February 3, 2003

Political Prisoner Shares Life Story

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Robert King Wilkerson, member of the Angola Three and former political prisoner, was the guest speaker at Ujamaa Residential College’s Unity Hour yesterday. Wilkerson detailed the events surrounding his incarceration and eventual release in 2001 to a diverse audience. He continually invited the crowd to critically examine issues concerning human rights, civil liberties, and indoctrinated notions of law justice, by focusing the way his membership in the Black Panther Party has affected his convictions.

Wilkerson first became involved in the Black Panther Party while serving time for a 1971 armed robbery conviction. While in Angola State Prison, Wilkerson was introduced to Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, who had formed the only official prison chapter of the Black Panther Party. This chapter formed to improve conditions such as continual brutality, long work days, and various psychological abuses.

Wilkerson questioned the politics of justice by telling the tale of his 1973 trial for a crime he allegedly committed while in prison. During the trial Wilkerson and his co-defendant were gagged and bound as they sat and listened to the evidence against them, Wilkerson said. Wilkerson continually conveyed his belief that he was charged with this crime simply because of his involvement with the Black Panther Party. Wilkerson’s co-defendant was prevented from taking full responsibility of the murder of another inmate. Wilkerson was also convicted of this crime and went through the long process of appeals.

All three men were placed in solitary confinement, which entailed spending 23 hours a day in six-by-nine foot cells. The men continued their work of improving conditions for prisoners by organizing hunger strikes, and most importantly learning the law. As Wilkerson stated, “You learn the law by accident.”

The event was co-sponsored by Ujamaa Residential College and Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Key organizer Zahirah Alleyne ’03 felt the event was important because “we’ve had political prisoners as a topic before, but not too many students truly understand what a political prisoner is, and I figured that he would be able to shed some light on the matter.”

When asked what she felt was one of Wilkerson’s most important points, Miska Shaw ’04 responded, “I thought his point about continual struggle [was] most important because, especially as college students, we tend to view life as a linear journey from one point to the next; however, as Wilkerson stated, life is full of continual struggles and there isn’t a ‘light at the end of the tunnel.'”

Wilkerson placed his experience within the context of American society. “Terrorism didn’t start 9/11; it started way back when [former FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover began to terrorize and dismantle the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 70s. America does not have a monopoly on what does or doesn’t constitute terrorism; we need to see terrorism in all its light,” he said. Wilkerson later went on to state that “people need to know that prisons are a legal form of slavery and it is a sore that, if left unattended, can become cancerous.”

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are still serving life sentences in Angola, and Wilkerson feels that it is his duty to travel the world and tell the story, which he hopes will eventually set these men free. As he stated, “Even though I am free of Angola, Angola will never be free of me. America prides itself with embracing human rights but it has Black Panther Party members wasting away in prison because they stood up to the state.”

When asked if he still believed in the justice system, Wilkerson responded, “I believe in justice, but as far as the system goes, you have to look at who the justice (if any) is for; you can be guilty in the eyes of the law, but morally innocent, and legality takes precedent over morality.”

Archived article by Cassandra Wilson