St. Petersburg—On a stage warmly decorated like an African-style living room, University of South Florida special collections librarian Jim Schnur conducted a lively, relaxed interview with Chairman Omali Yeshitela in front of a diverse audience of more than 100 people on Thursday evening, January 12.
Celebrating the recent acquisition by the USF-St. Petersburg’s Nelson Poynter Memorial Library of the largest public collection of the works of Omali Yeshitela anywhere in the world, the event was co-sponsored by the USF library and the Department of Florida Studies as a tribute to the Chairman.
The Chairman’s Chief of Staff and wife, OnaZene Yeshitela opened up the event, held at the Campus Activities Center, by welcoming the audience. She thanked the library for its “bold move” in creating the Yeshitela special collection and introduced Schnur.
In his opening remarks Librarian Schnur noted the significance of the library’s commitment to collect all of the works of Omali Yeshitela, saying that, “We are here to celebrate the acquisition of a collection that will be available for researchers forever.”
Schnur stated that the Chairman’s writings “will make a scholarly contribution,” adding that the special collections department “has a responsibility to preserve local history, including notable individuals in our history who helped shape the course of events.”
Painting a picture of the lynchings and terror faced by African people in Florida and the U.S. prior to the Civil Rights Movement, Schnur said of the Chairman’s early life:
“A couple of months before America’s entry into the Second World War a child was born in St. Petersburg—a child who learned to read at an incredibly young age, a child with great curiosity, a child who lived close to, yet so far away from, those green benches, those hotels, beaches and swimming pools that he and his family were prohibited from entering.
Schnur added, “Over the years some people have claimed that the work of Omali Yeshitela and the Uhuru Movement is controversial, but as we look at this man’s life, his work, his long struggle for social justice, he was not born in a vacuum.
“Yeshitela was born in a city where he could not use most of the facilities. He sought opportunities and he has made a very strong impression.”
As he welcomed Chairman Yeshitela up to the stage the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation.
Chairman Yeshitela talks to the people about his life and work
Schnur’s interview touched on every major period of the Chairman’s life, from his childhood, through the 1960s, his campaigns to free political prisoners in the ‘70s, his struggle for reparations for African people in the ‘80s, the rebellions in St. Petersburg in the 1990s and his work today.
Each question was accompanied by video footage or photos of the Chairman and the movement in that period projected up on a screen above the stage.
In response to a query about his childhood influences, the Chairman acknowledged that “most African people in this city and in this country lived in a state of terror….We understood that any enraged or angry white person could do something to us with impunity.”
The Chairman talked about his years in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the mid-1960s.
During this time he was applauded by freedom-loving people everywhere for boldly ripping down the offensive, racist mural that had hung on the landing in the St. Petersburg city hall since the 1930s.
Chairman Yeshitela described the mural as looking like “something from Ku Klux Klan literature.”
The Chairman pointed out in the audience John Bryant, who was one of the other SNCC members who participated with the Chairman—then known as Joseph Waller—in tearing down the painting in 1966.
Bryant, who is shown with the Chairman in pictures featured at the event, spent several months in the county jail and the Chairman went to prison for that action.
While many say that the Chairman performed a public service by taking down the racist mural—the empty space where the mural hung has been left empty by the city over the years—the Chairman noted that “the city did not think that then and it does not think that now.
“Once I die they will put up a plaque. But to be alive and still engaged in a struggle for social transformation makes it impossible for them to validate the struggle for social transformation because they are not interested in the struggle for social transformation.”
The Chairman’s statement was met with enthusiastic applause.
Speaking about the rebellions that broke out in the African community of St. Petersburg in 1996 following the police murder of TyRon Lewis, the Chairman commented, “That was one of the most significant times in the history of the city and in many ways the history of this country.”
“They murdered TyRon Lewis,” the Chairman continued. “He is dead…They gunned him down in broad daylight and people saw him murdered. There were more than 40 witnesses who testified at tribunals we had in our own community who saw him murdered…
“The people rose up, rightfully and righteously, and rebelled against that…No community can just allow that kind of thing to happen and not be affected in the worst kind of way.”
The Chairman went on to describe the police attack on the Uhuru House in November 1996 after the grand jury exonerated the cops who had killed TyRon Lewis.
At a community meeting the police began dumping all the tear gas in the city of St. Petersburg into the Uhuru House and setting the trees on fire on the grounds in an attempt to burn the building down.
“But the police did not anticipate the response of the community. This African community in St. Petersburg is a serious community. The people rose up to defend the Uhuru House. They rose up with bricks and bottles and they forced a helicopter down. I’m convinced that’s the reason I’m alive today—because of the people. “
As the interview concluded Schnur asked the Chairman how he sees the future.
“The empire is in trouble,” the Chairman said, “because people just like us have determined to change our relationship with imperialism. I see the future as being glorious and I am optimistic!”
After the interview Chairman Yeshitela signed copies of his books and the 2010 Omali Yeshitela calendar for members of the audience.
Community came to hear Chairman Omali despite media whiteout
Community members and townspeople young and old, African and North American, gathered to hear this unique interview that touched on many of the highlights of Chairman’s 40 years of building the African Liberation Movement.
The audience included former police chief—and St. Petersburg’s first African police chief—Goliath Davis, who brought his copy of the Omali Yeshitela calendar to be signed by the Chairman.
Shirley and Jan Reiner, who is now 100 years old and a supporter of the Chairman’s since the 1960s, were there, along with the Chair of Africana Studies at USF in Tampa, Deborah Plant.
USF professors, deans and students from Tampa and St. Petersburg were in attendance as the audience sat riveted while the Chairman talked candidly about his life and his unwavering belief that African working people everywhere must come together to liberate Africa.
Others in attendance included Anne and Dan Callaghan, who coordinated the presentation by the Chairman to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, FL last summer.
Former members of the Chairman’s organization, Citizens United for Shared Prosperity (CUSP), Bill and Marcia Hughes and Midwife Anne Hirsch were there.
Long time Uhuru Movement supporter Josephine Morris was in attendance, as well as Alvelita Donaldson and many members of the Waller/Yeshitela family.
Pictures were taken by local photographer Pop Lancaster, whose activism goes back to the early days of the Uhuru Movement.
African dessert buffet was centerpiece of the decor
OnaZene Yeshitela was the artistic director, responsible for transforming USF-St. Petersburg’s Campus Activities Center, which doubles as a basketball court, into a stunning African wonderland with twinkling lights, vertical banners of the Chairman, and tables beautifully displaying the historical calendar and books.
Along with the Tammy Harris, the Chairman’s Administrative Assistant, OnaZene created the centerpiece of the decor: the African dessert buffet, piled high with gorgeous and creatively decorated cakes and pies, displayed on African cloth surrounded by African art.
Despite the community’s interest in this beautiful and historic event that represented a validation of the Chairman’s political significance by a major institution of higher learning, the mainstream media boycotted the evening.
“The St. Petersburg Times” ran only two small announcements prior to the event and sent no reporter or photographer to the program.
No major TV or radio stations, with the exception of enthusiastic volunteer reporter Tom Bauer from the Tampa Pacifica affiliate, WMNF were present.
It is clear that the local media did not want to give exposure to the fact that the influence of Chairman Omali Yeshitela and the African Liberation Movement is greater than ever today, and that fact has been recognized by the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg’s library.
But for the hundred or so people who came out on January 21 to hear Chairman Omali Yeshitela it was a night to remember.
As Clearwater, FL businessman and Uhuru Solidarity Movement activist Scott Milinder summed up the event:
“I was moved to witness Omali Yeshitela's deeply human and personal account of his life-long struggle against the continued oppression of black and other colonized people in the U.S., Africa and elsewhere.
“His journey began in St. Petersburg Florida decades ago and the influence of his ideas and vision for the future will travel around the world for many more decades.”
The entire event with was broadcast live on Uhuru Radio and is currently available at www.uhurunews.com
One Africa! One Nation!