Black History Month: A Salute to Assata Shakur

joanne-chesimardAssata Shakur was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, on July 16, 1947, where she lived for three years with her parents and grandparents, Lula and Frank Hill. After her parents divorced in 1950, Shakur spent most of her childhood in Wilmington, North Carolinawith her grandmother, until her family relocated to Queens when she was a teenager. For a time, she ran away from home and lived with strangers until she was taken in by her aunt, Evelyn Williams, who later became her lawyer. Shakur dropped out of high school, but later earned a General Educational Development (GED) with her aunt’s help. Shakur attended Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and then the City College of New York (CCNY) in the mid-1960s, where she was involved in many political activities, protests, and sit-ins.

Assata Olugbala Shakur (born JoAnne Deborah Byron), whose married name was Chesimard, is an African-American activist and member of the former Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA). Between 1971 and 1973, Shakur was accused of several crimes and was the subject of a multistate manhunt.

In May 1973, Shakur was involved in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, in which she was accused of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foersterand grievously assaulting Trooper James Harper. BLA member Zayd Malik Shakur was also killed in the incident, and Shakur was wounded. Between 1973 and 1977, Shakur was indicted in relation to six other incidents—charged with murder,attempted murder, armed robbery, bank robbery, and kidnapping—resulting in three acquittals and three dismissals. In 1977, she was convicted of the first-degree murder of Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the shootout. In 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced it had made Shakur the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists.

Shakur was arrested for the first time in 1967 with 100 other BMCC students, on charges of trespassing. The students had chained and locked the entrance to a college building to protest a curriculum deficient in black studies and a lack of black faculty. She married Louis Chesimard, a fellow student-activist at CCNY, in April 1967, and divorced him in December 1970. Shakur devotes only one paragraph of her autobiography to her marriage, attributing its termination to disagreements related to gender roles.

After graduation from CCNY at 23, Shakur became involved in the Black Panther Party (BPP), and eventually became a leading member of the Harlem branch. Prior to joining the BPP, Shakur had met several of its members on a 1970 trip to Oakland, California. One of Shakur’s main activities with the BPP was coordinating a school breakfast program. However, she soon left the Party, charging macho behavior of males in these organizations, but did not go as far as other female Panthers like Regina Jennings, who left the organization over sexual harassment. Instead, Shakur’s main criticism of the BPP was its alleged lack of focus on black history.

That same year Chesimard changed her name to Assata Shakur and joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA), “a radical and violent organization of black activists” “whose primary objective (was) to fight for the independence and self-determination of Afrikan people in the United States.” In 1971, Shakur joined the Republic of New Afrika, an organization formed to create an independent black-majority nation composed of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Shakur was incarcerated in several prisons in the ’70s. She escaped from prison in 1979 and has been living in Cuba, in political asylum, since 1984. Since May 2, 2005, the FBI has classified her as a domestic terrorist and offered a $1 million reward for assistance in her capture. On May 2, 2013, the FBI added her to the Most Wanted Terrorist List. On the same day, the New Jersey Attorney General offered to match the FBI reward, increasing the total reward for her capture to $2 million.

In 1998, Shakur referred to herself as a “20th century escaped slave.” A documentary film about Shakur, Eyes of the Rainbow, written and directed by Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando, appeared in 1997. The official premiere of the film in Havana in 2004 was promoted by Casa de las Américas, the main cultural forum of the Cuban government. The National Conference of Black Lawyers and Mos Def are among the professional organizations and entertainers to support Assata Shakur. The “Hands Off Assata” campaign is organized by Dream Hampton. Hip-hop artist Common recorded a tribute to Shakur, “A Song for Assata,” on his album Like Water for Chocolate, 2000, after traveling to Havana to meet with Shakur personally. Paris (“Assata’s Song”, in Sleeping with the Enemy, 1992), Public Enemy (“Rebel Without A Pause” in It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988), 2Pac (“Words of Wisdom” in 2Pacalypse Now, 1991), Digital Underground (“Heartbeat Props” in Sons of the P, 1991), The Roots (“The Adventures in Wonderland” in Illadelph Halflife, 1996), Asian Dub Foundation (“Committed to Life” in Community Music, 2000), Saul Williams (“Black Stacey” in Saul Williams, 2004), Rebel Diaz (“Which Side Are You On?” in Otro Guerrillero Mixtape Vol. 2, 2008), Lowkey (“Something Wonderful” in Soundtrack to the Struggle, 2011), Murs (“Tale of Two Cities” in The Final Adventure, 2012), Jay Z (“Open Letter Part II” in 2013), Digable Planets, The Underachievers and X-Clan have recorded similar songs about Shakur. Shakur has been alternately termed a “rap music legend” or a “minor cause celebre.”

Salute to a fellow QUEEN.👑

Photo courtesy of


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