Although small in physical statue at 4’ 11’’ tall, her presence looms large worldwide where her organizational savvy plus sheer persistence helped pull off what many leaders, luminaries and laymen alike consider one of the most monumental equal rights victories in recent decades.
The advocacy of Pam Africa on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal — constructing support networks while confronting incessant opposition — contributed to the climate where U.S. federal courts killed the death sentence Abu-Jamal received following his controversial 1982 conviction for killing a police officer.
That elimination of Abu-Jamal’s government-endorsed death chagrined powerful figures across Pennsylvania and around America who had shamefully bent and broken laws (deliberately sabotaging court proceedings) in their various efforts to execute Abu-Jamal, known as the “voice of the voiceless.”
Pam Africa is the head of International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia-based organization at the center of the international movement seeking Abu-Jamal’s release.
Africa is the dynamo whom most Philadelphia police, prosecutors, politicians and many pastors love to hate because of her strident advocacy on behalf of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal and MOVE members sentenced for a fatal 1978 shootout.
While winning freedom for Abu-Jamal and the MOVE Nine is a definitive focus of Pam Africa’s advocacy, she is frequently found on “front lines” nationwide fighting for ending mistreatment of people regardless of their color and creed.
“Pam Africa is in each and every struggle for social justice in Philadelphia, the U.S. and abroad. It’s not just Mumia,” said activist/writer Berta Joubert-Ceci while chairing a program in West Philadelphia a few weeks ago.
During that West Philly program Africa received praise from another warrior for right, former U.S. representative Cynthia McKinney, whose praise also highlighted Africa’s often overlooked soft side.
McKinney proudly displayed a stylish African-themed jacket Africa had given her as a present that evening, a garment McKinney had complimented Africa for wearing at an event in Atlanta that McKinney attended.
Interestingly, vicious beatings by Philadelphia police played pivotal roles in transforming Africa from a person committed to helping others work within the system to a vigorous opponent of the system that Africa sees as structurally unjust and irreparably corrupted.
Africa recalls her first beating by Philadelphia police as occurring when she politely questioned unprovoked police mistreatment of young male members of a Philadelphia youth organization where she worked in the early 1970s. At the time, Africa still used her birth name, Jeanette Knighton.
“We were coming from a citywide youth meeting when an officer stopped us and began roughing up the youth. I told the officer those young men did nothing wrong and when I attempted to take his badge number I got beat,” Africa said during a recent interview.
“During that time, I believed if you just talked to police they’d do the right thing. At the time I used to wear red, white and blue clothes all the time and a blonde wig. I was so far to the right politically,” she said.
“The police tore my wig off during that beating. I was beat up and locked up for doing nothing.”
Temple University African-American history professor Dr. Tony Monterio first met Pam Africa during an ugly June 1979 incident where police beat Africa. Police pummeled Africa with nightsticks with one stick-strike knocking out some of her teeth.
Monterio said police attacked Africa after she courageously shielded a man enduring a savage police assault during a protest near a South Philadelphia public housing development where police sided with racist whites who were attacking blacks.
The scholar in Dr. Monterio sees Pam Africa as a unique figure whose contributions locally, nationally and internationally merit both examination and recognition.
“She’s made history but she didn’t set out to make history. She started initially just to do the right thing,” Monterio said during a recent interview.
“I see her as one of the most significant rights leaders in the past forty-years. Where other black leaders have sought acceptance from ‘the system’ she never left the battlefield. She never retreated. She was never broken.”
Monterio is a force behind two events this weekend honoring both Pam Africa’s accomplishments and starting a process for what Monterio envisions as a study of Africa’s life works.
The first event is a reception this Friday (3-6PM) at Temple University’s Blockson Collection. The second event is a day-long colloquium on Saturday (11-5PM) at the Church of the Advocate.
“With this being the end of Women’s History Month I thought we needed to do a conference on Pam’s life. There is an importance in archiving her life. This is a step in establishing a way to study her life.”
Africa has a history of providing service to others. There is a 1960 photo in The Philadelphia Tribune of a young Jeanette Knighton receiving an ‘Outstanding Service’ award from the principal of a North Philadelphia public school she attended.
Dr. Suzanne Ross, a NYC psychologist whose worked with Africa on the Mumia and MOVE cases, calls her both a “spiritual leaders and general” able to connect with people through “her love” while providing direction by knowing when “to engage” and when to regroup.
Ross stresses that hers is not “some idealized version of Pam [because] I disagree with her A LOT.”
Pam Africa, provoking chuckles during that West Philly program, said, “People used to call me a foul-mouthed radical. But there is a method to that.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.
NEWARK, N.J. — Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal learned early in his legendary career that cheers and jeers are all part of the game.
However when O’Neal received caustic jeers last Friday, outside of the movie complex O’Neal co-owns in downtown Newark, N.J., those taunts were different, directed against O’Neal’s business practices, not his basketball prowess.
Protestors condemned O’Neal for the decision by his CityPlex-12 to cancel a critically acclaimed documentary movie scheduled to screen at that facility last Friday.
CityPlex-12 management, when cancelling the documentary three weeks ago, also fired a theater staff member that worked on the scheduled screening with director of this documentary, Stephen Vittoria, who like O’Neal, was born in Newark.
Vittoria’s documentary – “Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary” – examines the prisoner at the core of Philadelphia’s most contentious murder case – Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Vittoria’s documentary departs from previous films about Abu-Jamal that examined ‘whodunit’ aspects of the journalist’s controversial 1982 conviction for killing Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner.
“Long Distance” explores who the proudly radical Abu-Jamal is and how he’s managed to produce applauded books/political commentaries/social critiques while enduring nearly decades of isolation. “Long Distance is scheduled for a Philadelphia screening this Friday.
Renowned Newark poet/activist Amiri Baraka, who participated in Friday’s protest, called the cancellation “shameful.” The program originally planned for the “Long Distance” screening, included a question and answer session led by Baraka.
“Long Distance” has sold-out theaters during screenings in New York City, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area as well as garnering favorable reviews including one in the New York Times.
Filmmaker Vittoria said sources told him the cancellation of his documentary occurred during an April 11 meeting at CityPlex-12 about the screening involving theater co-owners Boraie Development and O’Neal.
“No one has the guts to say why this film was cancelled,” Vittoria, who participated in the Friday protest, said about CityPlex’s refusal to respond to his inquiries for explanation about the cancellation.
CityPlex-12 officials, during an interview last Friday at the complex, declined comment on the cancellation - stating it was their policy to screen only Hollywood-produced films.
O’Neal and Boraie did not respond to requests for comment.
Newark activist Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, stated management told him the cancellation was a “cold” business decision when he met with them.
“This is not about money. It is about cultural imperialism, others deciding what we will see,” Hamm said during Friday’s protest, promising more protests to come. “This cancellation is a gag rule on free expression.”
Pam Africa, head of a Philadelphia-based international support organization for Abu-Jamal, criticized the movie cancellation during that protest, lashing out at O’Neal for being on the “wrong side” of important issues for Blacks like police brutality and mass incarceration.
A crowd of nearly 60 organizers, Black historians and residents joined activist attorney Michael Coard on Thursday to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Slave Memorial at the President’s House at Sixth and Market streets.
Coard, a member of the organization Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), recalled the opening of the memorial last year. The memorial commemorates the nine slaves kept at the site who were owned by America’s first president, George Washington.
“Wednesday, December 15 Mayor Michael Nutter stood just a few feet from where we are now, cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the first and only slavery memorial on federal property in the history of the United States of America,” said Coard, whose statement was greeted with applause.
“No place else at no other time has there ever been a memorial contribution to enslaved Africans in the history of America on federal property.”
Those attending the anniversary included school children on a field trip, Pam Africa of MOVE, and music icon Kenny Gamble.
“This is a wonderful turnout and I’m glad to be a part of it. We as a people must know and fulfill our destiny. We must ask ourselves, ‘Why did this happen to us?’ and we must work together to make this a better world,” said Gamble, who is also a member of Avenging the Ancestors.
“I’m here to support ATAC, I’m a member of the organization and I support this effort because the more awareness that, not only African people but all people, have about the plight and journey of the children of the slaves and our ancestors, the better this country is going to be.”
Gamble said he attended the event to honor his ancestors.
Rahim Islam of Universal Companies, founded by Gamble, agreed.
“One of the most important things which I think this event signals is how much we don’t know about our own existence. So I’m dedicating the rest of my life to try to get as much information as I can get to create a way so that we can pass this information on to our children, so they don’t have to start where I’m starting at 54, they can learn it in Kindergarten,” said Islam.
“People need to understand the historical importance of what we have here. This site is the only site in the history of America on federal property where a slave memorial exists. This has become our Mount Rushmore, our Liberty Bell, our Stature of Liberty,” said Coard.
He said that when the news that George Washington kept nine slaves at the site where the first White House once stood became public, the Park Service wanted to commemorate Washington without regard to the slaves.
“Well, Black folks came together and we didn’t just get mad, we got even and we organized. The thing that really helped us to win was that we did the one-two punch,” said Coard.
This one-two punch was the combination of activism on the streets by organizers and the collection of historical and intellectual information by historians and scholars. It was this combination that Coard credits with making the difference.
“We were able to raise hell on the streets with the activists and issues in the board room with intellectuals,” he said.
He touched the lives of thousands, and it was in his honor that hundreds gathered to say farewell to “a scholar with an African mission.” The funeral of Dr. Edward W. Robinson, Jr. was held Friday morning at the church in which he was born and raised, the A.M.E. Union Church, in the heart of North Philadelphia.
Just outside the church, a dozen drummers of all ages played in the midst of an oppressive heat wave. All morning, city dignitaries streamed through the church to pay respects to the educator and his family.
While his body laid in repose, images of Robinson in various stages of his life played in the background, as ushers carried baskets of fans and circulated through the aisles with bottles of cold water. The several hundred gathered fanned themselves endlessly as they comforted their hearts in the words offered by friends, colleagues and family members during the two-and-a-half hour service.
Robinson's casket, draped in a United States flag, was flanked by floral displays in the colors of the Pan-African flag — red, black and green — with one especially stunning arrangement forming the shape of the continent of Africa.
Proclamations were read from Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, State Senator Leanna Washington, and Congressman Chaka Fattah, along with resolutions from the Institute for the Preservation of Youth, the Paul Robeson House, the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Chaney University Alumni Association and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP. Also noted in the audience were music producer and educator Kenny Gamble, producer Bob Lott, activist Pam Africa, Judge Thomasina Tynes, Rep. Dwight Evans and Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams.
Remarks were offered from every branch of Robinson's life - from political to civic to personal. Speakers included Christine Thomas Wiggins, Founder of IMHOTEP Charter School; Ali and Helen Salahuddin, founders of the D'ZERT Club; Activist Michael Coard, Esq.; African-American scholar Dr. Molefi Kete Asante; Cody Anderson, former WDAS General manager and Dr. Mildred Johnson of Virginia State University, and Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia. “Dr. Robinson served his generation in an outstanding manner,” noted Goode. “The question is, who is going to serve this generation?”
“A great soul has passed this way,” said Asante. “A great man has lived among us.”
The amazing life that Robinson had lived and shared with those closest to him was obvious in the various titles accorded him: father, grandfather, great-grand-father, great-great grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, and most importantly, husband.
Robinson's widow Harriet eschewed the podium, instead choosing to stand next to the casket as she recited a poem while holding the arm of her beloved husband of 41 years. “I wanted you for life, you and me in the wind. I never thought there would come a time that our story would end. ... Maybe all I need to know and if I listen to my heart, I'll hear your laughter once more. And so I’ve got to say I'm just glad you came my way. It's not easy to say goodbye.”
Opponents speak out, but law carries 16-1
Over a loud chorus of boos and hisses, City Council on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a controversial expansion of the curfew law.
The measure passed on a 16-1 vote.
Only Third District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell stood against the bill that opponents portrayed as modern apartheid.
“It won’t work,” she told reporters after the meeting. “I’m positive about that. I don’t believe in it.”
Under the proposal, which Mayor Michael Nutter is expected to sign into law today, children 13 or younger would need to be indoors by 8 p.m.; 14- and 15-year-olds have to be in by 9 p.m. and 16-and 17-year olds would be required to be inside by 10 p.m., seven days a week during the school year. During the summer the curfew would be extended by one hour for each category.
In addition, the proposal creates fines for parents whose children are caught violating curfew. Fines would range from $75 for a first offense to a maximum of $500. Parents would have 30 days to pay.
Blackwell said the law was the wrong approach to a complex problem.
“The last police commissioner, Sylvester Johnson, said ‘we can’t arrest our way out of crime,’” she said. “We can’t fine our way out of curfew violations either.”
Echoing many of the critics who spoke before the vote, Blackwell worried the penalties would push families already facing financial strains over the edge.
“Those people who work hard and work two and three jobs and can’t follow their children and end up with problems, you cost them out of a decent life,” she said. “You’re not going to change it.”
She added that it was likely that Black and Latino youths would be the targets of the bill.
“We’re still in America — we still have racism and class-ism and all those other issues,” Blackwell said.
Critics of the bill, who mobbed Council’s meeting for the second week in row, raised many of the same concerns and went even further — comparing the curfew law to Jim Crow and apartheid.
“The mayor made this about race,” said Adan Diaz, referring to a speech Nutter made in August after a flash mob swept through Center City. In that speech he blasted Black youths and their families for “damaging their race.”
Now, Diaz said, it was his turn.
“Let’s call it like it is,” he said. “It’s a step back to Jim Crow.”
He then had harsh words for Council.
“You are a shame to yourself, your city, and yes, your race if you pass this,” he said to a round of thunderous applause.
Diaz was one of more than 25 opponents of the bill who spoke for well over an hour, in speeches that sometimes grew heated.
His anger rose as he spoke — until he finally stormed out of chambers throwing the f-word at Council members as he exited.
Opponents also included Wali Diop Rahman, independent candidate for mayor, who promised full-scale revolt if the bill passed. “The city of Philadelphia is creating the conditions for all-out social upheaval,” Rahman said. “If the city of Philadelphia goes up in flames, then the ashes of the city will be on the heads of City Council.”
Pam Africa, long-time MOVE member and Mumia Abu-Jamal supporter, also spoke out against the curfew.
“You’re talking about doing stuff for big business, the 1 percent,” she said, using the language of Occupy Philadelphia, encamped just outside in Dilworth Plaza. “Creating more jails and creating more poverty for people.”
Several wondered if their pleas were being heard.
“Can I get my three minutes?” asked Juan Cruz, who told Council that his life had spiraled downward after he was arrested in his youth for violating the curfew, which was originally put in place in 1955. “I listened to everything you all said, I need the same respect.”
Despite the appearance the Council members were ignoring critics, there was apparently a flurry of activity behind the scenes as they spoke. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who introduced the bill for Nutter, was besieged by colleagues, obviously discussing reaction to the bill. She disappeared briefly, and when she returned, Everett Gillison, chief of staff for the mayor, formerly deputy mayor for public safety, entered the room to address some of the concerns expressed by opponents.
He assured opponents that the curfew would be enforced citywide, and not in just a few targeted neighborhoods; it will not target just minority youth, or only males, he said;
“We are hopeful that our holistic approach to this will be helpful,” he said.
Just before the vote, Brown said the law was necessary.
“This is not a bill to criminalize young people,” she said, in response to critics. “Regretfully, we have too many parents who don’t step up and do their job so … government has to step in.”
She also promised to monitor monthly reports to make sure the law is being properly enforced.
As the chief clerk recorded each “aye” vote, the crowd hissed and finally marched out chanting “We need schools, not the curfew” and shouts of “We’ll be back.”
In other news, Council will hold hearings to investigate circumstances surrounding the alleged kidnapping of four mentally handicapped people by Linda Weston. The four were found Oct. 15 in a basement dungeon in Tacony. Brown said hearings are necessary so city officials could understand how to avoid a similar situation.
Finally, the sick leave bill passed last week by Council became law Thursday after Nutter returned it to Council.
Community organizers, leaders and residents protested and called for the release of Florida prisoner Marissa Alexander at a rally on Saturday held at West Philadelphia’s Cedar Park.
Organized by Building People’s Power, the rally was attended by residents and community organizations, including the Asia Adams Save Our Children Foundation, Move Organization, Decarcerate PA and the International Action Center.
“We are responding to a national call of action from Marissa Alexander supporters in Florida,” said Patrice Armstead, Building People’s Power co-founder. They asked for every state to come out on the 14th and organize in support of Marissa on her birthday.”
Alexander is a Black female who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning gunshot in an act of defense against her abusive spouse. Her case has drawn local and national attention in the wake of the “innocent” verdict reached in the Zimmerman case. Alexander supporters say that she was defending herself, but because she is a minority, did not receive a fair judgment.
“The issue is one that must be brought out [because] it is one of many issues that plague women,” said Pam Africa, Minister of Confrontation for the Move Organization. “The fact is that it’s not as much of a national issue as Trayvon Martin. [But] the two cases happened in the same area. Zimmerman’s position was [self-defense], which everyone knows was a lie. Marissa stood her ground; she shot a gun in the air to ward off a person who had a violent background. How do you take a mother who has a three-week-old baby, who shoots to chase her spouse away and give her 20 years?”
In a speech to Saturday’s crowd, Africa raised these concerns and charged people to start organizing against the powers that commit injustices.
“Let’s come together not just one day [but] let us move around this community. We are all fighting for the same thing – human rights and justice. When we see an injustice like what happened to Marissa, it’s happening to all of us – whites, Latinos, Asians and [Blacks] and it’s [only] one way we can stop it and that’s by seeing each other as the same.”
Razakhan Shaheed of the Philadelphia Innocence project also said the push for fair treatment in the legal system will have to start with the people, mainly by exercising the right to vote. “It starts with the judges. Our people don’t come out to vote for judges and that’s a major problem,” he said. “It’s up to the people to stop them. We aren’t asking for special treatment, but fair treatment.”
Other community leaders spoke about similar cases around the country, the need for equality in the judicial system and how to prevent domestic violence.
Shelah Harper, founder and CEO of the Asia Adams Save our Children Foundation, and a mother who lost her 21-year-old daughter to spousal violence, stressed the importance of teaching children early to respect the opposite sex.
“Open communication is important because right now it’s in the dark,” Harper said. “We need to have conversations with boys and girls and that dialogue needs to be moderated by an adult who listens.”