(1930 - 1965)
New York City - June 15, 1964
In 1959, playwright Lorraine Hansberry made history as the first black woman to have a show produced on Broadway. The play was A Raisin in the Sun, a story about a black working-class family in Chicago trying to escape the ghetto. At the time, most people thought a play about African Americans would be a box office flop. Instead, Raisin was a hit. It ran on Broadway for 19 months, was made into a movie starring Sidney Poitier in 1961, and is now considered a classic of the American theater.
For writer James Baldwin, the most striking thing about the play was what it did for African Americans. "I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater," he wrote. "And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage. Black people had ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them."1 Hansberry's success helped open doors for scores of black writers and artists who followed, both in theater and the wider cultural mainstream.
Lorraine Hansberry was born in 1930. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, a place rigidly segregated by race. In 1937, Hansberry's parents challenged Chicago's restrictive housing covenants by moving into an all-white neighborhood. Whites fought back. A mob gathered around the house and someone threw a brick, barely missing young Lorraine's head. Years later, in a letter to The New York Times, Hansberry recalled her mother "patrolling the house all night with a loaded German luger," while her father was away fighting the battle in court.2
Working closely with the NAACP, Hansberry's father took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually won. The ruling in Hansberry v. Lee helped to outlaw housing discrimination across the country. Still, the legal victory proved no match for Chicago's entrenched racism; blacks and whites remained apart.
Hansberry's parents, Carl and Nannie, were prominent members of their community and often hosted African American luminaries who came through town. The couple were die-hard Republicans, but it was two of their left-wing guests - W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson – who came to have a deep influence on their daughter's political views.3
When Hansberry moved to New York City in 1950, Robeson gave Hansberry her first "real" job as a writer for his new paper, Freedom. The publication had a strong socialist bent and Hansberry declared optimistically to a friend that it would become "the journal of Negro liberation."4 Du Bois also wrote articles for the paper and taught Hansberry African history at the Jefferson School of Social Science, a Marxist school shut down by the U.S. government at the height of the McCarthy era.5 Du Bois and Robeson were dogged by anti-communist forces, but Hansberry – still relatively unknown - escaped the same persecution.
Hansberry's 1959 success with Raisin gave her a prominent voice in the struggle for black liberation. She delivered this speech at the Town Hall forum in 1964. The memory of her father's failure to shake segregation through legal means shaped her plea for action. Having tried "respectable" ways to battle injustice, she said, it was time to get radical.
The forum was sponsored by the Association of Artists for Freedom, a loose coalition of well-known black performers and writers that included Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, and actress Ruby Dee. One of the founders, Ossie Davis, told The New York Times, "We meet from time to talk and argue…about what we as artists can do, how we can express the anguish for the moral situation we find in this country, but not as civil rights pleaders."6
The Town Hall forum was designed for white liberals and black activists to have an open conversation about tensions mounting between them in the civil rights movement. Charles Silberman, one of the white panelists, described the strain in a book he published in early 1964: "[W]hen the struggle for Negro rights moves into the streets, the majority of [white] liberals are reluctant to move along with it. They are all for the Negroes' objectives, they say, but they cannot go along with the means."7 During the forum Hansberry blasted this reluctance, declaring, "We have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical."
Writing in her journal two days later, Hansberry described the event as explosive: "Negroes are so angry and white people are so confused and sensitive to criticism."8 The black panelists included writers Paule Marshall, John O. Killens and Leroi Jones, along with actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. James Wechsler, a columnist for the New York Post, was another of the white panelists. He wrote that the Association of Artists for Freedom was "ambushing captive white liberals."9 Meanwhile, Nat Hentoff argued in the Village Voice that the white panel members were "estranged from Negro reality." He said Wechsler "simply did not have the capacity to really listen to what was being said."10
During the Town Hall forum, Lorraine Hansberry was battling more than ideas -she was fighting cancer. Her body was beginning to whither and she was on painkillers. Robert Nemiroff, her former husband, says she "rose from a sickbed," determined to participate in the forum and "set forth the need for a new militancy and a radically new relationship between Blacks and Whites in the freedom struggle."11
Privately though, Hansberry worried she was becoming a coward. "Do I remain a revolutionary?" she wrote in her journal. "Intellectually – without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts?...Comfort has come to be its own corruption."12 In July of 1964, Hansberry wrote that when she regained her health she might travel to the South "to find out what kind of revolutionary I am."13
Hansberry never got the chance. She died on January 12, 1965, at the age of 34.
How do you talk about 300 years in four minutes? [sighs, laughter, applause] Was it ever so apparent we need this dialogue? [laughter, applause]
I wrote a letter to the New York Times recently which didn't get printed, which is getting to be my rapport with the New York Times. They said that it was too personal. What it concerned itself with was, I was in a bit of a stew over the stall-in, because when the stall-in was first announced, I said, "Oh, My God, now everybody's gone crazy, you know, tying up traffic. What's the matter with them? You know. Who needs it?" And then I noticed the reaction, starting in Washington and coming on up to New York among what we are all here calling the white liberal circles which was something like, you know, "You Negroes act right or you're going to ruin everything we're trying to do." [laughter] And that got me to thinking more seriously about the strategy and the tactic that the stall-in intended to accomplish.
And so I sat down and wrote a letter to the New York Times about the fact that I am of a generation of Negroes that comes after a whole lot of other generations and my father, for instance, who was, you know, real "American" type American: successful businessman, very civic-minded and so forth; was the sort of American who put a great deal of money, a great deal of his really extraordinary talents and a great deal of passion into everything that we say is the American way of going after goals. That is to say that he moved his family into a restricted area where no Negroes were supposed to live and then proceeded to fight the case in the courts all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. And this cost a great deal of money. It involved the assistance of NAACP attorneys and so on and this is the way of struggling that everyone says is the proper way to do and it eventually resulted in a decision against restrictive covenants which is very famous, Hansberry v. Lee. And that was very much applauded.
But the problem is that Negroes are just as segregated in the city of Chicago now as they were then [laughter] and my father died a disillusioned exile in another country. That is the reality that I'm faced with when I get up and I read that some Negroes my own age and younger say that we must now lie down in the streets, tie up traffic, stop ambulances, do whatever we can, take to the hills if necessary with some guns and fight back, you see. This is the difference.
And I wrote to the Times and said, you know, "Can't you understand that this is the perspective from which we are now speaking? It isn't as if we got up today and said, you know, 'what can we do to irritate America?' " [laughter] you know. It's because that since 1619, Negroes have tried every method of communication, of transformation of their situation from petition to the vote, everything. We've tried it all. There isn't anything that hasn't been exhausted. Isn't it rather remarkable that we can talk about a people who were publishing newspapers while they were still in slavery in 1827, you see? We've been doing everything, writing editorials, Mr. Wechsler, for a long time, you know. [applause]
And now the charge of impatience is simply unbearable. I would like to submit that the problem is that, yes, there is a problem about white liberals. I think there's something horrible that Norman Podhoretz, for instance, can sit down and write the kind of trash that he did at this hour. [applause] That is to say that a distinguished American thinker can literally say that he is more disturbed at the sight of a mixed couple or that anti-Semitism from Negroes – and anti-Semitism from anybody is horrible and disgusting and I don't care where it comes from – but anti-Semitism, somehow, from a Negro apparently upsets him more than it would from a German fascist, you see. This was the implication of what really gets to him. [applause] Well, you have to understand that when we are confronted with that, we wonder who we are talking to and how far we are going to go.
The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical. [applause] I think that then it wouldn't – when that becomes true, some of the really eloquent things that were said before about the basic fabric of our society, which after all, is the thing which must be changed, you know, [applause] to really solve the problem, you know. The basic organization of American society is the thing that has Negroes in the situation that they are in and never let us lose sight of it.
When we then talk with that understanding, it won't be so difficult for people like Mr. Wechsler, whose sincerity I wouldn't dream of challenging, when I say to him [laughter] – his sincerity is one thing, I don't have to agree with his position. But it wouldn't be so difficult for me to say, well, now, when someone uses the term "cold war liberal" that it is entirely different, you see, the way that you would assess the Vietnamese war and the way that I would because I can't believe … [applause] I can't believe that anyone who is given what an American Negro is given – you know, our viewpoint – can believe that a government which has at its disposal a Federal Bureau of Investigation which cannot ever find the murderers of Negroes and by that method… [applause] and shows that it cares really very little about American citizens who are black, really are over somewhere fighting a war for a bunch of other colored people, you know, [laughter] several thousand miles – you just have a different viewpoint.
This is why we want the dialogue, to explain that to you, you see. It isn't a question of patriotism and loyalty. My brother fought for this country, my grandfather before that and so on and that's all a lot of nonsense when we criticize. The point is that we have a different viewpoint because, you know, we've been kicked in the face so often and the vantage point of Negroes is entirely different and these are some of the things we're trying to say. I don't want to go past my time. Thank you. [applause]