by Serena Zets
[originally published 10/11/19]
This is the beginning of a new Features column profiling radical past speakers and faculty of Oberlin College and Conservatory. If there’s a figure you want profiled, submit them to The Grape!
While it’s a right of passage for an Oberlin guest speaker or faculty member to spark campus-wide debate, few guest speakers have ever sparked as much controversy as Kwame Ture when he spoke at Finney Chapel in March of 1996. Ture (born Stokely Carmichael) rose through the ranks within SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) from one of its original freedom riders to becoming one of its leaders, before leading the national Black Panther Party and then the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. The FBI targeted Ture for his activism and forced him to flee to Ghana in 1968, where he adopted the name Kwame Ture and turned his activism to focus on Pan-African ideology and international struggle, rather than plights within the U.S. Ture was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996, causing him to return to the United States for treatment and, thus, allowing him to speak at Oberlin.
That spring, Third World House sponsored a “People of Color Lecture Series” and invited Ture to discuss his work regarding the civil rights and Pan-African movements. He came to campus to deliver an address on Pan-Africanism to the black community of Oberlin, but upon his arrival to campus, the leaders of Students for a Free Palestine asked him to do a seperate talk about zionism. In that seperate speech, he reiterated his anti-zionist stance and stated that “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.” This speech was met with dozens of student counterprotestors. It’s said that the Q&A portion of that talk lasted as long as his speech and eventually devolved into a shouting match between Ture and students.
The speech sparked such controversy that then-President of Oberlin, Nancy Dye, released a letter to the student body condemning Ture’s views and characterizing him as a “man consumed by rage.” This letter upset leaders of ABUSUA who appreciated his speech on Pan-Africanism, and ABUSUA’s co-chair stated that it seemed she was only supporting one community who had come to her upset. President Dye’s response effectively pitted the concerns of black students against Jewish students and disrupted networks of organizing across campus and its communities. A student at the time, Nakisha Heard, said: “People can't seem to get past the ‘the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist’ statement. He was talking about a whole lot of other stuff...[such as] Pan-Africanism and advice to the black community.”
Ture’s visit is often spoken about amongst radical Obies as if it were part of Oberlin folklore. Much like Chance the Rapper’s 2013 Sco show, most people have heard of it happening, but not many know exactly what went down. The content of Ture’s speech was not only historically relevant, but rather it gives us much to ponder as Oberlin’s communities continue to work through a precarious, and often frightening, era. In his address on Pan-Africanism, Ture said “Dialogue alone won't bring people together as common struggle will… In struggle, you can come together. Otherwise it's just talking.” A common critique of Oberlin activism is that it consists of too much talking and too little doing. Maybe our campus needs to evoke the legacy of Ture and take the further step beyond mere dialogue and unite under a common struggle, not for the sake of our institution, but for the sake of our communities.