† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
“A Life Lived Deliberately”
by Mumia Abu-Jamal,
Graduation Speech at Evergreen State College, June 11, 1999
Reprinted in The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings, Joy James, editor, and The Radical Philosophy Review
Editors Note: As I reflected back on 2012, The Year of the Vote, a year book-ended by the murder of Trayvon Martin and the massacre at Sandy Hook, I was struck by both the victories and the on-going struggles.
But mostly, I was grateful. For this space, for those who frequent it, for a multitude of organizations who persist in seeking transformative solutions to the monstrosities of criminal injustice, those who resist the lure of the quick-fix “confidence men” and remain committed, in the face of tremendous odds, to liberation, to Abolition.
Thank you especially to Seeta Persaud, Kay Whitlock, Angola 3 News, Project NIA and Prison Culture, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, Victoria Law, Critical Resistance , The Real Cost of Prisons Project, Solitary Watch and Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. Many more…
You all could be anywhere, doing anything but you have made a Deliberate Choice.
So too, have you readers. The subject matter of this series is difficult, rarely uplifting, but I am so grateful you choose to read, to engage, here and elsewhere, to pass the information and action calls on.
In that spirit, I offer tonight the speech Mumia Abu Jamal delivered to the graduating class of Evergreen College in June of 1999, the first graduation speech delivered by a death row inmate. (Mumia has since had his death sentence lifted and is serving life without parole. He has not been freed or silenced.) Students made the choice to invite him and they fought long and hard to have that finally honored. They lived the speech before he gave it – as it should be.
Whatever you think of Mumia’s case, or MOVE or militancy or the rest, the spirit of these words is right. So many stumble through life, deciding not to decide. Just surviving through either poverty or privilege – on the Mean Streets or Wall Streets, in the suites or in the ivory towers of academia. Some think it is easier to turn away — to avoid the pain or the obligation that always comes with knowledge and especially comes with privilege – but Not You.
You Live Life Deliberately and I Love You for It.
Thank You ~ Honored to be with you in the Struggle.
Here’s to 2013.
“Welcome, students of Evergreen, and thank you for this invitation: Ona MOVE! LLJA! I feel privileged to address your chosen theme, not because I am some kind of orator, but because a “life lived deliberately” has been the example of people that I admire and respect, such as Malcolm X; Dr. Huey P. Newton, founder of the BPP; like Ramona Africa, who survived the hellish bombing by police of May 13th, 1985; or the MOVE 9, committed rebels now encaged for up to 100 years in Pennsylvania hellholes, despite their innocence, solely for their adherence to the Teachings of JA!
These people, although of quite diverse beliefs, ideologies and lifestyles, shared something in common: a commitment to Revolution, and a determination to live that commitment, deliberately, in the face of staggering state repression. No doubt some of you are disconcerted by my use of the term, “revolution.” It is telling that people who claim, with pride, to be “proud Americans,” would disclaim the very process that made such a nationality possible (even if it was a bourgeois revolution).
Why was it right for people to revolt against the British because of “taxation without representation,” and somehow wrong for truly unrepresented Africans in America to revolt against Americans? For any oppressed people, revolution (according to the Declaration of Independence) is a right!
Malcolm X, although now widely acclaimed as a black nationalist martyr, was vilified at the time of his assassination by one major national media outlet (TIME Magazine) as “an unashamed demagogue” who “was a disaster to the civil rights movement.” The New York Times would describe him as a “twisted man” who used his brains and oratorical skills for an “evil purpose.”
Today, there are schools named for him, and recently, a postage stamp was issued in his honor.
Dr. Huey P. Newton, Ph.D., founded the Black Panther Party in Oct. 1966, and created one of the most militant and principled organizations American Blacks had ever seen. J. Edgar Hoover, of the FBI targeted the Party, using every foul and underhanded method they could conceive of to “neutralize” the group, which they described as the “number one threat to national security.”
Sister Ramona Africa, of the MOVE Organization survived one of the most remarkable bombings in American history, one where Philadelphia police massacred 11 men, women & children living in the MOVE home, and destroyed some 61 homes in the vicinity. She did 7 years in a state prison on riot charges, came out and began doing all she could to spread the Teachings of John Africa, the Teachings of Revolution, and to free her imprisoned brothers and sisters of MOVE from their repressive century in hellish prison cells.
These people dared to dissent, dared to speak out, dared to reject the status quo by becoming rebels against it.
They lived, and some of them continue to live, lives of deliberate will; of willed resistance to a system that is killing us.
Remember them, honor their highest moments, learn from them!
Are these not lives lived deliberately?
This system’s greatest fear has been that folks like you, young people, people who’ve begun to critically examine the world around them (some perhaps for the first time), people who have yet to have the spark of life snuffed out, will do just that — learn from those lives, be inspired, and then live lives in opposition to the deadening status quo.
Let me give you an example:
A young woman walks into a courtroom, one situated in the cradle of American democracy, to do some research for a law class. This woman, with dreams of becoming a lawyer, sits down and watches the court proceeding, and is stunned by what she sees.
She sees defendants prevented from defending themselves, manhandled in court, and cops lying on the stand with abandon. She saw the judge as nothing more than an administrator of injustice; and saw U.S. law as an illusion. Her mind reeled; as she said to herself, “They can’t do that!” as her eyes saw them doing whatever they wanted to.
That young woman is now known as Ramona Africa, who lived her life deliberately after attending several sessions of the MOVE trial in Philadelphia. After that farce she knew she could never be a part of a legal system that allowed it, and she found more truth in the Teachings of John Africa than she ever could in the lawbooks, which promised a kind of justice that was foreign to the courtrooms she had seen.
The contrast between America’s lofty promises and the truth of its legal repressions inspired her to be a revolutionary, one that America has tried to bomb into oblivion.
What is the difference between Ramona Africa and you?
Absolutely nothing — except she made that choice.
Similarly, Huey Newton studied U.S. law with close attention, when he was a student of Merrit Junior College in West Oakland, California. His studies convinced him that the laws must be changed, and the famous Black Panther Party 10 point program and platform proves, then and now, that serious problems still face the nation’s Black community, such as all, (or predominantly) white juries still sending Blacks to prison; and cops still treating Black life as a cheap commodity. Witness the recent Bronx execution of Guinean emigrant, Amadou Diallo, where cops fired 41 shots at an unarmed man, in the doorway of his apartment building.
Huey, at least in his earlier years, lived his life deliberately, and set the mark as a revolutionary.
What was the difference between Huey Newton and you?
Absolutely nothing — except he made that choice.
Each of the MOVE 9, (including the late Merle Africa, who died under somewhat questionable circumstances after 19 years into an unjust prison sentence) members of the MOVE organization whose trial initially attracted the attention of a young law student named Ramona decades ago, was a person who came to question their lives, as lived in the system. Some were U.S. Marines, some were petty criminals, some were carpenters, but all came to a point of questioning the status quo — deeply, honestly, and completely — irrevocably.
One by one, they turned their back on a system that they knew, couldn’t care less if they lived or died, and joined the revolution, after being exposed to the stirring Teachings of John Africa.
They individually chose to live life deliberately — and joined MOVE.
And although they are individuals — Delbert Africa, Janet Africa, Phil Africa, Janine Africa, Chuck Africa, Mike Africa, Debbie Africa and Eddie Africa — they are also united as MOVE members, united in heart and soul.
What is the difference between the MOVE 9 and you?
Absolutely nothing — except they made a choice.
Now, unless I miss my guess, Evergreen is not a predominantly black institution, and my choices heretofore given may seem somewhat strange to too many of you, for far too many of you may identify yourselves by the fictional label of “white.” In truth, as I’m sure many of you know, race is a social construct. That said, it is still a social reality, formed by our histories and cultures.
For those of you still bound by such realities, I have these names for you: John Brown, Dr. Alan Berkman, Susan Rosenberg, Sue Africa, Marilyn Buck, for examples.
Each of these people are, or were, known in America as “white.” They are all people I know of who I admire, love and respect. They are (or were) all revolutionaries.
John Brown’s courageous band’s attack on Harper’s Ferry in  was one deeply religious man’s strike against the hated slavery system, and was, indeed, one of the opening salvos of the U.S. Civil War.
Dr. Alan Berkman, Susan Rosenberg and Marilyn Buck were all anti-imperialists who fought to free Black revolutionary Assata Shakur from an unjust and cruel bondage. They are the spiritual grandsons, and granddaughters of John Brown. Dr. Alan Berkman, Marilyn Buck and Susan Rosenberg were treated like virtual traitors to white supremacy and thrown into American dungeons. Buck and Rosenberg remain so imprisoned.
They live lives deliberately, and chose liberation as their goals, understanding that our freedom is interconnected. They chose the hard road of revolution — yet, they chose!
And, but for that choice, they are just like each of you seated here tonight. People who saw the evils of the system and resolved to fight it. Period.
The name Sue Africa, may not be known to you. She is what you may call white, yet when she joined the MOVE organization, the system attacked her bitterly for what was seen as a betrayal of her white-skinned privilege. On May 13th, 1985 she lost her only son, because the Philadelphia police bombed the house he was living in. She served over a decade in prison, where the guards vilely taunted her in the hours and days after the bombing. When she came out she went right to work, to rebuild the MOVE Organization in Philadelphia.
She lives her life deliberately by promoting John Africa’s Revolution, each and every day.
Except for that choice, she is just like you.
Now, some of you are sure to be wondering: well — what’s this guy’s gig with Revolutionaries?
Why’s he say this to us?
The answer, of course, is why not? (O.K. — I know you ain’t ‘sposed to answer a question with a question) — do I expect you guys and gals, who’ve just received your degrees, to chuck it all, for so nebulous a concept as “revolution?”
Nope. I ain’t that dumb.
The great historians, Will and Ariel Durant teach us [in the Lessons of History ]: “History in the large is the conflict of minorities: the majority applauds the victor and supplies the human material of social experiment.”
I take that to mean that social movements are begun by relatively small numbers of people, who, as catalysts, inspire, provoke, and move larger numbers to see and share their vision.
Social movements can then become social forces that expand our perspectives, open up new social possibilities, and create the consciousness for change.
To begin this process, we must first sense that, a) the status quo is wrong, and b) the existing order is not amenable to real, meaningful, substantive transformation.
Out of the many here assembled, it is the heart of he or she that I seek: who looks at a life of vapid materialism, of capitalist excess, and finds it simply intolerable.
It may be 100 of you, or 50, or 10 — or even one of you who makes the choice. I am here to honor and applaud that choice — and to warn you that though the suffering may indeed be great — it is nothing to the joy of doing the right thing.
Malcolm, Dr. Huey Newton, Ramona Africa, the MOVE 9, Dr. Alan Berkman, Susan Rosenberg, John Brown, Susan Africa, Marilyn Buck, Geronimo ji Jaga, Leonard Peltier, Angela Davis — all of them, people just like you — felt compelled to change conditions they found intolerable. I urge you, to join that noble tradition.
I thank you all!
On a MOVE!”