Shujaa Graham: We have to become organized

Shujaa Graham is a former California death row prisoner and member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Since he was freed, he has dedicated himself to speaking out in the struggle against the death penalty, and for social justice.

To our leadership, and to our national board who have piloted us through the turbulent times, who gave us leadership when we were blind, who have encouraged us when we was down, to you, my beloved sister, the director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty [Marlene Martin], and your staff, I want to thank you. Especially for putting the pressure on me to say, "Stand up, old dog, and fight on." To you, Mike Stark, who has been by my side and encouraged me, I want to say thanks from the bottom of my heart. You've been so much to me in times of need, you just don't know.

And to you my brother, Madison, the last time I saw you we were in South Carolina, fighting for the life of a person that we'd never seen. I spent ten days or seven days of my life down there and you were with me and by my side. I can remember when I walked in to that university and I saw all the guards -- and Madison can attest to it -- standing up against the wall, because the person who was going to be executed was accused of killing a police officer. When we walked in, they were fifteen or twenty deep up against the wall uniform down. We walked in -- yes -- I was frightened but unafraid. When I walked in with my brother and those young students -- 350 of them in South Carolina, a state you would never think that many students would show up and hear a few old dead men talk -- they were there. When I came in, it just so happened the microphone broke. I was shaking and trembling, and when they went to get another one I had a chance to talk to the students while I waiting. They gave me courage to stand up and say my piece.

So, my brothers and sisters who are here tonight, the great ground crew, the masses, who count the most -- my brothers and sisters, my young friends from Georgetown, American University, George Washington -- all the universities that I've been around -- most of all I want to thank all of you young students who have encouraged me, patted me on the back and said, "Keep the faith; we love you." I want to say thank you for saying that to me, because for 15 years of my life I lived under the threat of death and people told me I was a nobody and I was a hate monger and that I was an extremist. I've never really been a hate monger. I've been an extremist, but like King said -- and I quote him often, most of what I say is probably what he lived his life through -- it all depends on what you are an extremist for. You can be an extremist for hate and you can be an extremist for love. You can be an extremist for the preservation of injustice or you can be an extremist for the extension of justice. I like the latter. And I think you all are with me tonight.

Here I stand, my brothers and sisters, wounded just like you by the blows of capital punishment. But yet -- and still -- we fight on. There's an old saying in the movement that we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in one single garment of destiny. What effects one, effects us all. What effects him directly will eventually effect us all indirectly. That's why we're here today. Although many of us haven't been on death row, we've been affected by death row, [including] family members, like my sister Evangelist back here. Her brother is facing death in Maryland, and we've got a difficult battle, a difficult task. We don't know, we could win or lose, but yet we must make a try to save humanity and that's what I'm about.

Most of my life was spent in the southern state from the time that I was one and coming out of my mother's womb -- I came out crying and hollering probably trying to get out. I spent 11 years in a little, small town called Lake Providence, Louisiana. I knew what the South is about and what these small towns are about. I grew up under segregation. I understand at 54 years how it feels -- like the sister was saying earlier -- it wasn't about segregation that bothered us. It was how we were segregated. It wasn't the right to be with white people. It was the right to be treated as equal human beings -- that's what our fight was about.

Living under that tyranny and that oppression -- it affected me profoundly. I can remember like it was yesterday -- my grandmother, who was the strength of our family, who stood up against white racism when we trembled. When the white people came by -- I'm not going to lie -- but she stood up and she said, "Son stand back, let me handle this." And I said where did that old woman get all that strength? One day she told me that her mother and father died at a young age and she as a young girl had raised her sisters and brothers. She said, "Son, I've been a fighter all my life. I just never have won a battle but I've never giving up." And that's what I'm about. And that's what we all have to be about.

As I stand before you today I wish I could say to you all that there's some miraculous quality in the air or there's some miraculous quality in the flow of time that would heal and destroy capital punishment. It won't. But there's one quality that will. And that is the coming together of the masses. The coming together of people, united in a common cause, will be able to overthrow capital punishment. Because I've lived and seen capital punishment come and go in my lifetime. And I say to you all, you possess that quality. But in order for us to affect the situation, we have to become an organized entity.

I'd like to bring it to the point of the Kevin Cooper Brigade. They're all in yellow today [wearing "Free Kevin Cooper" t-shirts]. I may be color blind, but I recognize them. And they know, I fought with them. But I couldn't fight like them. I'm going to tell you, they wore me down. I tried to hide. I thought I could run up and start to speak to someone and hang out with my buddies and lay low. I'm like this is like the '60s and '70s. But what was so amazing and so fantastic about that experience -- it was the coming together of people.

I can remember five years ago when I went to Cameron, my ISO [International Socialist Organization] brother -- a socialist who was the backbone of that movement out there. Many people want to tell you it was the Campaign, but a lot us were socialists like I am. I'm an old socialist now; I used to be young socialist when I was 19. I remember fighting for Kevin Cooper and how dynamic it was. These brothers and sisters worked so hard. They were so dedicated. What was so amazing about their work -- there were so many of us in so many different states that was working on behalf of the Kevin Cooper.

But the Kevin Cooper Campaign started five or six years -- long before it became national. It was the backbone to Kevin Cooper and it was the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. I want to recognize Elizabeth [Terzakis] and Crystal [Bybee] and all those sisters who fought that battle. Not only that they fought the battles for Kevin Cooper -- three to four of them were willing to -- if it came to it -- to be there on that day when Kevin was executed. I don't know -- even me, myself who was on death row -- if he had asked me if I would have been able to witness that. But you all show supreme courage and supreme dedication.

I can remember when we didn't know if Kevin was going to live or die. Those sisters had their baggage. Just like Kevin, they were prepared to go down for his final days. They were carried off and put into location -- telephone available for them to come down when the word was delivered. But through the power and determination of a committed people, the telephone rang and on the other end was a friendly voice saying in substance, "There won't be any execution tonight." And that's what Kevin said. But Kevin himself gave us more inspiration than anyone could give us. That's what all condemned people and all family members of condemned people must begin to realize and start speaking out. Not at the last moment, but in the beginning. Speak out against that injustice.

No one can tell me that the laws of capital punishment solve crime. I've told you many times that I've lived through it. I've lived long enough to know that human progress is not automatic or inevitable. Even a superficial look at the history and you'll find very quickly that social change advances on the cogwheels of a united people. And through that united people victory is inevitable. As we live our life and go through many changes we will find no matter how long we live every victory lies in our unity. We did not get a final victory in the Kevin Cooper case, and many people say, "Don't get too excited." But what I learned and what I experienced in the Kevin Cooper situation was a new sense of confidence. What was born out of that partial victory -- a sense of confidence -- of what a united people can do. And as an old solider that came back home, I say this is a wonderful thing. It reinforced what I always try to communicate to people because I realize that we can go nowhere until the masses give us permission.

When you as a people unite and continue to fight and everybody said, "How can we educate people?" Continue to go out and organize and pass out your flyers and leaflets. Continue to take people on -- to challenge the capital punishment issue, to challenge the fact that it is wrong, to challenge the fact that we have lived in this world for hundreds and hundreds of years and there's no evidence that capital punishment itself solves our social problems. But the question must be asked -- if capital punishment doesn't solve our problems, why does mankind continue to pursue it? We are here because of the potentiality of life. Beauty is at stake by mankind's constant attitude toward retaliation and revenge. Our world is filled and cluttered with the wreckage of human beings that have followed this path. I say to you, my brothers and sisters, there's a better way and a new world, but it's going to have to come from each and everyone of you all -- who decide to make a commitment, suffer a little bit more, to sacrifice a little bit more, to go on in the name of humanity.

If it wasn't for people like yourself, old man Shujaa, I, wouldn't be able to say I'm an old man now. It was young 15-year-old kids who were in middle school that believed in our innocence and came together like no other two human beings and fought to prove our innocence. Today I do a dedication to those two individuals. They were able -- at 15 and 14 -- to mobilize a crowd of people like yourself. When we walked in the courtroom and we saw the faces of those people, we knew victory was coming. Through the help of lawyers we were able to let them represent that in court and free us. But our ultimate liberators -- like one judge said, in Illinois most of the people that face death are being freed not because of the system but in spite of the system. They're free because of luck, lawyers, family members, and individuals who were willing to volunteer and work on their behalf. ...

As I leave you, I like to always try to leave on a positive note -- a poem by Holly Near:

Oh I remember, I am not here for myself
I am not here to promote my own ego
I am here to serve the Great Spirit.
To be a voice for those who are afraid to speak
To be movement for those who are stuck
I am a mystery
I am here to learn something new about myself
I give my talent to the wind
I give my weakness to the rocks
I give my fears to the stars
I give my confidence to the moon
But not only that
I give it all to us.
And as we go on
If I am great it is not my greatness it is the wind that will celebrate.
If I am not great it is not my fault -- it is the rocks that will carry the burden and disappointment.
I am just a channel here to serve, here to work.