A former head of a domestic terrorist organization spoke at Duke University on Nov. 15 to an apparently receptive crowd.
Elaine Brown, the first woman to lead the Black Panther Party, spoke at Duke’s Page Auditorium. Brown’s talk was sponsored by Duke’s Women’s Studies Department and the Black Student Alliance. Brown, who composed the Black Panther National Anthem, serves on the board of the foundation named for Black Panther leader Huey Newton.
Brown is also the author of A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, in which she chronicles her life and her involvement in the Black Panthers. Her book includes accounts of numerous brutalities committed by the Panthers, including the disappearance and murder of Betty Van Patter, for which Brown was also a suspect.
“If I did not believe in the ultimate rightness of our goals and our party,” she wrote, “then what we did, what Huey was doing, what he was, what I was, was horrible.”
Before her talk, Brown conducted an informal workshop with student leaders, on topics that ranged from her involvement in the Black Panthers, globalization, and the need for students to pick up the torch for civil rights.
The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, reported on Brown’s speech. According to reporter Andrew Collins, Brown’s speech was received by an “enthusiastic audience of over 200 people” who “frequently interrupted her with applause and laughter.”
What were they applauding? According to The Chronicle, Brown was severely critical of the United States’ war on terrorism. “Exactly what happened, and whose war is this, anyway?” Brown asked. “I’m telling you, as a black person, this is not my war… Yesterday, you didn’t even want to have a dialogue; now you want me off waving a flag?”
Brown criticized the money going to the war effort, including, Collins reported, the $40 billion going for defense and the $15 billion airline bailout. That money, Brown said, would be better spent on education.
Brown also called the U.S. government fascist and concerned only with the interests of big industry. “I think global fascism is in place,” Brown told the crowd. “The interests of this government are solely those of the big corporations. I don’t know any other definition of fascism.”
In denouncing “the Bush s—,” Brown said Secretary of State Colin Powell was “unqualified and dangerous.” She also called National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice “really crazy,” pronounced President George Bush “stupid” and a “cokehead,” and charged that “Laura Bush killed her ex-fiance.”
She also bashed school vouchers as “a bizarre, stupid program” and called Oprah Winfrey “America’s Mammy,”
Some Women’s Studies students said that The Chronicle’s account was incomplete and focused only on Brown’s controversial statements, although they agreed Brown was quoted accurately.
The Duke University News Service’s entry on the speech said nothing about the war on terrorism as a topic of Brown’s speech. All the information about the content of Brown’s lecture it offered was: “Elaine Brown, Black Panther Party. Ms. Brown will talk about the global struggle to end oppression of women and minorities worldwide.”
Weeks after the Brown event, the Duke campus was still buzzing.
Chronicle columnist John Zimmerman called it “remarkable” that the BSA and the Women’s Center “would stoop so low” in inviting Brown.
Zimmerman wrote that the only apparent criterion for those organizations to select a speaker “is that the person be a well-known member” of the appropriate minority group.
Brown was invited to speak “because she is a black female who has attained some notoriety,” Zimmerman wrote. “No matter that her fame results mostly from her criminal past; her race and her gender instantly qualify her to talk about ‘racism and feminism.'”
“Indeed, the Nov. 15 event would be no different than the Arab Students Organization’s sponsoring a talk by Osama bin Laden,” Zimmerman wrote. “After all, bin Laden is a well-known person and an Arab. Purely as a bonus, he happens to be a terrorist leader like Brown. According to BSA logic, bin Laden is a superstar!”
If the letters page of The Chronicle is any judge of student reaction, Zimmerman’s column provoked more of an outcry than Brown’s speech did.
On Nov. 30 Traci Bethea wrote that Zimmerman’s column sounded “like the ravings of a confused and threatened person with too much time — and a dictionary -— on his hands.”
Her take on Brown was this: “While I do not exactly agree with Brown’s remarks, she did improve the status of women by heading a major group of dissidents. This feat is remarkable.”
On Dec. 3 Jonathan Marshall wrote that Zimmerman was “actively striving to promote disrespect and ignorance.” He said Brown was “destroying the stereotype of blacks who contentedly accept their situation.”
On Dec. 6 Christopher Curtis wrote that Zimmerman lacked qualification to be critical of the BSA and the Women’s Center decision to invite Brown. “Since Zimmerman is neither a black in America nor a woman in our society, his enlightened insight regarding the qualifications of Brown to speak to this demographic certainly didn’t come from personal experience.”
Curtis also agreed with Brown about Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas, whom he said “were placed in power by white men” and thereby “do the most damage” to the cause of “disrupt[ing] the status quo.”
Zimmerman did receive one voice of support, however. “Zimmerman has a perfectly valid point,” Brice Johnson wrote on Dec. 3.
“It is the ideas in the movement that count, and those ideas expressed in Elaine Brown’s speech are counterproductive and offensive to all.”