Full text of activist and historian Curtis Austin’s talk: The Real Story of the Black Panther Party at TEDxOhioStateUniversity conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Real Story of the Black Panther Party at TEDxOhioStateUniversity
I’ve been known as many things over the course of my life. I’ve been known as a son, a brother, a husband, an educator.
But in 2008, I became known as a felon. And I became known as a felon through a very curious set of circumstances.
I was teaching at a university in Mississippi at the time, teaching the History of the Civil Rights Movement, and I needed a car.
So, I did what most people would do. I went on the Internet and I found a car. This car I found was in Des Moines, Iowa. So I was going to fly to Des Moines and drive the car back.
A few weeks before that, I’d had a book signing, and I actually ran out of books at this book signing, but people wanted the books, so they gave me cash, and wrote me checks, and said, “The next time you come through town just bring the books with you.”
And I said, “OK. I’d do that.”
So I knew that when I was driving this car back from Iowa, I was going to have to pass through this town, so, I took the books with me.
So I packed my stuff up, went to the airport, checked in, made my way through security. And then I hear my name over the intercom. “Curtis Austin, return to the check-in counter.”
And so I do.
I get back to the check-in counter, and there’s this bevy of airport police and TSA agents surrounding my bag, just hovering over my bag.
And they’ve got these books, and they’re looking at these books. And the book has this picture on the cover. It’s a book about the Black Panther Party. And they’re flummoxed. They’re taken aback, you know?
They’ve got this black man, he’s got a one-way ticket to Iowa, no clothes, no toiletries, and all these books. And so they said, “Well, we’re going to have to call the FBI.”
I said, “Whoa! The FBI? Why?”
He says, “Well, that’s what we do in situations like this.”
And that’s what they did. They called the FBI. And the FBI came to the airport. TSA and airport security escorted me upstairs, put me in a room, and this FBI agent came in the room and began to interrogate me, but he had this book.
He was going through this book, and then he’d ask me questions, he’d look in the book and ask me more questions, and this interrogation went on for hours.
And I finally worked up the nerve to say, “Am I under arrest?”
And he said, “No, we’re just asking questions here.”
And I said, “Well, does that mean I can leave?”
And he said, “Yeah, you can leave.” So that’s what I did. I left. I found another flight. I went to Des Moines. I bought the car and drove it back and dropped the books off and went back to work.
I didn’t think much more about it. I mean, I thought it was bizarre, but I grew up black in Mississippi and so you get used to the bizarre.
And I don’t think about it anymore until one day I’m talking with my boss, and she says, “Curtis, we have a problem.”
And I said, “OK, what kind of problem do we have?”
She said, “Well, it’s come to my attention that you’re a felon, and we can’t allow felons to teach at the University.”
A felon? Wait a minute. This is a classic WTF moment for me, right? I don’t know what’s going on and she doesn’t either, but she says, “I think you should call the FBI.”
That’s what I do. I call the FBI, tell them who I am and why I’m calling, and they look me up on their system and the woman I’m talking to says, “Yeah, it says you’re a felon.”
I said, “Well, what did I do?”
She said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “When did I do it?”
She said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “Where did I do it?”
She said, “I don’t know. In fact, I don’t have any more information. Maybe, if you call the U.S. Attorney’s office, they can give you more information.”
So She gave me the number for the U.S. Attorney’s office. I called them. They looked me up in their system, and the person I spoke with said, “Yes, it says here you’re a felon.”
And I asked the same set of questions, and got the same exact set of answers. “I don’t know.”