Igniting the Flame

Speech given by Stan Howard for Black History Month at Stateville Correctional Center

Welcome everyone! I thank you for affording me this wonderful opportunity to speak to the Brothers here at Stateville Correctional Center. Brief intro: My name is Stanley Howard. I'm the proud son of Jeanette Johnson and William Travis, and the proud father of three boys and a girl, and grandfather of three and a half (another one on the way). I was born and raised in Chicago's world renown Bronzeville neighborhood, in Providence hospital, where Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the world's first open-heart operation. I was born exactly 100 years after the alleged emancipation of America's slaves -- in 1962. Black history lives in my blood, and in your blood, in the form of a burning flame. We're here today, regardless of your race, to celebrate and remember the varied and many contributions Blacks have made to the world. We celebrate their wisdom, courage, intelligence and compassion, which led us through some of the most wonderful and most terrible times in the history of the world. I pray that history will continue to be kind to all of them and all of their achievements.

I'm here today to remind each of you that the same struggle for Peace, Justice and God given Freedoms that our foreparents fought so hard for, continues today in many different forms. The same inhumane conditions our foreparents lived in for 100s of years, survives today in more silent and more subtle forms. We all owe it to our ancestors and our children to stand up and accept our responsibilities to keep the struggle alive and moving forward -- to keep us moving towards a better tomorrow. And regardless of why we are behind these ugly walls (what you did or didn't do), you can, and you must, participate in this rendezvous with destiny. It is your destiny and responsibility to keep the struggle alive. The Hon. Min. Louis Farrakhan and Rev. Jessie Jackson met in November 2004 (after the presidential election) in a rare political summit to discuss current events and the "State of the Union", which the host, radio personality Brother Cliff Kelley, billed as one of the most historical meetings since the Malcolm X/Dr. King meeting in the early 1960s.I'm here today to remind each of you that the same struggle for Peace, Justice and God given Freedoms that our foreparents fought so hard for, continues today in many different forms. The same inhumane conditions our foreparents lived in for 100s of years, survives today in more silent and more subtle forms. We all owe it to our ancestors and our children to stand up and accept our responsibilities to keep the struggle alive and moving forward -- to keep us moving towards a better tomorrow. And regardless of why we are behind these ugly walls (what you did or didn't do), you can, and you must, participate in this rendezvous with destiny. It is your destiny and responsibility to keep the struggle alive. The Hon. Min. Louis Farrakhan and Rev. Jessie Jackson met in November 2004 (after the presidential election) in a rare political summit to discuss current events and the "State of the Union", which the host, radio personality Brother Cliff Kelley, billed as one of the most historical meetings since the Malcolm X/Dr. King meeting in the early 1960s.

During the conversation, Min. Farrakhan and Rev. Jackson both agreed on one very important fact -- that the criminal justice issue that is incarcerating so many Black males is, "the most major Civil Rights issue of our time, and it must be addressed." And with a quick look around you, that fact is plainly seen because this room is filled with a disproportionate amount of Blackmen, and it's the same in just about every prison in the country. We all have reasons as to why, but the question is, what are we going to do about it?!

Please allow me to tell you this quick story: In April 1987, the Chicago Tribune Headline read: "Sentenced To Death; Man Laughs". The Asst. State's Attorney said, "Stanley Howard laughed at the judge who sentenced him to death; he was flip; and, he doesn't care what we do to him". What they didn't know was -- I laughed because I just couldn't believe what was happening to me. How can they send an innocent man to Death Row?! Honestly tough, I think I laughed to keep from crying. That's probably what millions of other Black men and women did who were wronged by this unjust and racist system, or simply by living in White America. I was hurt, but didn't want them to know it!!!

Eventually, I was sent to a place where not many returned alive. I spent 16 years of my 20 years of incarceration on Illinois' Death Row. I cannot describe the mental pain and suffering I endured while awaiting, and trying to stop, a prescribed date with death. But what I can tell you is: unlike the preconceived notions of what Death Row is thought to be like -- the worst of worst trying to maim and kill each other and staff, it was the total opposite. It was a place where all the guys lived in peace amongst each other, and where all the guys genuinely cared for and/or respected each other. We leaned on each other heavily for guidance and support to make it through the hard times -- especially before, during and after an execution. And regardless of the alleged crime, your race, religion or gang affiliation, we lived together in one cohesive family unit. In other words, we came together like our foreparents had to do in order to survive and fight a stronger fight to overcome. While on Death Row, I formed a "Law Class." It was a place where we taught each other Criminal Law and where we held mock trials, and where we came together to form a plan to attack the system, and where I thought of the idea, which I named "The Death Row 10." There is no greater joy for me to see someone who knew nothing about the law or the system before coming to the Law Class, to all of a sudden see him teaching or helping someone else, or to see him all of a sudden participating in the legal fight for his life. We came together and ignited a spark at a time when politicians were climbing over each other to prove that he or she was tougher on crime, because being labeled soft on crime was a death sentence for a politician.

To prove this point, they were trying to top each other to see who could come up with laws to speed-up executions, provide longer sentences, and make it virtually impossible for a criminal defendant to receive justice, fairness and freedom -- all of which were done in total disrespect to the Illinois and U.S. Constitutions, and Human Rights.

We ignited a spark by coming together and working with many different people, groups, organizations and understanding politicians, and by bringing our families, friends and supporters together to expose the unjust, racist, corrupt and broken Death Penalty system. And for the first time in Illinois' history (and probably the nation), the people on the outside began holding protest, rallies, meetings and forums to educate the public and to confront the alleged "powers that be" to demand an end to the Death Penalty; to demand Justice for the Death Row 10; to bring an end to police torture and brutality; and to demand change and reforms.

That tiny spark which began in the Law class led to a huge flame that couldn't be extinguished or ignored. It forced them to admit that the Death Penalty system was broken, and in turn, because of the political and public pressure, even some of the most hardnose rightwing conservatives began calling for change and reforms, while at the same time, making Illinois ground zero in the fight against the death penalty. And eventually, it convinced former Governor George Ryan, my friend, to give me, Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange, and Madison Hobley pardons on the basis of innocence, and convinced him to clear out Death Row. I told you that story to show you what a little spark can accomplish, and I want you all to know, that the same tiny spark that lived in Rev. Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Dr. King Jr., Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, Barbara Jordan, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall and so many named and un-named Black Freedom Fighters -- which led to many slave revolts, the emancipation, the end of Jim Crow / the so called end to segregation and discrimination, which propelled the civil rights movement -- that tiny spark is alive and burning in each and everyone of us -- we inherited it.

We must ignite the spark that is in all of us to become one huge burning flame. We must, today, right now, put aside all of our differences to come together, and rise above the thinking that our fellow Brothers and our fellow prisoners are our enemies. Because when we come together and become one huge burning flame, we can ignite the spark that will bring an end to the death penalty, demand and bring an end to natural life sentences, Truth in sentencing and all these other outrageous sentences, and we can demand they bring back rehabilitation programs and turn these prisons back into Correctional Center. We must help them help us in what Min. Farrakhan and Rev. Jackson called "the most major civil rights struggle of our time." Our ancestors and our children will love and respect us for it. Demand that your families, friends, supporters and associates get involved. We must show them and teach them how to help us end this madness. We cannot sit back and be the "do nothing" generation, or we will be in this situation for many more generations.

After having my cell shook down over a million times over the past 20 years, and after too many strip-searches, I still possess two of the most dangerous weapons known to man -- a Black mind and an ink pen, and you all possess the same -- lets use them to ignite the flame.

I leave you with a few of my favorite quotes to think about:

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Frederick Douglass

"We will leave no one behind." Sister Harriet Tubman

"You can't hold a man down without staying down with him." Booker T. Washington

"We must turn to each other and not on each other." Rev. Jessie Jackson

"The best way to predict the future is to create it." African Proverb

"Enough is Enough." Joan Parkin and Stanley Howard

Thank you!!!!!