Teresa's field notes from “The Unfinished Business of Civil Rights: What Can We Do?”  

October 22, 2003
In Allen Hall’s South Rec. Room
Guest speaker Ben Cox

Allen Hall is a Residence Hall in the Urbana side of campus town, on Gregory and Dorner streets.  This specific residence hall is almost notorious among students for the level of academic involvement and programming it provides.  Ben Cox is speaking in what is in essence a classroom in the basement of Allen Hall, with very comfortable desks, carpeted floors, and cubically stacked carpeted boxes for students to sit on.  Between 10-15 people are already in here at 6:50pm.  They are either standing or shuffling around the entrance of the room.  Most of them are resident Advisors and Programming Advisors [which I know from being a resident advisor last year they are here because every Wednesday they have Staff D (development) from 7-9pm, but when there is a program going on in the hall they all attend the program].   There are only a handful of other students here thus far.  There is only one student [besides myself] with a notebook.  She is sitting in front of me waiting for things to begin, not talking to anyone else.  She is African American, one of four African Americans in the room, including the speaker.  [She might be here for a class project since that would be the main reason for having a notebook out.]

                  It is already five past seven.  Everyone is still chitchatting, but more people are here, twenty-two to be exact.  It is a diverse group, half men, and half women.  The students who do not appear to be a part of the Allen Hall staff are isolated, [along with myself], in the further section of the room.  There are three more students now, two with notebooks.  Waiting, the students are waiting in an almost uncomfortable sense.  They are isolated and most everyone else here knows and is talking with someone else.  [The Allen Hall RD, who was my RD last year just said hi, asked why I was here.  I told him, and he thanked me for coming to the program.]  One of the staff members stands leans over to another staff member and asks whether she should start the event.  It is ten past seven when she starts to speak.  The room quiets down as she introduces Ben Cox.  It is now quiet to the point that I can hear the hum of the electricity going through the room.

She states that Ben was active in the civil rights movement, was jailed 17 times and did spend some time in solitary confinement.  Everyone is listening, stern faced, quiet.  One girl, the African American girl with the notebook, is taking notes as is the Latino sitting next to her.

                  Ben starts speaking about women, their hardships and then shifts his focus to the right to vote.  He strongly promoted becoming a registered voter.  He stressed the four B’s.  Respecting the body, using the ballot, the bill of rights, and the knowledge of the book.    He’s a preacher referenced the bible and stated the “there is nothing wrong with sex”, some students “hu” [this is difficult to spell but I can tell you what I mean by “hu”]. One young female resident advisor is leaning over her chair into the aisle in order to better see Ben.  “Inequality in Money”…  “Every service station in Chicago is owned by a foreigner.”  The young women sitting in front of me taking notes, nods and says “uh huh.”  “We need to save our money,” Ben said.

                  Ben’s conversation is very sporadic, sometimes it flows from one thought to the next, sometimes he pauses for 5-15 seconds, before he starts up a new topic, which is different from the previous but related to civil rights.  “We all need symbols to live by.”  One more student enters; some others shuffle in their chairs eyes still focused on Ben.  “I look around the campus…there seem to be more Asians here than Africans and there are no Haitians that I see.”  “There is inequality to all people.”  Ben is an older man, he makes jokes and tells a story about how he was afraid to approach a woman.  He smelled clean, “I took a bath”, more laughs…

He asks a question and looks directly at a student “If you were dying would it matter whose blood you had?”  One student whom he is looking at shakes his head.  Ben says, “If I was dying, I’d say, “give me blood, give me blood!” There is more laughing; it is a quiet laughter, a hearty yet low laughter.

Another student was caught by his gaze and just stared back.  [I cannot help but smile when his eyes focus on mine.  He is one of those people who could smile saying anything.]  He is a very happy man, even when he said “and a white man spit in my eye, and all my anger, upbringing, non-violent learning swelled up in me.”  He is a preacher, a very charming man.  He blinks though, as if blinking back the pain the telling of his memories invokes.  He is not giving a speech.  He is just speaking.  “If someone discriminates, you aught to holler as loud as you can” against the person who discriminated.  The real crime is to be discriminated against and to walk away silently.”

“I taught some white kids and failed them, they said I did it cause I was black,” some students in the room chuckle.  The African-American woman/student sitting in front of me chuckled while he lowered and shook his head.

A young white student in the audience asks a question about his earlier comments.  He responds, “If a gay or lesbian were being discriminated against I would walk a picket line with them even though I don’t believe their beliefs.”  More students nod at this comment.  A resident advisor sitting two rows back asks a question regarding discrimination against women.  She is very articulate.  He answers, “When I see women out jogging with a dog I see injustice.”

Another student of middle-eastern descent sitting in the front row asks a question on reparations.  The African-American student jots downs a few more notes.  There are no side conversations going on.  One student is playing with his palm pilot and another with her keys.  Another question is asked the conversation keeps going.  The young African-American student sitting in front of me raises her hand as high as her head, for a brief second then lowers it.  The speaker continues not noticing.  The student that was just playing with her keys ask a really insightful question, even admitting that she knows very little about the subject.  The African-American student waits and takes notes, still unnoticed. 

Ben, “The rich should help the poor since they made their money off the poor.”  The young woman in front of me finally asks her question. She asks Ben about his time in solitary confinement. “My life has been threatened 87 times.  I should be dead right now.”  One student behind me asks a question.  Everyone turns around watching him speak.  His eyes blink, as all the attention is now on him, he finishes his question, and everyone turns around.  He asked about what African-Americans should do if they do not feel like they are Americans, and when they express those feelings, they are told that they should not be entitled to things if they do not feel like they are Americans.

Ben responds by saying “They should pack their Samsonites and go somewhere else.”

“I don’t feel that you can complain if you don’t feel that you can complain if you don’t vote.”  (Everyone, besides me, has stopped taking notes.  Everyone is very quiet and attentive and questions keep coming.  People are internalizing what he is saying.)  There are many “umm hmms” and nods.  Many heads are resting on hands, facing Ben. 

“Excuse me but what pisses me off…” he continues, “these people who are complaining, but they have Suburbans, they go home to the suburbs.  It’s not all about the “bling bling”… How do I reach these people? Keep asking, keep asking,” he stresses the importance of trying and voting.

A student on the back comments on how all people should work together in order to achieve these goals.

Another student in a back row, an Art student, makes a statement in direct opposition to the previous student, which most of the audience seems startled confused to hear.  “The most important way for African Americans to come together is with themselves.” “Yeah it’s important to have alliances with whites, Latino’s and Native Americans, but I think it is most important for us to help ourselves.”  Everyone is now looking to Ben for a response to this students comment.

Ben states, “I can persuade a black man better than a white man can.  Self help is good.” 

The conversation flows from Bens comments, and then shifts to a question about women’s roles.  Ben again states, “ We should vote! There are times I’ve went in there and just voted for every female.  (A break in his speech, it’s quiet for around 20 seconds.)  “You have to embarrass people to do right.”

Then the same student in the back who made the initial comment about solidarity between all people and who has been fairly active throughout the conversation starts to speak:  “Segregation in the black community strengthens it.  Now we ain’t learning as much.  I understand what the young brother over here (he nods and points to the student who responded to he earlier comment), said but I’m not sure that it’s the way to go.”  The other student listens and then makes a comment into his friends ear. 

Ben responds with some agreement but emphasizes the importance of everyone coming together so as there is no segregation wither within or between ethnicities. 

The student who whispered in his friends ear now raises his hands and then directs a questions to Ben, “Do you ever think there is a time for violence? Like Malcolm X?”

Ben says, “Yes.”  “When I was in my home and people were protesting outside, I had five guns on the windows and a German Shepard.”  Ben believes there is a difference between public protests and attacks, and threatening someone in their home.

The young African-American woman in front of me asks if Ben has ever questioned God through all his struggles, in punishments, etc…

“Yes…but you have to keep going. If you don’t you might as well go to the mountains and have them measure you up.”

“Keep working for what is right!”

“…March forward, holding hands with anyone marching in the same direction.”  He closes hoping we all go to heaven and that he will too.  “If you find another country better than America, call me collect.”

Kendy Olaguez and a young African American woman go up to Ben after he finishes, while everyone else exits.  It is 8:15pm.

[Ben is a wonderful public speaker.  He has a response for everything, almost similar to a politician.  You can tell by they way he speaks that he is an activist.  He is a motivational speaker of sorts. I left there feeling inspired and motivated to work towards a better world.]

[Some information on the room.  The students are at the same level as the speaker, even though he is sitting at a desk in front of the chairs.  There are four rows of seats, and three rows of box like carpeted bleacher seats.]