MPR event, book recounts Black history through great speeches

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

Stephen Smith, co-author of Say It Loud! Great Speeches on Civil Rights and African American Identity -Photo by Laurie Stern

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) in February will debut a new work on Black oratory. Husband and wife Stephen Smith and Kate Ellis will host a 90-minute event February 8 to discuss their new book, Say It Loud! Great Speeches on Civil Rights and African American Identity at the MPR’s UBS Forum in St. Paul.

The free event will look at the last 50 years of Black history through speeches from across the political spectrum by renowned orators. It is part of a multi-media project, which includes the book, a companion CD, web- site and radio documentary, Smith told the MSR during a recent interview at MPR’s St. Paul headquarters. Say It Loud! is a sequel to Ellis and Smith’s Say It Plain (2005), about which Smith, a MPR executive editor and host, noted, “It was Black folk speaking to America at large.” Their past radio work also included a biography of Thurgood Marshall before he became a Supreme Court justice.

“Our concentration had been on the 20th century Civil Rights Movement in talking about stories in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” notes Smith, who adds that their latest work is a carefully chosen set of speeches that represent a range of perspectives from the past 50 years, with biographical and historical context inserted that precede each speech. “This book really starts in 1960,” admits Smith. “This book looks more at a wider range of political oratory. It includes everything from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr. to people who don’t get heard nearly as often.” One such person is Ella Baker: “Women did a lot of the work in the freedom movement, but they didn’t stand in front of the microphones very much,” says Smith.

“Everybody who knew [Baker] and worked with her say she could give a speech. We finally were able to track down a couple of her speeches.” One of Baker’s speeches, when she spoke to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Convention in 1963, will be among the excerpts that will be aired during the February 8 event.

“We didn’t find [it] until after the book had [gone] to press,” says Smith. Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize lecture, Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech in 1964 and speeches by Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver, among others, also are included in the book. “We also wanted to hear from people like Condoleezza Rice, Ward Connelly and the new generation of African American conservatives.

Say It Loud! really is the combination of Black Americans speaking to America, and more of a revelation of the conversation within the community about the best way in seeking socio-economic parity,” says Smith.

Smith says he got involved in history while in college as an English and literature major, and Ellis also has a long background in studying history, he added. “It is one of our mutual passions. It is history, but it is history of race in America and African American history. “There is no storyline that threads itself through our national historical fabric as boldly as the question of race,” surmises Smith. “This is a nation that was founded in a profoundly conflicted way. How can a nation [be] devoted to individual liberty but also be founded on slavery? My wife and I are both White, and sometimes people ask why a White person would be interested in Black history. African American history is American history.

“A lot of the excitement for us is explaining to a contemporary audience the relevance and ongoing meetings of these various people who were involved in trying to correct a founding mistake of the country in which we live,” notes Smith. Besides Baker, other oral treasures that Smith and Ellis also unearthed and presented included a speech by Shirley Chisholm at Howard University in 1969. “I [would be] surprised if anybody heard that speech since 1969,” continues Smith. “Not many people heard Lorraine Hansberry, and it was really interesting to feature James Cone, another towering figure that not a lot of people have heard over the years.” Many speeches were found at Howard University, “which has a really wonderful collection of recordings of various people who came to campus,” says Smith.

Others were not as easy to get because either they were not recorded, or not recorded well enough to recapture, or getting permission from family members or executors of decedents to use the speeches was a challenge. “We talked to a lot of people,” he reports. Not just the speeches but the individual’s personality also was captured in the book and CD as well, claims Smith. He was impressed with Malcolm X’s sense of humor, for example. “[Malcolm X] was an exceptionally funny man. People can hear an excerpt and not the entire speech, but they can hear the quality of the oratory.” Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s passionate speech on racism in 2008 also is in the book, reports Smith. “I think [President] Obama is important [because] he is being seen as a contemporary Black orator.” Smith says he is looking forward to the February 8 discussion, where he and Ellis will talk about how they chose the 23 speeches used in the book and what they learned along the way.

“Kate and I and my other colleagues have done a fair number of these kinds of mulit-media programs either in the UBS Forum or at bookstores or on campuses,” says Smith. “Our challenge is to try and select enough excerpts that are deep enough, engaging enough and long enough to be meaningful.” Admission is free to attend the February 8 MPR “Say It Loud” program at Minnesota Public Radio, 480 Cedar Street, St. Paul, but reservations are required. See the Spot listings above for more details.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.