Lorraine Hansberry Was an Unapologetic Radical

Joel Whitney in Jacobin:

In May 1963, in a Kennedy family living room on Central Park South, Lorraine Hansberry tried to defend civil rights activists’ safety. The Raisin in the Sun playwright had come along with actor Harry Belafonte, author James Baldwin, and other luminaries at the invitation of Robert F. Kennedy and Baldwin. She listened as activist Jerome Smith tried to impress upon the attorney general the level of violence protesters were facing in the South. Smith had come straight from the Freedom Rides for medical treatment on his jaw and head, having been beaten in Birmingham.

The young unknown activist spoke first among the prestigious attendees. He chided Kennedy for not doing enough to protect protesters. On television and in newspapers around the world, it was clear that African American protesters were routinely punched, kicked, spat upon, clubbed, hosed, and had police dogs sicced on them. For what? Wanting to vote? Equal protection? Just being there, he said, made him sick at the administration’s inaction.

When Kennedy turned away from Smith — as if to say, “I’ll talk to all of you, who are civilized. But who is he?” — Hansberry “unleashed,” Imani Perry writes in her recent biography. There were many accomplished individuals in the room, Hansberry said, but Smith’s was the “voice of twenty-two million people.” Kennedy should not only listen; he should give his “moral commitment” to protect those like Smith.

More here.