(The Root) — The FBI’s recent addition to its Most Wanted Terrorists list has reopened long-dormant wounds from America’s racial past. Assata Shakur’s (formerly Joanne Chesimard) distinction of being the first woman on that list evokes the triumphant and tragic legacy of the black power movement.
It was during an era whose high point, between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, witnessed the exhilarating highs of Stokely Carmichael’s defiant declaration of “black power” and the street-swaggering bravado of the leather-jacketed Black Panthers, as well as the low points of fratricidal violence among militants. That violence was aided and abetted by illegal surveillance of law-enforcement agencies, most notably the FBI’s notorious Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO.
For almost 30 years, Shakur has resided in an undisclosed location in Cuba. She is recognized by its government as a revolutionary fugitive in exile, even as U.S. authorities have sought to extradite her as a cold-blooded cop killer. Shakur’s life in Cuba has been marked by a tenuous duality: She is at once venerated by supporters — including the Cuban government, which contributes to her living expenses — and increasingly vilified by U.S. officials, who have placed a $2 million bounty on her head.
To understand Joanne Chesimard’s evolution from a doe-eyed black teenager living in Queens, N.Y., to the black revolutionary named Assata Shakur, accused of murder, requires going back more than 45 years to an era of national civil unrest marked by anti-war protests, campus strikes and deteriorating relations between blacks and whites that had liberals and conservatives openly discussing the possibility of a race war. (Assata was part of the New York City Panthers, some of whom took the surname “Shakur.” The group’s members included Afeni Shakur, mother of rapper Tupac. Assata is also Tupac’s stepaunt.)
By the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 4, 1968, assassination, race relations in America had reached bottom, highlighted by waves of urban riots that militants characterized as “rebellions” and government bureaucrats called “civil disorders.” The Black Panther Party emerged from the burning embers of urban unrest at the vanguard of a revolution that would, paradoxically, be fought with guns and butter. The organization patrolled the streets of Oakland, Calif., brandishing legal weapons, and simultaneously established free breakfast programs, health clinics and anti-poverty measures that made it perhaps the era’s most pragmatic revolutionary group.
The Panthers wrestled with this dual identity, with advocates of armed revolution breaking off into the Black Liberation Army, an entity inspired by the early writings of Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver as well as successful guerrilla revolts in the developing world, most notably Cuba.
It’s within this historical context that Chesimard became a black power activist, member of the underground BLA and convicted felon after being accused of killing a New Jersey state trooper after a traffic stop gone bad in 1973. Ironically, Newton, the Black Panthers’ minister of defense, had been similarly accused of murdering a police officer six years earlier. The subsequent “Free Huey” movement galvanized the New Left radicals and black power activists, eventually leading to Newton’s release in 1970.
Shakur’s daring escape from jail in 1979 and the publication of her gripping autobiography, Assata, in 1987 turned her into an icon, elevating her to the status of revolutionary cult figures such as former Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal. Their supporters remain as convinced of their innocence as their detractors are of their guilt.