- Robert King
former member of the Black Panther Party who spent 32 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola Prison—29 of them in solitary confinement. He was released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned.
- Albert Woodfox
longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the United States. As a member of the Angola Three, he was held in isolation in a six-by-nine-foot cell almost continuously for 43 years.
Fifty years after the founding of the Black Panther Party, we focus on an overlooked part of its history: political prisoners. Many former members are still held in prison based on tortured confessions, while others were convicted based on questionable evidence or the testimony of government informants. We host an historic roundtable with four former Black Panthers who served decades in prison, beginning with two former members of the Angola Three who formed one of the first Black Panther chapters in a prison. Robert King spent 32 years in Angola—29 of them in solitary confinement. He was released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. Albert Woodfox, until February of this year, was the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the United States. He was held in isolation in a six-by-nine-foot cell almost continuously for 43 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola prison. He was released on his 69th birthday.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the organization as a way to combat police brutality and oppression. They began in Oakland, where they famously monitored the behavior of the city’s police department, which was notoriously brutal towards African Americans. In 1968, they began a free breakfast program for children. As their efforts drew media attention, the movement grew nationally, and chapters formed in dozens of other cities. Members of the party eventually founded more than 60 different "Serve the People" programs that focused on providing other services, such as free medical clinics. The Black Panthers outlined their goal in a 10-point program that included demands for freedom, land, housing, employment and education.
Around the same time the party was founded, the FBI began a secret program called COINTELPRO to disrupt and, quote, "neutralize" what it characterized as "Black Nationalist Hate Groups." By 1969, the Black Panthers had become the primary focus of the program, which ultimately led to the deaths and imprisonment of many members and contributed to the party’s collapse.
Well, over the weekend, many former members reunited in Oakland for one of many events marking the group’s 50th anniversary. This came after Beyoncé’s Black Panther-themed performance in February during the Super Bowl halftime show and after PBS aired a major new documentary called Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution. This is the trailer.
JAMAL JOSEPH: The thing that led to the Panthers was what we were seeing on television every day: attack dogs, fire hoses, bombings.
H. RAP BROWN: We stand on the eve of a black revolution, brothers.
ELAINE BROWN: I was a cocktail waitress in a white strip club two years before I joined the Black Panther Party. How did that happen? The rage was in the streets. It was everywhere.
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER: I say that Ronald Reagan is a punk, a sissy and a coward, and I challenge him to a duel.
FELIPE LUCIANO: Eldridge had this incredible ability to encapsulate a thought that stabbed right into the heart of the enemy. Now, was he insane? [bleep] yeah. That boy was crazy!
PAT McKINLEY: They were trying to change government as we know it to terrorist activity.
REPORTER: The State Assembly was in the midst of a heated debate when the young Negroes, armed with loaded rifles, shotguns and pistols, marched into the Capitol.
BEN SILVER: Do you feel the nation is in trouble?
J. EDGAR HOOVER: I think very definitely it is.
BEN SILVER: What is the answer?
J. EDGAR HOOVER: The answer is vigorous law enforcement.
BEN SILVER: How about justice?
J. EDGAR HOOVER: Justice is merely incidental to law and order.
BEVERLY GAGE: The FBI saw the Panthers as a very, very threatening and violent revolutionary movement. They absolutely wanted this organization to be destroyed.
WAYNE PHARR: I felt absolutely free. I was a free Negro. In that little space that I had, I was the king. And that’s what I felt.
WILLIAM CALHOUN: The great strength of the Black Panther Party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and enthusiasm. The great weakness of the party was its ideals and its youthful vigor and its enthusiasm. That sometimes can be very dangerous, especially when you’re up against the United States government.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s the trailer for The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by Stanley Nelson. Shortly after the film’s release, Democracy Now! spoke with one of its subjects, Kathleen Cleaver, who served as communications secretary of the Black Panther Party and is now a law professor at Emory University.
KATHLEEN CLEAVER: When I got involved with the Black Panthers, it was a brand new group. And, in fact, there were like five when I got there, because most of them were in Santa Rita prison after the visit to Sacramento. So, it was a new organization. It very, very exciting. And all their principles in the black—it was one of the first organizations based on the concept of black power that had been articulated in Mississippi and by SNCC. And so, I got involved with them. In December, Eldridge and I got married, and I stayed out there and continued to work with the Panthers.
AMY GOODMAN: How did King, Dr. Martin Luther King, fit into this picture?
KATHLEEN CLEAVER: In what way? My picture or the country?
AMY GOODMAN: In your picture, and did he inspire you? How did the Black Panthers relate to him?
KATHLEEN CLEAVER: Oh, everyone was inspired on some level by Martin Luther King. He was a tremendously decent and caring person. He was extremely intelligent, and he inspired a lot of Christians. Now, Eldridge made a comment in one of his speeches in Nashville. He said, "How about integrating some of this bloodshed?" That was one of the issues we had, that it was too much the black people should absorb all the punishment, and we should be forgiving, and we should want to be peaceful in the face of murderous brutality in the middle of the Vietnam War. Well, that wasn’t really a message that a lot of young people cared for. And so, when the Black Panthers came out and started talking about self-defense, droves and droves of young people wanted to do that.
And I thought that was the best—that’s the best—we followed Robert Williams. And he said, if you are confronted by a racist who believes himself superior, then he has—and you’re armed—he has to consider: Does he want to risk his superior life to take your inferior life? And if you have a gun, you can put him in that position. And nine times out of 10, he doesn’t, and that’s the end of the violence. So we believed self-defense was a way to put a reduction into violence, and I accept that.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kathleen Cleaver, former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party.
Today, we focus on an overlooked part of the Black Panther Party’s legacy: political prisoners. The Black Panthers were one of the most criminalized movements in U.S. history, with many of its members arrested and sentenced to decades in prison. In some cases, court documents show they were punished essentially for being in the black liberation struggle. In others, it was later revealed that torture was used to extract their confessions.
Over the years, Democracy Now! has interviewed many Black Panthers who eventually won their release from prison, such as a group of men arrested for allegedly killing a San Francisco police officer. Known as the San Francisco 8, their charges were thrown out by a state court because they were based on statements made under torture. This is former Black Panther Harold Taylor describing his arrest in the case on Democracy Now! in 2007.
HAROLD TAYLOR: Well, in 1973 in New Orleans, myself and John Bowman and Ruben Scott was arrested in New Orleans by the police department. We were taken from the place where they are arrested us and took us to the jail. And immediately, when we got in the jail, they started beating us. They never asked us any questions in the beginning. They just started beating us.
They had already had Ruben—they had arrested Ruben earlier that day, before they arrested me and John Bowman. And they put me a room with Ruben Scott when they first got me there, and he had been there a couple hours. Well, he was laying on the floor in a fetus position, where—and he had urine on him, feces, and his face was scratched up, and he was swollen, and he was trembling.
And I asked him, I said, "Ruben, what’s going on?" He says nothing. He doesn’t say anything. He’s just shaking. And then, immediately, the door opens up, and the police pulled me out, and they tell me, said, "If you don’t cooperate, this is what you’re going to get." They made me take off my clothes, chained me to a chair by my ankles to the bottom of the chair and my wrists to the sides of it, and I just had on my shorts. And at that point, they started beating me.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former Black Panther Harold Taylor speaking about his ’73 arrest and interrogation for a murder charge that was later thrown out.
Now, 50 years after the founding of the Black Panther Party, many former members are still held in prison based on similar tortured confessions. Others were convicted based on questionable evidence or the testimony of government informants. Widely recognized as political prisoners, they account for one of the Black Panther Party’s most enduring legacies.
When we come back from break, we host an historic roundtable, speaking with some of the people who have spent decades in prison. We’ll be joined by four former Black Panthers who have been released from prison, three of them within the last three years. This is Democracy Now! Back with them in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: "Free Bobby Now" by The Lumpen. They were the Black Panthers’ house band. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, and we’re spending the hour focusing on an overlooked part of its legacy: political prisoners in the United States who are former Black Panther members. Perhaps the most famous of them is Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has regularly been interviewed on Democracy Now! as an award-winning journalist. But there are many others. In fact, two former Black Panthers have already died in prison this year: Abdul Majid in New York and Mondo we Langa in Nebraska.
In a web exclusive feature on democracynow.org, we describe other Panthers who remain locked up. They include Romaine "Chip" Fitzgerald, who was convicted in 1969 of attempted murder of a police officer during a traffic stop shootout in which he himself was shot in the head but survived, as well as the murder of a security guard in a separate case based on flimsy evidence. It was the same year the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover declared, quote, "the Black Panther Party ... represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country." Fitzgerald has since suffered a stroke while in prison. Despite his medical condition, he’s been repeatedly denied parole, despite California’s push to release people over age 65 who have served more than 25 years of their sentence.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now by four former Black Panther Party members who became political prisoners, lived through similar ordeals. All but three of them were released from prison in the last three years.
Here in New York, in his first global broadcast interview, we’re joined by Sekou Odinga, who helped build the Black Panther Party in New York City. He was later involved in the Black Liberation Army. He was convicted in 1984 of charges related to his alleged involvement in the escape of Assata Shakur from prison and a Brink’s armored car robbery. After serving 33 years in state and federal prison, he was released in November of 2014.
In Baltimore, Eddie Conway joins us, former Black Panther leader in Baltimore who was released from prison in March 2014 after serving 44 years for a murder of a police officer. He always maintained his innocence, saying he was set up. We first spoke to Eddie Conway less than 24 hours after his release from prison.
And we are joined from Austin by two former members of the Angola Three who formed one of the first Black Panther chapters in a prison. Robert King spent 32 years in Angola, 29 of them in solitary confinement, released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. With him is Albert Woodfox. Until February of this year, Woodfox was the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the United States. He was held in isolation in a six-by-nine-foot cell almost continuously for 43 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. He was released on his 69th birthday. We spoke with him two days later, and I asked him at the time how it felt to be free.
ALBERT WOODFOX: Being released into society, I am having to learn different techniques, you know, of how to—I’m just trying to learn how to be free. I’ve been locked up so long in a prison within a prison. So, for me, it’s just about learning how to live as a free person and just take my time. Right now, the world is just speeding so fast for me, and I have to find a way to just slow it down.
AMY GOODMAN: Albert Woodfox, speaking on Democracy Now! last February, just days after his release.
We welcome him and all of you to Democracy Now! I want to begin in Austin with Robert King and Albert Woodfox. You just came from Oakland, California, where you were at the 50th anniversary discussions, celebration of the founding of the Black Panther Party. How did it feel, Robert King?
ROBERT KING: It was—I thank you, Amy. It was great, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary. It marks, I think, a turning point in our approach to, and you stated, dealing with political prisoners, prisoners who have been left behind. We focused on a lot of things, but the main focus was—in my opinion, was focusing on the political prisoners. While everything else was important, and most likely we will get to that, but the political prisoners aspect was the point that caught our attention, that catches our attention at this point in time, because we’re at crunch time with regards to our political prisoners, and I think we need to focus on our political prisoners. I mean, and we have to go across the board. We have to devise the language to validate, you know, our contention and our—the approach that we have in trying to rid these gulags of our political prisoners and political victims, as well, which is another story.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Albert Woodfox, the whole idea of starting chapters of the Panthers in prison, which happened across the country, and many people are not aware of, what initially inspired you to do that? And your sense of comradeship, when you went to this conference, with people who had been on the outside, as well?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, for me, the horrible conditions, the brutality and the constant murdering and raping of young inmates necessitated that something be done. Since I had joined the Black Panther Party while in prison, I felt as though the best way to address these horrible conditions was by forming a chapter, along with Herman Wallace and Robert King, to combat these horrible conditions. You know, newly joining the Panthers while in prison, I knew no other way other than to uphold the principles and the values of the Black Panther Party to do this.
AMY GOODMAN: You know—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was the—what was the reaction of the prison officials to your attempt to organize inside?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, at the time, I think we were—lasted as long as we did, we were as successful as we were, because they had an internal struggle going on in Angola between what’s called the old families, families that go back generations, and—I think the secretary, Elayn Hunt, DOC Secretary Elayn Hunt, who I think was the first female secretary they had ever had, had brought in personnel from outside—the warden, Murray Henderson—and he, in turn, brought in people from outside. And so, given this internal struggle between the old families and the personnel brought from outside of Louisiana, their concentration was on that rather than on the organizing that myself and Herman Wallace and Robert Wilkerson was participating in, you know, in the prison population.
AMY GOODMAN: Albert Woodfox, we played the clip of you right after you got out of prison, and then we came down to New Orleans and saw you, met you. It’s almost a year since you’ve been out. How are you doing now? This was—I mean, you are the person held in solitary confinement longer than anyone in U.S. history, for over 43 years.
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, I’m doing well. You know, I’m constantly adjusting to being a free man after such a lengthy time being in prison. I’m enjoying the comradeship of former Black Panther Party’s members and as well as being embraced by my community, my family. And the one thing I have learned is that living free is a constant adjustment. So I don’t know if I will ever stop adjusting to how society constantly changes.