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Mumia's voice: confined to Pennsylvania's death row, Mumia Abu-Jamal remains at the center of debate as he continues to write and options to appeal his police murder conviction dwindle.

Editor's Note: In April, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who became an internationally known braadcaster, author, and cause celebre from death row, released his latest book, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party (April 2004, South End Press). Two months later, The United States Supreme Court denied a request to consider the latest appeal of his conviction for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. According to the Associated Press, the appeal contended that the trial judge was racially hostile and that a state Supreme Court justice should not have participated in the case because he was a former prosecutor. On June 29, 2004, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit lifted its stay in Mumia's case and ordered briefing. A t presstime, Abu-Jamal had appeals still pending in local and federal courts challenging his 1982 conviction and subsequent death sentence.

Although he began life as Wesley Cook in Philadelphia 50 years ago last April, Mumia Abu-Jamal's voice was born at the age of 15.

At a 1968 George Wallace for President rally in Philadelphia, Cook and his friends booed and hissed Wallace and his supporters. Some Wallace supporters became a northern lynch mob. A frantic Cook happily spied a policeman. Abu-Jamal wrote about what happened next in his first book, Live From Death Row (Perseus, June 1995): "The cop saw me on the ground being beaten to a pulp, marched over briskly-and kicked me in the face. I have been thankful to that faceless cop ever since, because he kicked me into the Black Panther Party."

The following year, a May Day rally was held in Philadelphia for Huey Newton, then-jailed Black Panther Party cofounder. The Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party--including someone now named "Wes Mumia" (a.k.a. "West Mumia" a.k.a. "Mumia X," a.k.a. "Bro. Mumia")--made its first public appearance. He described the day in his new book, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party:

"Between fifteen and twenty of us are in the full uniform of black berets, black jackets of smooth leather, and black trousers ... We thought, in the amorphous realm of hope, youth and boundless optimism, that revolution was virtually a heartbeat away. It was four years since Malcolm's assassination and just over a year since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Vietnam War was flaring up under Nixon's Vietnamization program, and the rising columns of smoke from Black rebellions in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and North Philly could still be sensed--their ashen smoldering still tasted in the air." The atmosphere was also tainted with the stink of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which reported on the rally and immediately opened a file on the 15-year-old Wesley cook.

Wes Mumia threw himself into the party's work, becoming the branch's Lieutenant of Information. He wrote for The Black Panther, the BPP's national newspaper ("Throughout our history, some niggers have refused to bow down and be beaten into the dust"), and served as the Philadelphia chapter's spokesman. All along, the Bureau followed his every move, taking down his every word--even when he left the party in late 1970, got a GED and began attending Goddard College.

But Goddard couldn't hold his attention. His voice found its own space: the radio. Wes Mumia became Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Mumia Abu-Jamal became part of that first generation of black radio reporters that dominated 1970s "soul" AM. Throughout his twenties, he bicycled the streets of Philadelphia, armed only with a tape recorder. But this now-recognizable voice would fade by the end of the decade. His on-air sympathy to the MOVE Organization, a radical, predominately black back-to-nature group, got him dismissed from the media mainstream.

While driving a borrowed cab for a living, Abu-Jamal saw his brother, William Cook, and a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, in each other's faces on a city street in the early morning of December 9, 1981. Abu-Jamal ran toward the two men. Guns were fired. Abu-Jamal and Faulkner were shot, with Faulkner dying at that corner. Abu-Jamal's gun was found at the scene. Zealots and conspiracy theorists on the left and law and order types on the right have argued about the rest for more than 20 years.

Abu-Jamal was brought in front of Common Pleas Court Judge Albert Sabo, a former member of the city's Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs Association. Amnesty International reports that Sabo "presided over trials in which 31 defendants were sentenced to death.... Of the 31 condemned defendants, 29 came flora ethnic minorities." (In 2001, Abu-Jamal's attorneys produced a sworn statement from a court stenographer who said she overheard Sabo saying he would help the prosecution "fry the nigger" during the trial. Sabo had denied this before his death two years ago, and the claim was ignored by Philadelphia's District Attorney's Office.)

Only two blacks sat on Abu-Jamal's 12-member jury after the prosecution removed most of the African Americans from the jury pool. Abu-Jamal's demands m have MOVE founder John Africa serve as cocounsel while he defended himself were refused. Sabo took away Abu-Jamal's right to defend himself after the defendant continued to protest. Abu-Jamal, who had no prior criminal record, was convicted of first-degree murder. During the trial's sentencing phase, the prosecution emphasized Abu-Jamal's Black Panther past--effectively throwing his teenage Panther voice back at him in front of the jury. Sabo sentenced Abu-Jamal to death.

Different incarnations of Abu-Jamal's defense attorneys have argued that he is either innocent of the crime or that he should not have been convicted of first-degree murder. For example, defense witnesses have given various accounts of the shooting, with some mentioning a fourth person running away from the scene. All of his attorneys have argued that Abu-Jamal was given the following: an unfair trial by a pro-death penalty and pro-police judge, an ineffective defense attorney, and a sentencing hearing that emphasized his less-than-two-year-membership in the Black Panther Party.

Silence. Then a trickle of letters. Then an almost-forgotten chapbook of essays, Survival Is Not a Crime, mostly expressing his anger over the 1985 bombing of MOVE's home. Then individual Op-Ed articles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of which were recorded for National Public Radio in 1994. NPR, however, dropped its plans to air them just days before they were to start on its signature news-magazine show, All Things Considered, after an avalanche of right wing criticism. Soon after, he published Live From Death Row, a full-fledged collection of his essays about prison life. The book got him put in Death Row's equivalent of solitary confinement fox, according to prison regulations, engaging in entrepreneurship. He was placed in complete isolation in 1995 after an execution date was set. The execution date was later suspended.

Abu-Jamal eventually won the battle to write for pay from prison, but he would lose significant skirmishes. When HBO, in 1996, aired the documentary Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case of Reasonable Doubt? (which included a compelling interview with its subject), the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections banned outsiders from using any recording equipment in state prisons. In August 1999, prison authorities yanked the wires of Abu-Jamal's telephone out of the wall when, for a brief time, he began doing his radio commentaries live on the Pacifica network's Democracy Now, the national leftist weekday radio newsmagazine. They did so while he was on the phone and on-air.

Abu-Jamal's voice, now fully matured, took advantage of the controversies. It can now be heard regularly on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now. Of at concert fund-raisers for his case. Or at graduation ceremonies at colleges filled with leftist students. On CDs produced by his supporters. In other books, including last year's scholarly meditation, Faith of Our Fathers: An Examination of the Spiritual Life of African and African-American People (Africa World Press, April 2003).

The activist became the journalist, the journalist became the convicted murder, and the convicted murder became the symbol and the scholar, the object and the prism--all through the tenor and tenure of one voice. This one black voice deepens and simultaneously shatters both the silence and the noise. Guilty or innocent, it echoes from the tiny chamber of death around the world, inspiring, engaging (and, for some, enraging), a dual symbol of oppression and freedom.


We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party South End Press, April 2004 $40.00, ISBN 0-896 08718-2

Faith of Our Fathers: An Examination of the Spiritual Life of African and African-American People Africa World Press, Inc, April 2003 $19.95, ISBN 1-592-21019-8

Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D. ( is a researcher/writer based in Hyattsville, Md. He is a primary author of Civil Rights Chronicle (Legacy), a history of the Civil Rights Movement. He also is a contributor to Putting the Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching (Teaching for Change), a K-12 teaching guide of the Civil Rights Movement.
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Title Annotation:spotlight
Author:Burroughs, Todd Steven
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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