Assata Shakur was born as JoAnne Deborah Byron, in Queens, New York, on July 16, 1947. After dropping out of high school, she earned a GED equivalency diploma, attended the Borough of Manhattan Community College for a short time, and eventually graduated from the City College of New York (CCNY) in 1970. In April 1967 she married fellow CCNY student Louis Chesimard, and the couple divorced in December 1970. JoAnne Chesimard changed her name to Assata Shakur in 1971, later explaining, in her 1987 autobiography: “The name JoAnne began to irk my nerves.... I didn't feel like no JoAnne, or no Negro, or no amerikan. I felt like an African woman. My mind, heart, and soul had gone back to Africa but my name was still stranded in Europe somewhere.”
In 1971 Shakur joined the Republic of New Afrika, a radical organization that called for the creation of an independent black republic in the “subjugated lands” of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Around this same time, Shakur moved to Oakland, California, where she joined the local branch of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Soon thereafter, she returned to New York and became a leading member of BPP's Harlem chapter.
Also in the early 1970s Shakur joined a BPP offshoot known as the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a violent group that was tied to the murders of more than ten police officers nationwide between 1970-73. According to former Assistant FBI Director John Miller, Shakur herself was “the soul of the Black Liberation Army.”
Because of her involvement with BPP and BLA, Shakur became a target of the FBI's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and thus went into hiding in the early '70s. While underground, she was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted List because of her involvement in three bank robberies, the kidnapping and murder of two drug dealers, and the attempted murder of two policemen.
At about 12:45 a.m. on the morning of May 2, 1973, the fugitive Shakur was being driven to a new hideout in Philadelphia by BPP Information Minister Zayd Malik Shakur (Assata's brother-in-law) and BLA member Sundiata Acoli, when their car was pulled over by state trooper Jaibes Harper for a tail-light violation on the New Jersey Turnpike. Fellow trooper Werner Foerster provided backup for Harper. While the lawmen conducted routine questioning of the vehicle's occupants, Shakur (who was in the front passenger's seat) and her companions suddenly fired upon them with semi-automatic pistols. As Foerster grappled with the driver, Shakur shot the trooper twice before her gun apparently jammed. With Foerster on the ground wounded and helpless, Shakur grabbed the trooper’s own firearm and blasted two fatal shots into his head, execution-style. (Zayd Malik Shakur was also killed in the melee.)
Assata Shakur fled the scene but was apprehended by police a short time later, about five miles away. Over the ensuing four years, she was indicted ten times, resulting in seven criminal trials for offenses that included two bank robberies, one kidnapping, two attempted murders, and the Turnpike shootout. Of these trials, three resulted in acquittals, one in a hung jury, one in a change of venue, one in a mistrial, and one—the Turnpike incident—in a conviction. In that latter case, Shakur was found guilty of first-degree murder and seven additional felonies, resulting in a prison sentence of life plus 33 years.
Shakur escaped from prison on November 2, 1979—probably with the help of Cuban or Cuban-trained terrorists posing as visitors. As New Jersey State Police Lieutenant Mike Rinaldi explained in 2013: “Armed domestic terrorists gained entry into the facility, neutralized the guards, broke her free, and turned her over to a nearby getaway team.” The escape was masterminded by Shakur's brother, BLA member Jeral Wayne Williams (a.k.a. Mutulu Shakur).
After her prison breakout, Assata Shakur lived underground in the U.S. until 1984, at which time some accomplices smuggled her to Mexico. From there, her allies used a network of Cuban intelligence officers who collaborated with American radical groups calling themselves “The Collective,” to transport Shakur to Fidel Castro's Cuba, which granted political asylum to the fugitive in order to embarrass the Reagan Administration. As Cuban-American author Humberto Fontova wrote in 2013: “To this day from her safe haven in Cuba [Shakur] has been given a pulpit (by Castro) to preach and profess, stirring supporters and groups to mobilize against the United States by any means necessary. She has been used by the Castro regime to greet foreign delegations visiting Cuba.”
In May 2013 the FBI announced a $1 million reward for “information leading to the apprehension” of Shakur, whom the Bureau designated as a “Most Wanted Terrorist.” The New Jersey State Police also wanted to gain custody of Shakur and added another $1 million to the pot. In response to these initiatives, Shakur in 2013 launched a propaganda offensive claiming that she was innocent of the many charges which had been levied against her, and that her trial had been nothing more than a legal lynching perpetrated by an all-white jury.
Over the years, Shakur has become a folk hero to radical leftists. They view her, as one fawning San Francisco Chronicle article put it, as “a victim and ally who gives voice to their pain.” Most notably, Shakur is the Black Lives Matter movement's most revered icon.
Shakur's 1987 book, Assata: An Autobiography, has been cited as an illustration of the principles that underlie critical legal studies and critical race theory. In 1993 Shakur published a second book, Still Black, Still Strong, with Mumia Abu-Jamal and BLA co-founder Dhoruba bin Wahad.