The man currently known as Mumia Abu-Jamal was born as Wesley Cook in Philadelphia in 1954. He joined the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party (BPP) at age 14, and he became that chapter’s Lieutenant of Information at 15.
Cook was given the name Mumia in 1968 by one of his high-school instructors, a man of Kenyan descent who was teaching a Swahili class in which he assigned African names to his students. “Mumia” means “Prince” in Swahili. Cook subsequently adopted the surname Abu-Jamal (meaning “Father of Jamal” in Arabic) after the birth of his son Jamal on July 18, 1971. Abu-Jamal’s first marriage at age 19, to Jamal’s mother, Biba, did not last long, as his young wife soon realized that her husband had no intention of being monogamous. Abu-Jamal would subsequently marry two more times.
Abu-Jamal spent late 1969 in New York City and early 1970 in Oakland, living and working with BPP comrades in those cities. He was a BPP member from May 1969 until October 1970 and was subject to surveillance under the FBI’s COINTELPRO program from 1969-74.
In a 1970 interview, Abu-Jamal, alluding to a famous quote by Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, said: “Black people are facing the reality that the Black Panther Party has been facing: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Following his stint with the Panthers, Abu-Jamal returned to his old high school and led unsuccessful protests to change the school’s name to Malcolm X High. He was eventually suspended for distributing literature that advocated “black revolutionary student power.” After earning a GED, Abu-Jamal studied briefly at Goddard College in Vermont.
By 1975 Abu-Jamal was working as a radio newscaster at the Temple University station WRTI. Over the ensuing three years, he found work with Philadelphia-based stations like WHAT, WCAU, WPEN, and National Public Radio affiliate WUH. Also during the mid- to late ’70s, he became active in the local chapter of the Marijuana Users Association of America.
Abu-Jamal in his radio journalism earned the nickname “the voice of the voiceless,” and he gave much positive coverage to the activities of MOVE, a Philadelphia-based Black Power cult that was formed in 1972 by Vincent Leaphart, a.k.a. John Africa. The group was known for its demonstrations against police officers and the city government, and the official “MOVE Statement” conveyed a highly militant agenda:
“MOVE’s work is to stop industry from poisoning the air, the water, the soil, and to put an end to the enslavement of life—people, animals, any form of life. The purpose of John Africa’s revolution is to show people through John Africa’s teaching, the truth, that this [Western capitalist] system is the cause of all their problems (alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, wife abuse, child pornography, every problem in the world), and [to] set the example of revolution for people to follow when they realize how they’ve been oppressed, repressed, duped, tricked by this system, this government, and [to] see the need to rid themselves of this cancerous system as MOVE does.”
In this anti-capitalist organization, Abu-Jamal found a new home for his radical convictions. His first contact with MOVE came in 1975, when he happened upon some members who were protesting a Jesse Jackson rally for allegedly being too moderate. Throughout the late Seventies, Abu-Jamal’s radicalism intensified under the influence of this militant group, which he enthusiastically endorsed as “Niggas with guns!” MOVE gained a great deal of public attention during the late 1970s when some of its disciples embarked on an armed standoff with Philadelphia police. Tensions persisted from May 1977 to August 1978, eventually ending in an eruption of gunfire that left one policeman dead.
But the event that decisively catapulted Abu-Jamal into the public eye occurred shortly after 3:55 a.m. on December 9, 1981, when a 25-year-old white Philadelphia police officer named Daniel Faulkner made a traffic stop of William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s brother, who was driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Faulkner pulled behind Cook’s car, radioed for police backup, approached Cook’s vehicle, and ordered the driver to get out of his car. While Faulkner handcuffed the driver, Abu-Jamal, who was employed at that time as a cab driver, was parked across the street in his taxi. He suddenly got out of his vehicle, ran toward Faulkner, and shot him in the back. As the officer fell, he drew his own gun and managed to shoot Abu-Jamal in the chest, wounding but not killing him. The gun-wielding cabdriver then fired repeatedly at Faulkner, finally dispatching him from close range with a bullet between his eyes. Abu Jamal’s presence near the scene of the roadside stop at that particular moment has led to serious speculation that William Cook had intentionally led Faulkner into an ambush—one that had all the earmarks of other Black Panther provocations in places like Newark and Oakland.
The body of evidence placing Abu-Jamal at the scene of Faulkner’s killing was overwhelming. When the arresting officers arrived at the scene, Abu-Jamal was sitting on a curb near Faulkner’s corpse, with a fresh gunshot wound incurred from the young officer’s weapon. Not only did five witnesses see Abu-Jamal shoot Faulkner, but the bullets that were later pulled from Faulkner’s chest and brain were matched to the .38 caliber handgun that was registered to Abu-Jamal and which was sitting at his feet when the police arrived at the murder scene. Moreover, the gun had five empty cartridges when investigators found it.
In his 1982 trial, Abu-Jamal initially acted as own lawyer. He refused to enter a plea, refused to rise at the outset of courtroom proceedings, and demanded, more than 100 times, that the incarcerated Philadelphia cult leader John Africa, whom the defendant described as the best lawyer in the world, be permitted to attend the trial. Abu-Jamal called one judge a “bastard” and another a “black-robed conspirator,” and he was kicked out of courtrooms at least a half-dozen times during the duration of his trial. Meanwhile, Abu-Jamal attracted a passionate “cult” following of supporters and apologists who protested outside the courthouse and partook in a fracas within it.
Inside the courtroom, a police officer and a hospital security guard testified that while Abu-Jamal was being brought into the hospital following the altercation with Faulkner, they had heard him say, “I shot the mother fu**er, and I hope the mother fu**er dies.” Another witness testified to having heard Abu-Jamal declare, at the hospital: “I’m glad. If you let me go, I will kill all you cops.”
The racially mixed jury (10 whites and two blacks), which Abu-Jamal himself helped select, convicted the defendant and later sentenced him to death. Following the determination of his guilt, Abu-Jamal melodramatically proclaimed: “This decision today proves neither my guilt nor my innocence. It proves merely that the system is finished. Babylon is falling! Long live MOVE! Long live John Africa!”
Then, in the mid-1990s, a new legal team acting on Abu-Jamal’s behalf challenged most of the facts in the case and waged an international propaganda campaign to rehabilitate their client’s image. The lead attorney on the team was Leonard Weinglass, a Fidel Castro supporter who once served as co-chairman of the National Lawyers Guild‘s International Committee. According to Abu-Jamal’s new counsel: (a) the police had faked the death of one female witness to prevent her from recanting, and (b) a .44 caliber round, inconsistent with Abu-Jamal’s .38 caliber revolver, had really caused Faulkner’s death—despite the appellant’s own ballistics expert rebutting this conspiracy theory on the witness stand.
Following Weinglass’s lead, a bevy of prominent leftists rallied to Abu-Jamal’s defense, claiming that his first trial had been an exercise in injustice and that the actual gunman was an unnamed passenger in William Cook’s car who fled from the scene after murdering Officer Faulkner and was never subsequently found.
To view a timeline of the major events related to Abu-Jamal’s case after the 1982 trial, click here.
In early 1994, National Public Radio agreed that it would air Abu-Jamal’s brief commentaries on prison life on the program All Things Considered. But in May of that year, NPR managing editor Bruce Drake announced that he had decided to cancel the broadcasts because of “serious misgivings about the appropriateness of using as a commentator a convicted murderer seeking a new trial.” That same month, Pacifica Radio began airing Abu-Jamal’s broadcasts. In March 1996, Abu-Jamal filed a $2 million federal lawsuit against NPR, alleging that the network– by reneging on its agreement to broadcast his commentaries — had violated his right to free speech.
At the end of January 2012, Abu-Jamal was moved, for the first time since going on Death Row, into the general prison population of the Mahanoy State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.
Abu-Jamal is a great admirer of “the life and contributions” of the late Black Panther founder, Huey Newton. In October 2007 he wrote that Newton “was, and remains, a brilliant revolutionary” who was “intensely curious, acutely brilliant, a lover of all the world’s children, [and] an implacable foe of all the world’s oppressors.”
While serving his prison sentence, Abu-Jamal has earned a BA degree from Goddard College (1996) and an MA from California State University at Dominguez Hill. Also during his incarceration, Abu-Jamal has published books and commentaries on a wide range of social and political issues. In 1995 he published his first book, Live from Death Row, wherein he discusses the prison experience from an inmate’s perspective. In an essay addressing the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, Abu-Jamal stated: “The system used the main nonviolent themes of Martin Luther King’s life to present a strategy designed to protect its own interests—imagine the most violent nation on earth, the heir of Indian and African genocide, the only nation ever to drop an atomic bomb on a civilian population, the world’s biggest arms dealer, the country that napalmed over ten million people in Vietnam (to ‘save’ it from Communism), the world’s biggest jailer, waving the corpse of King, calling for nonviolence!”
In addition to the hundreds of broadcasts that Abu-Jamal has done for Pacifica Radio over the years, he is also the longtime host of his own program on Prison Radio. In addition, he can be heard via the Internet.
A national officer with the National Lawyers Guild—where his official title is “National Jailhouse Lawyer Vice President”—Abu-Jamal has been a regular columnist for Junge Welt, a Marxist newspaper in Germany. He also has been a guest blogger at the website of Marc Lamont Hill.
For additional information on Mumia Abu-Jamal, click here.