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Abu-Jamal, Mumia

Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present

Todd Steven Burroughs

Abu-Jamal, Mumia 

(b. 24 April 1954),

radical prison journalist and author. Mumia Abu-Jamal was born Wesley Cook in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a teenager in the 1960s he was attracted to the Black Panther Party (BPP). Cook—christened “Mumia” by one of his high school teachers—helped form the BPP's Philadelphia chapter in spring 1969 and became the chapter's lieutenant of information. He wrote articles for the Black Panther, the party's national newspaper, and traveled to several cities to perform BPP work. He left the party in the fall of 1970 because of the split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton.

After attending Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, Cook, now calling himself Mumia Abu-Jamal—the surname is Arabic for “father of Jamal,” Jamal being his firstborn—returned to Philadelphia and began a radio broadcasting career in the early 1970s. Abu-Jamal was part of the first generation of black journalists to become professional newscasters for local and national black commercial radio. He worked for affiliates of the National Black Network and the Mutual Black Network, two black-oriented radio news networks. His early career crested when he joined WUHY (now WHYY), a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate. As one of the nation's few black NPR regional correspondents, Abu-Jamal reported for both 91 Report, the affiliate's weekday newsmagazine, and All Things Considered, the network's national daily afternoon newsmagazine. But he eventually alienated mainstream broadcasters because of his on-air sympathy for the MOVE organization, a radical, mostly black back-to-nature group based in Philadelphia. As a result, Abu-Jamal began driving a borrowed cab and engaging in sporadic radio freelancing.

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Mumia Abu-Jamal. The imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, 1995. Reuters

In the early morning of 9 December 1981, Abu-Jamal, while driving a cab, was drawn into a confrontation between Daniel Faulkner, a white Philadelphia police officer, and Abu-Jamal's brother, William. Both Abu-Jamal and Faulkner were shot. Faulkner died at the scene, and Abu-Jamal was tried for Faulkner's murder. The case and trial were sources of great controversy. His detractors argued that the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming (for instance, Abu-Jamal's gun was at the scene), while his supporters charged that his lawyer was incompetent, the judge was biased in favor of the police, and the sentencing hearing overemphasized his teenage years spent with the BPP. Abu-Jamal—who was not allowed to continue representing himself at his trial because he wanted to replace his court-appointed defense attorney with the MOVE founder John Africa—was convicted of first-degree murder and given the death penalty. As of 2008 his case was still under appeal.

Abu-Jamal has had several clashes, both legal and philosophical, with prison officials and with noncommercial radio over his right to continue to speak and write as a paid journalist and author. In May 1994, NPR contracted him to do a series of recorded commentaries on prison life for All Things Considered but, amid public controversy, decided not to air them just days before their scheduled broadcast. The following year Abu-Jamal was placed in the death-row equivalent of solitary confinement for publishing Live from Death Row, his first book, because prison authorities argued that the book constituted proof of Abu-Jamal's involvement in entrepreneurship in defiance of regulations. State prison authorities banned outsiders from using any recording equipment in state prisons in 1996, shortly after Home Box Office aired the sympathetic documentary Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case of Reasonable Doubt? that included an on-camera interview with Abu-Jamal.

In February 1997 the left-leaning Pacifica Radio's national weekday newsmagazine Democracy Now! lost a dozen affiliates in Pennsylvania: the relay radio station in Philadelphia canceled its contract with the newscast because commentary from Abu-Jamal was part of the program's lineup. In August 1999 prison authorities, believing once again that Abu-Jamal was violating regulations, yanked the wires of Abu-Jamal's telephone out of its wall when he began doing live commentaries on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! He was eventually allowed to resume his broadcasts.

Although still incarcerated, in the early twenty-first century Abu-Jamal continued to be a prolific writer and an international cause célèbre—his plight attracted considerable attention overseas. He has written a pamphlet, five nonfiction books that include Live from Death Row (1995) and Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience (1997), and hundreds of commentaries that have been aired on the Pacifica Radio network and published on the Internet and in black newspapers and leftist radical journals.


Abu-Jamal, Mumia. All Things Censored. Edited by Noelle Hanrahan. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000. A collection of his best essays from Live from Death Row and Death Blossoms, as well as previously unpublished material.Find this resource:

    Bisson, Terry. On a Move: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal. New York: Litmus Books, 2000.Find this resource:

      Lindorff, Dave. Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 2003.Find this resource:

        Williams, Daniel R. Executing Justice: An Inside Account of the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.Find this resource:

          —Todd Steven Burroughs