I didn’t tear down that mural to get a plaque!

The following presentation was made by Chairman Omali Yeshitela at a press conference held on June 15, 2020 by the Uhuru Movement in response to the St. Petersburg city council’s proposal to hang a plaque on the blank wall in city hall to replace an offensive anti-African, white nationalist mural that the Chairman tore down during a demonstration in 1966.

Uhuru. I want to thank the media and everyone else who came out to this press conference. We’re having this discussion in the wake of a stealth meeting and decision that was made by the city council here about putting up a plaque in the place of a 7 by 10 foot mural that was removed from the wall of the highest seat of government in this city 54 years ago.

Fifty-four years ago in this city, African people, though poor and struggling, were dignified people whose dignity rested in part on a platform of some element of self-reliance.

Fifty-four years ago in this city, Africans owned nightclubs, dry cleaners, grocery stores, restaurants, motels and lawn services. We controlled two elementary schools and a junior college. Fifty-four years ago, that was reality.

Fifty-four years ago, when that mural came down, it was in the context of a changing of the guard in terms of the leadership of African people—not only in this city, but throughout the country and the world. It was a time when the Black Power movement had exploded throughout this country and had captivated the imagination of people fighting for freedom everywhere.

The Black Power movement was introduced to the city of St. Petersburg by the local branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that I organized and brought to this city. We actually had an office with a huge black panther on the wall on 22nd Street across from what is now a pale imitation of the Manhattan Casino.

Fifty-four years ago, we were engaged in serious struggles around this country, and the emergence of SNCC and Black Power did not only frighten the ruling class—the ones who control the cities, the counties and states throughout this country—but it frightened a sector of the black population as well.

We call them the black petty bourgeoisie. That is the little bourgeoisie that is the imitation ruling class that has been put in our communities.

Today, we hear many of their representatives talking about how they detested the mural. Today, they say that the mural was such a horrible thing and that taking it down should be commemorated.

Fifty-four years ago, that’s not what they said. The NAACP publicly came out in opposition to the mural coming down. Five days before we had the march that brought the mural down, we ended up having to do a protest in the most influential black church in the city of St. Petersburg because of its collaboration.

What was then the St. Petersburg Times, the dominant media organization, and other leading ruling class forces in this city had secret meetings. We only learned about them because there were some people in the black middle class or African petty bourgeoisie that had enough integrity that they let us know that the black preachers were meeting behind our backs with the government and the media to try and keep this protest from happening around the mural and the other things we were fighting about in this city.

Fifty-four years ago, this city government right here, as we were notified through the media, were receiving a $50 million federal grant. They said this federal grant would be used to beautify downtown white St. Petersburg.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came out in opposition to that, saying that $50 million coming into the city of St. Petersburg should do something about paving streets that were not paved in the black community here.

It should do something about some kind of economic development coming to the black community because we pay taxes, too. And some of that tax money should come to the community of suffering black people. That’s what we said.

This is what the basis of our demonstrations against the city hall and against the mural was because the mural was a symbol. It was a glaring symbol of the relationship that existed between an impoverished, powerless African population, white people and the rulers who occupied the city hall.

So when we came here 54 years ago and marched under city hall, we were not marching for a plaque that would go up there. We were marching for a change, an improvement in the conditions of our people and for the black community to have some kind of power over our destiny.

Fifty-four years ago, I was called Joe Waller. That was the name given to my father by his father. But, the fact of the matter is we were called Joe Waller because white people owned us whose names were Waller.

Fifty-four years ago, we were just beginning to become conscious of how that acceptance of that definition by white power was collaboration with our own oppression.

This is why Joe Waller became Omali Yeshitela. This is why Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. This is why Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, because we refuse to be identified with the oppressor.

We said, we are not your animal that you can name any way you want. We said who we are. That’s what having some power over our life is about.

Things have changed for the worse in 54 years

So, things have changed considerably since 54 years ago. What is changed?

There are few black-owned restaurants. There are no black-owned service stations as there were 54 years ago. There are no black-owned nightclubs. There are no black-owned dry cleaners. There are no black-owned grocery stores.

The motels don’t exist. There is no Gibbs Junior College—named for a black man by the way. There are even very few black-owned lawn services and other kinds of things that would take care of ourselves.

The fact of the matter is, things are worse today in 2020 than they were 54 years ago in 1966 when that mural was torn from that wall. And that mural was torn from that wall not because we wanted a plaque, but we wanted the conditions in the black community changed. We demanded that then, and we demand that today. That’s what it’s about.

So this consternation that we see with some white liberals and their black minions about why they can’t get some kind of agreement from me—first of all, they haven’t even talked to me. They lied when they said they had some communication.

Why would I tell a lie about it? I tore the mural down. I went to prison for it. Why the hell would I be so afraid that I wouldn’t tell the truth about their questions?

They lied. In fact, when they put me on trial, I was given an opportunity. They said, all you got to do is when we put you on the stand, just say if you had the opportunity to do it again you wouldn’t do it. You won’t have to go to prison.

But to have said that was to deny the significance of the struggle of our people and to be an example not for the struggle in the interest of our people, but the power of white people who can make you say anything that they want you to say. I don’t say something just because you want me to say it. You can’t make me lie about the fact you never said anything to me, but even if you had, the struggle wasn’t about a plaque.

It was about changing the power relationships that exist between black people and this government—these people who 54 years since that time continue the process of beautifying downtown white St. Petersburg with growing skyscrapers and growing entities here representing wealth and richness that’s shucked from a black community that gets no value from the taxes that we pay or the labor that we do.

So, that’s why they can’t get cooperation from me. I’m not a part of a process to show that St. Petersburg is much better 54 years since, and that’s what this project is supposed to be.

There’s no progress that’s been made here. We’ve been pushed back, and the businesses in our communities have been destroyed.

Because they destroyed the black-owned businesses, they created a situation where every black person who’s a part of the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie works for the system and relies on the government in some way or another to feed their families.

This means they are generally spineless. They cannot stand up for the black community because if they do, boss will cut the bottom out from under them.

We have a situation where some white liberal told somebody about how unreasonable we were, and they were really trying to get it right because they said Gwen Reese—who’s on some kind of committee that they created here—has been working 20 years for this.

Well damn, if Gwen Reese wants the mural or plaque, let’s get a plaque for Gwen Reese. I wasn’t looking for a plaque. I was looking for a change in the condition of black people—then and now.

So if Gwen wants a plaque, I would not oppose it. In fact, we’d take up some money to get a plaque for Gwen Reese, but that’s not what this is about.

This is about our community—a suffering, oppressed community that built the economy of this city. That’s who we are here to represent.

Crawford Jones, Tommy Williams, Jodi Wall, Lemuel Green, John Bryant were with me when we tore that mural down. Joey Wall was 17-years-old. They went to jail. Some of them have never overcome the consequences of having gone to jail for tearing that mural down.

Gwen Reese was not there. Lemuel Green was there. Jodi Wall was there. Crawford Jones was there. Tommy Williams was there. John Bryant was there.

We were there. The sectors of the black petty bourgeoisie who had denounced us did not show their faces. You talk about a plaque, but how the hell can you even think about a plaque or some commemoration of what happened without mentioning those men who were there as well?

Their families have suffered as a consequence of that. They couldn’t get jobs because they were now felons or had gone to prison.

The city of St. Petersburg owes reparations

And now the city of St. Petersburg wants to engage in this charade, somehow showing how wonderful it is 54 years hence because they want to put a plaque on the wall where their humiliating portrait was.

I want to say that this city needs to pay reparations to black people. It needs to do a formal apology to this community because it perpetuated this myth of black inferiority, black worthlessness and white superiority.

That’s what that mural was. So every time somebody came here to the seat of local power that was the image that was projected. That was the thing that helped to influence the ideology in this city about black people.

All the black people who lived here lived under the weight of that. All the white people lived under the illusion that there was something real about what that picture portrayed. It held us up as animals, as monkey-type caricatures of human beings. 

So reparations needs to happen. I’m not talking in terms of mere abstraction.

The city government, in the process of making itself more wonderful, took a community from us. Then they plowed over graveyards where black people lived. They put a dome there for a baseball team that didn’t even exist at the time.

They lied to the black community and said they were going to take your property, your livelihood, your ability to have a living, and they were going to give you some light industry jobs there.

They lied. They had a policy of lying then like they have a policy of lying today. Then they destroyed more than 100 black businesses. More than 300 black families were pushed out of there.

They did that most recently. Then they put a baseball dome there, and then the jobs—where are the jobs? You can’t even get a job selling peanuts at the baseball dome, and then they wonder why nobody comes and participates in that charade.

They call it the dome, we call it the tomb because that’s effectively what they’ve done to our community.

We want it back. We want the land back. We want reparations that will create an economic capacity of black people there. We want real introduction to an economic development and self-reliance.

Keep your plaque. Give it to Gwen. Give it to anybody else who will collaborate with you against my community, but we want that land.

We want reparations. We want a formal apology from the city of St. Petersburg for what it has done to black people now and what it has done historically. This is what we are demanding.

Calling on everybody to stand on the right side of history

Even as I talked about sectors of the African petty bourgeoisie, they weren’t all like that. There were some people with integrity and dignity.

I can talk about Dr. Sonny Leggett, a dentist in this city, who was the first treasurer of the Junta of Militant Organizations (JOMO). That was the organization that came after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I can talk about John Hopkins Jr.

Stokely Carmichael had come to this city after my arrest, and John Hopkins Jr. came in and gave me the Black Power sign. He was a significant force. They named the school here after his father. He was part of the petty bourgeoisie who stood on the right side.

Miss McGlinn, who was a school teacher here, stood on the right side. Samuel Robinson and Peggy Peterman, these were people who stood on the right side. Everybody wasn’t a sell-out.

So, we’re calling on everybody to take a different stance here. It’s not about a plaque. I never fought for a plaque.

I can tell you things that we did fight for that changed this city. I can tell you a huge struggle that we’re involved in and middle class negros benefited from it. Lemuel didn’t benefit from it.

Jodi Wall and John Bryant didn’t benefit from it. Crawford Jones and Tommy Williams didn’t benefit from it.

But middle-class Negros, many of whom have the phone number of the mayor in their back pockets or their purses, have those kinds of connections. The African working class, we don’t have that. That’s why we’re not flattered by the presence of white people or white leaders. We want power over our lives.

This is the final statement I’m going to make. I’m saying that if you want to put some ridiculous plaque on that wall and you do it before I die, I’m telling you now, I am coming into that building—even if I have to use a jackhammer to do it, and I will take it off that wall. One more time, I will take it down.

I will not allow the city of St. Petersburg to perpetuate this charade.

The truth will prevail. All around this country and around the world, symbols of colonialism are being torn down, thrown into the ocean.

At that time 54 years ago, no one had to tell us about taking the Confederate statue down. We, the people who are oppressed, took it down. We don’t wait for your permission to say that we can be free. We make our freedom happen ourselves.

So, hear us today. People are tearing down all kinds of symbols of colonial oppression,  and this city thinks that it can take us back more than 50 years ago and define who we are and what we stand for by putting some stupid plaque up that represents their interests and not the interests of my community. No more days like that.

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