I See This Struggle As A New Challenge

Exonerated Death Row Prisoner Shujaa Graham

Shuhaa Graham

SHUJAA GRAHAM is a former death row prisoner who spent 12 years behind bars in California before he was finally exonerated and set free. Ever since, he has spoken out against the death penalty and the U.S. injustice system. He talked to Eric Ruder about his story and the fight against the death penalty.

Could you describe what happened to you?

I went to prison when I was 19 years old. The year was 1969. I went in on a robbery charge, and I was supposed to do four years and get out.

As I was in prison, I got involved in the protest movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and I became conscious of what was going on. One thing that really politicized me was when I moved to Soledad Prison in 1970. There was a war between the inmates and the guards. A lot of people were framed.

I was framed because of my political beliefs and because I was outspoken about prison conditions. On November 27, 1973, I was accused of killing a prison guard.

My first trial ended in a hung jury. Because of the publicity, they moved the trial to San Francisco County. There was a lot of racism in my case, and the DA thought that Blacks on the jury would be turned off by that. So he made it his duty to systematically exclude all Blacks from my jury. Consequently, I was convicted and sentenced to die in the San Quentin gas chamber. I stayed there for about four years.

In 1979, the case was overturned. My third trial ended in another hung jury. In my fourth trial, I was acquitted. I was released in 1981.

I continued organizing on behalf of prisoners and trying to integrate politics into my community. I see prison as a small microcosm of the big picture--the struggle for liberation of the oppressed. That’s been my life, and I’ve never turned back.

You've been out about 20 years. What have you been involved in since your release?

I've tried to integrate the prison issue with other movements. My politics go far beyond prison itself, but because I’ve been in prison, I felt a responsibility to try to expose the conditions of prison life, to fight against new prisons, to address how the disenfranchised will be tomorrow’s victims of the prison system.

Participating in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty is a wonderful thing. Since I’ve been out, I’ve always worked to end the death penalty.

I see these struggles not as something to be burdened with, but as a new challenge. People are dying, and more will die, so it’s important that we challenge the government.

We need a government that would be so sensitive to the needs of the people that its every endeavor would be towards building peace and happiness and not preying on the misery of people. And that’s really how the death penalty goes--it preys upon people’s fears.

I’m filled with ideals that would make it better for humanity. That’s my struggle. And that’s going to be my struggle until I die. I have no regrets. Since I’ve joined the movement, it’s been my life. It gave me a sense to live for something, it made me proud of myself, and it gave me a greater sense of dignity.

I may not be able to enjoy the fruits of this struggle, but our children will, and hopefully, they won’t have to experience what we experienced. We spent many hours campaigning and struggling for something that should already be here--justice.

What do you think about the growing opposition to the death penalty today?

It makes me feel good to see people campaigning and organizing. I think the younger generation is now picking up the struggle. There are many young people here at this convention. They inspire me to join and push the Campaign. And as we go and build, we’ll become bigger. And as we become bigger as a movement, then politicians will pay attention. But not until they sense the power of our movement.

Once they sense the power of a mass movement, they will begin to turn around. But we have to remember that they’re politicians. They will, in the end, listen to the masses if the masses have the power to put them out.

I spent five years locked down in solitary confinement. They told me I’d never see a regular life again. I figured I’d spend the rest of my life in prison. And I used to think if I just got off death row, I’d consider myself lucky.

But people didn’t give up. They kept organizing, mobilizing, and educating people to fight back, to come to my aid--just like you’re doing with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

Struggle is a long process, and you can get tired--but you have to keep going.