. Mayors have said they don't want her in their town. Beyonce is racist. Beyonce. I mean, racy maybe? But not racist. (Laughter) So, we just have to keep asking ourselves why are we told these stories about the Black Panther Party, and who benefits from us knowing these lies. I want to encourage you to do your own research about the party, but be careful when you're doing your research because I've been studying this subject for 25 years now, and what I've discovered is that 73% of all the newspaper articles written about the Black Panther Party, were written by the FBI, or people the FBI recruited. So there is all this villainy and misinformation. And we spoke about Fred Hampton a second ago, and I just want to tell you that Fred Hampton and Mark Clark's family actually sued the city of Chicago, the State Attorney's Office, a jury found them guilty, and they paid them almost two million dollars. But that doesn't bring Fred back, and that doesn't stop the villainy. We have to find out the truth about this organization for ourselves, and I encourage you to do that. I also encourage you to question your own biases about what you know about American history. And finally, I want to encourage you to reach out across racial lines and ethnic lines, and do your part in solving the problems that face our country today, because black people can't solve these problems on their own. White people can't solve them on their own. Latino people can't solve them on their own. Unless all of us come together as a people and solve these problems, they will never be solved. So I say to you: power to the people. (Applause)