“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.”

Lorraine HansberryIn 1964, Lorraine Hansberry, who is best remembered for her play A Raisin in the Sun, spoke these words during a forum at Town Hall in New York City. “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” sponsored by the Association of Artists for Freedom — a collective of black actors and writers including Ossie Davis and James Baldwin — convened white liberals and black activists to discuss disagreements that were fomenting between these two groups as the civil rights struggles of the 1960s unfolded.

The intentions of the Town Hall forum echo the questions we’ve been asking in our Civil Conversations Project: How do we find new ways to speak and listen to each other, to live forward together, even while holding passionate disagreements?

In her seven-minute speech (featured as part of American RadioWorks’ radio documentary “Say It Loud”), Hansberry articulates the frustrations of blacks who struggled against oppression using “proper” channels like the courts and saw meager results in return. Hansberry’s own father battled Chicago’s segregated housing codes all the way up to the Supreme Court — and won. But in the end, this victory didn’t catalyze bigger changes. Chicago remained residentially segregated and Hansberry’s father “died a disillusioned exile in another country.”

Hansberry uses her speech to call out white liberals for being too timid. In her private journals though, she questioned the limits of her own courage: “Do I remain a revolutionary?” she wrote. “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.” 

Hansberry’s trenchant public words, juxtaposed with the self-doubt she expressed in her journals, reveal a woman who was fierce and also vulnerable. Sadly, Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34, only seven months after she gave this speech.

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I wish this were a quaint look back at a bygone era, but her words are fresh, the problem - "The Negro Problem" as whites liked to cast it - is still with us today. Oh how quickly everyone wanted to sweep it all under the carpet on January 20, 2009. But the tea party lifted its skirts to show us that it's still here. These words still have meaning, actions are still necessary.