Shakur, Assata 1947–
Assata Shakur 1947–
Black revolutionary, writer
Assata Shakur, formerly JoAnne Deborah Chesimard, has attained near-mythical status in the eyes of some observers. To the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the one-time leader of the Black Liberation Army (BLA)—considered to be possibly the most violent militant black organization of the 1970s—is an armed robber, a cop-killer, and an extremely dangerous escaped criminal now living in political asylum in Cuba. To her supporters, she is a woman of vision, courage, and action who has never received true justice. By her own description, she is a black revolutionary.
Shakur is a product of America’s turbulent sixties and seventies, when the struggle for black empowerment and civil rights that began a decade earlier rose to its most impassioned height. Frustrated and resentful over the lack of progress made by black organizations through peaceful means, groups such as the Black Panthers and the more radical Black Liberation Army became committed to the idea that violence would force the establishment to respond to the plight of black Americans.
Assata Shakur was born JoAnne Deborah Byron in New York City on July 16, 1947. Until the age of three, she lived with her parents, her aunt, and her grandparents in a house in Flushing, Queens. Her father was an accountant for the federal government and her mother taught elementary school. When her parents divorced, JoAnne accompanied her grandparents, Frank and Lulu Hill, to Wilmington, North Carolina. In her autobiography, Assata, Shakur recalls how fervently they tried to instill in her a sense of personal dignity and self-esteem. “I was to be polite and respectful to adults,” she wrote, “but when it came to dealing with white people in the segregated South, my grandmother would tell me menacingly, ‘Don’t you respect nobody that don’t respect you, you hear me?“’ In a place where blacks were barred from public beaches, her grandparents owned property and became small business owners. They ran a beach-front restaurant with lockers and changing rooms that provided a vacationing spot for people who may have never seen the ocean before. JoAnne helped out at the restaurant but much of her time was spent playing on the sundrenched beach and reading the stacks of books her grandfather had brought her from the “colored’ library.
Segregation was a difficult concept for a child to grasp. In her book, she remembered: “Every day when we drove from the house on Seventh Street to the beach, we passed a beautiful
Born JoAnne Deborah Byron (has used several aliases including Justine Henderon and Joan Davis; changed name to Assata Shakur), July 16, 1947, in Queens, NY; daughter of an accountant for the federal government and Doris Johnson (an elementary school teacher); married Louis Chesimard, April 1967 (divorced December 1970); children: Kakuya Amala Olugbala (daughter). Education: received a GED; attended Manhattan Community College then transferred to City College of New York; pursued a master’s degree in Cuba, 1987.
Black revolutionary, writer, poet. Joined the Black Panther Party (BPP), 1970; left the BPP and became a member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), 1970; charged with armed robbery of the Hilton Hotel in New York City, 1971 (case dismissed, 1977); charged with bank robbery in Queens, 1971 (acquitted, 1976); charged with bank robbery in the Bronx, 1972 (hung jury, 1973); charged with kidnapping of a drug dealer, 1972 (acquitted, 1975); charged with murder of a drug dealer, 1973 (case dismissed, 1974); charged with attempted murder of policemen, 1973 (case dismissed, 1974); charged with murder of New Jersey state trooper, 1973 (convicted and sentenced to life plus 26 to 33 years, to be served consecutively, 1977). Escaped from the New Jersey Corrections Institute for Women, 1979; was granted political asylum in Cuba, 1984. Published her autobiography, 1987.
park and zoo. And every day I would beg, plead, whine, and nag my grandmother to take me to the zoo.” She thought her grandmother was the meanest woman in the world. “Finally, with the strangest look on her face, she told me that we were not allowed in the zoo. Because we were black.” The nearby amusement park was also segregated. It was only after JoAnne’s mother, who was visiting for the summer, created a commotion at the ticket window by pretending to be a Spanish citizen and threatening a diplomatic scandal that they were allowed in. “We laughed and talked about it for days.” she recalled, “But it was a lesson I never forgot. Anybody, no matter who they were, could come right off the boat and get more respect than amerikan-born Blacks (sic).”
Because JoAnne’s grandparents feared that the segregated North Carolina school system was providing their grandchild with an inferior education, they sent JoAnne back to her mother and stepfather in New York. The eight-year-old was shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other; from her segregated, all-black community in the South into a middle-class, heavily Jewish, virtually all-white area of Queens. Her “political education begins,” wrote the Washington Post, “she attends schools where black children are automatically put into remedial classes, watches television footage of mobs in Little Rock, AR, as they attack children trying to attend school, and begins to confront assumptions of inferiority from her teachers, classmates and herself.”
In third and fourth grades JoAnne was the only black child in her class and in the fifth she was one of only two. She was a smart, proud, outgoing, youngster who was always ready for a good fight. But like most black children of the fifties, she was never allowed to forget that she was different because she was black. “When I was growing up,” she revealed in Assata, “being called ‘Black,’ period, was ground for fighting.” Bigoted white children failed to see the natural, physical beauty of their African American schoolmates, and JoAnne and her friends became the victims of cruel, racist insults. “We had been completely brainwashed,” she added. “We accepted white value systems and white standards of beauty.…We had never heard the words ‘Black is beautiful’ and the idea had never occurred to most of us.”
JoAnne dropped out of high school and began running away from home. She searched for odd jobs and tried to make it on her own, but life on the streets brought its own kind of education. She befriended a transvestite, briefly stayed with a family of professional shoplifters, and found herself in more than one dangerous situation. When her aunt, a lawyer named Evelyn Williams, found JoAnne and took her into her home, the 13-year old was working in a bar hustling drinks. JoAnne credits her aunt for expanding her education by introducing her to culture, museums, and theater, and for seeing to it that she got her Graduate Equivalent Degree (GED) after she quit high school permanently at the age of sixteen.
In the late sixties, JoAnne entered Manhattan Community College. Intending to major in business administration, she was instead immediately drawn to the school’s expanding black studies program and to the activities of the student body. “I had gone back to school at a time when struggle and activity were growing, when Black consciousness and nationalism were on the upswing,” she explained in her autobiography. “I started reading everything I could get my hands on about black history, culture, and then politics and ideology.” She attended civil rights meetings and took part in impassioned discussions. She joined a black students’ group called the Society of the Golden Drums, where she met her husband, Louis Chesimard. She even changed her hair and dress to reflect her African roots. And she took on a Muslim name. “It was like being born again,” she wrote. “It was then that I decided that the most important thing in my life was for me to struggle for the liberation of black people.” JoAnne Chesimard became Assata Shakur.
In 1970 Shakur joined the Black Panther Party (BPP) and was assigned to provide assistance to the black community through the medical cadre and the breakfast program. But she, like other members, soon became disappointed with the BPP. She left the party after coming to the conclusion that it was weak and ineffectual because it failed to reach its members with a unifying philosophy. Instead she turned to the Black Liberation Army (BLA), which was a more radical organization. The BLA believed that change would come about through revolution. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the aim of the BLA was to instigate revolution by assassinating police. New York detective John Flynn told the Inquirer, “They figured that the police would overreact and attack the black community. When that happened, they assumed they would be able to enlist other blacks in their fight.”
From 1971 to 1973, the Black Liberation Army was held responsible for a series of sniper attacks and bank robberies in New York, New Jersey, St. Louis, and Detroit. Assata Shakur, or JoAnne Chesimard as the media and authorities continued to call her, was acknowledged to be the soul of the BLA. She was personally charged with six different crimes, including bank robbery and the attempted murder of police officers. She maintained her innocence and was never convicted on those charges. But on March 25, 1977, she was found guilty of murder in another case.
On May 2, 1973, the car that Shakur and her two companions were traveling in was stopped by the police on the New Jersey Turnpike. Gunfire was exchanged. A New Jersey state trooper and a former Black Panther information minister lay dead. Shakur was wounded in both arms and a shoulder; the second man she was riding with fled. The next day the New York Times reported that, at the time of her arrest, JoAnne Deborah Chesimard was wanted by the FBI for armed bank robbery and by the New York police in connection with the 1972 slaying of two policemen, as well as for a hand-grenade attack on a police car. The Times went on to say, “She apparently was being taken by two male companions to a new hideout in Philadelphia when their car was stopped at about 12:45am for a routine traffic check.”
In her autobiography, Shakur denies that she shot at anyone and claims that the militant and cop-killer labels put on her that day started a pattern of mistreatment and neglect by authorities that would continue throughout her incarceration. She tells of being harassed and even tortured by police in the hospital: “They are more careful where they hit me now. I guess they don’t want to leave any marks.” And she tells of being moved from New York’s Roosevelt Hospital to a Middlesex, New Jersey, county workhouse where she was denied physical therapy for her injuries.
Shakur began receiving mail from all over the country, most of it from supporters. In response, she made a tape called “To My People,” which was broadcast via radio on July 4, 1973. In her speech she called herself a black revolutionary and denounced what she believed was hypocrisy in the U.S. legal system. In her view, the police and the courts had established double standards based on race and were treating black Americans unjustly, purely because of their color. Shakur was moved from the workhouse to the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women and, in September, to Middlesex County Jail to await trial on bank robbery charges. She described her cell there as a hot, dank, bug-infested room in the jail’s basement, where she was subjected to constant surveillance and spotlights.
Her next move was to New York’s Rikers Island. The battle in court and the harsh treatment she received at the hands of the authorities were taking their toll on her. She was weak and sickly; the constant struggle with the judge and prosecutor over issues such as jury selection and the need for time to prepare their case created tension between Shakur and her Aunt Evelyn, who was representing her. In a moment of anger, Shakur even fired Evelyn and decided to represent herself. She turned to womens’ rights activist and lawyer Florence Kennedy for legal advice. But Shakur and her aunt soon resolved their differences and resumed working together.
It was during the beginning of the state trooper murder trial that Shakur discovered she was pregnant. The father was Fred Hilton, her co-defendant in the bank robbery trial. The two friends had been placed in a holding room to prevent them from continuously disrupting court. The news of her pregnancy made headlines, but it did not improve her living conditions. In her autobiography she wrote, “I was…brought to the middlesex county jail for men (sic), and kept in solitary confinement from February 1974 until May 1974.” Overall, Shakur would spend over twenty months in solitary confinement. When lawsuits were initiated on her behalf against the State of New Jersey, she was moved to New York. “When I arrived at Rikers Island again, I was anemic and malnourished, according to my entrance physical.” All along she had been fighting for proper medical attention. On September 11, 1974, she gave birth to her daughter, Kakuya Amala Olugbala Shakur, at a local hospital. A few days later, Shakur was returned to Rikers Island.
A mistrial was declared because of Shakur’s pregnancy, but in a new murder trial held three years later in 1977, she was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 26 to 33 years. In 1978 she was transferred to a maximum security prison for women in West Virginia. But because that facility was being closed down and other prisons considered her too great a security risk, she was shipped back to the New Jersey Corrections Institute for Women. Then, on November 2, 1979, three visitors seized two prison guards at gunpoint and commandeered a prison van. Assata Shakur had escaped. On November 3, 1979, she made the FBI’s most wanted list.
With the help of her supporters, Shakur managed to elude the FBI for five years. In 1984 she was granted political asylum in Cuba and slipped out of U.S. jurisdiction. She was immediately impressed with the island and its people. There seemed to be no distinction made between black and white. In the final chapter of Assata, she noted: “Whenever I met someone who spoke English I asked their opinion about the race situation. ‘Racism is illegal in Cuba,’ I was told.” Because the FBI kept her friends and family under close surveillance, Shakur could not risk contacting them until she was out of the country. But once in Cuba, she was visited by her mother and her Aunt Evelyn several times. And in 1987, her daughter, Kakuya, by then a pre-teen, went to live with her.
According to the New York Daily News, at that time Shakur was pursuing a master’s degree and living in a government-paid apartment in Havana, Cuba’s capital. Also in 1987, Assata Shakur published her autobiography. In the book she doesn’t spend time explaining the workings of the BLA or the details of the crimes she was accused of committing. Instead, she reveals the influences in her life that shaped her. She exposes her soul through the poetry tucked between the chapters. And she makes no apology for being a black revolutionary.
Shakur, Assata: Assata: An Autobiography, Lawrence Hill Books, 1987.
Newsweek, September 27, 1993, p. 60.
New York Daily News, April 20, 1981; October 12, 1987.
New York Times, May 3, 1973; November 19, 1982.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 22, 1983.
Washington Post, February 29, 1988.
Shakur, Assata (Chesimard, Joanne Deborah Bryon)
Shakur, Assata (Chesimard, Joanne Deborah Bryon)
July 16, 1947
Born in Queens, New York, Joanne Deborah Bryon, a nationalist and activist, spent her early childhood alternately with her grandparents in Wilmington, North Carolina, and with her mother in New York. She dropped out of high school at seventeen but returned to college during her early twenties, attending Manhattan Community College and City College of New York. She was married for a year while in school and continued to use her married name. She became a student activist and participated in rent strikes, antiwar demonstrations, and sitins, protesting racial injustices. As a reflection of her new political consciousness and her commitment to her African heritage, she changed her name to Assata ("she who struggles") Shakur ("the thankful"). The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 precipitated Assata Shakur's embrace of the militant Black Power movement and her rejection of nonviolence.
Assata Shakur moved to Oakland, California, where she joined the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland and helped organize community education programs, demonstrations, and political rallies. When she returned to New York, she became a key member of the BPP's Harlem chapter. She helped organize and staff the Free Breakfast Program for community children, oversaw the planning of a free clinic, and coordinated member health care, first aid, and community outreach.
Assata Shakur, as well as many other members of the Harlem chapter, believed that politically motivated armed actions were a viable tactic in the struggle for black liberation. It is unclear what specific actions she participated in, but she became a prime target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Partially because of this surveillance and harassment, Assata Shakur went into hiding and became a member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a clandestine nationwide network largely composed of former BPP members who had gone underground to escape criminal charges or police and FBI repression and who believed that structural change could be precipitated by armed struggle.
While underground, Assata Shakur was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted List and indicted for three bank robberies (April 5, 1971, August 23, 1971, and September 1, 1972), the kidnapping and murder of two drug dealers (December 28, 1972, and January 2, 1973), and the attempted murder of policemen on January 23, 1973. On May 2, 1973, Assata Shakur and two other BLA members were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike by New Jersey state troopers. After the officers discovered guns in their cars, a confrontation ensued, and Assata Shakur was shot, one state trooper suffered minor injuries, and another, Werner Forrester, was killed. Assata Shakur's companions escaped. Accounts of this incident conflict, and it is un-clear if Assata Shakur discharged any weapon that night. She was hospitalized and charged with Forrester's murder.
During the next four years Assata Shakur was held in detention. The trials for the indictments brought while she was underground either ended in acquittal or were dropped because of lack of evidence. During her imprisonment she was confined to a men's prison, placed in solitary confinement for a year, given inadequate medical attention, and faced physical abuse. While in prison she became pregnant by Kamau, her codefendant during her New York bank robbery trial, and gave birth to a girl in 1974. Assata Shakur's imprisonment and what many of her supporters believed was a false arrest brought international attention to her plight as a political prisoner.
In March 1977 Assata Shakur was convicted of murdering state trooper Werner Forrester, although medical experts testified that her injuries would have rendered her incapable of firing the fatal shot. She was imprisoned at the maximum security prison for women in Alderson, West Virginia, then moved to New Jersey's Clinton Correctional Facility for Women. Two years after her conviction, she escaped from prison and was given political asylum in Cuba. The circumstances behind the escape are unknown.
In 1987 Assata Shakur's autobiography, which chronicles her life and ideological development, was published. Although many of her activities in Cuba have been shrouded in secrecy, Assata Shakur continued to be a vocal activist in the 1980s and 1990s, speaking out on global justice issues and the prison industrial complex. In 1998 the U.S. Congress passed a resolution to demand Shakur's extradition from Cuba, spurring Shakur's supporters to create the "Hands of Assata" campaign.
Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Shakur, Assata. Assata: An Autobiography. Westport, Conn.:Lawrence Hill & Co., 1987.
Van DeBurg, William. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
robyn c. spencer (1996)
Updated by author 2005