PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For years, Mumia Abu-Jamal was the face of the anti-death penalty movement in the United States. A former Black Panther sentenced to death in the 1981 murder of a police officer, he became a bestselling author and commentator in the early 1990s, as “Free Mumia” became a staple of protests and T-shirts.
His prominence has faded since 2011, when after a series of appeals, the Philadelphia district attorney agreed to drop the death penalty. Abu-Jamal is currently serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. But now, the trove of paper he accumulated as one of America’s most famous prisoners has found a permanent home in a different kind of institution.
Brown University has acquired Abu-Jamal’s personal archive, more than 60 boxes of letters, notebooks, manuscripts, pamphlets, personal artifacts, books and other material. It had filled his cell on death row, before it was shipped a decade ago to the home of a scholar and friend, where it sat all but unseen.
Abu-Jamal’s archive will be held by the university’s John Hay Library, as part of its new Voices of Mass Incarceration collecting initiative, which is aimed at chronicling one of the most pervasive, hotly debated — and under-documented — aspects of American life.
“The carceral system touches millions of lives,” the library’s director, Amanda E. Strauss, said earlier this month, before offering a first glimpse at the archive. “And yet the historical archive has a scarcity of stories of incarcerated people.”
Between 1970 and 2020, the number of people imprisoned or jailed in the United States rose to roughly 2 million, an increase of nearly 500%, according to figures cited by Brown. And over the past decade, the study of the “carceral state” has become a booming scholarly field.
But most of that work is based on the voluminous records generated by the police and prison systems. Mary Murphy, the archivist overseeing Abu-Jamal’s papers, said that her team had located only about 25 archival holdings in U.S. libraries relating to first-person experiences of incarcerated people.
Some are subsets of larger collections, like the archive of activist and scholar Angela Davis, acquired in 2018 by Harvard University. But most, Murphy said, are small, like a handful of prison diaries here and there.
The Abu-Jamal collection, she said, is unique. “This is the largest and only collection relating to a person who is still incarcerated,” she said.
Abu-Jamal was born Wesley Cook in Philadelphia in 1954. As a teenager, he co-founded a local chapter of the Black Panthers, which advocated socialism, Black nationalism and armed self-defense. He later became a radio journalist and president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, known for his sympathetic coverage of MOVE, a radical, antigovernment Black power group whose relationship with the police (who firebombed their compound in 1985, killing 11) remains a raw subject in Philadelphia.
In 1982, Abu-Jamal, who had no prior criminal record, was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1981 killing of police Officer Daniel J. Faulkner, who witnesses testified was shot by Abu-Jamal as the officer was arresting his brother.
The acquisition of his archive is not just unique, but also potentially controversial. In 1994, National Public Radio reversed a plan to broadcast his prison commentaries, after protests from the police and others. To his most ardent defenders, Abu-Jamal (who continues to maintain his innocence) is a political prisoner. To detractors, he’s a “celebrity cop killer.”
Jill Kimball, a spokesperson for Brown, said the purchase had been approved by the university’s provost. She said the archive was acquired “through a trust,” but said the university was not disclosing further details, including the purchase price.
The archive came to Brown almost by accident. In spring 2020, Murphy began recording an oral history with Johanna Fernández, a historian at Baruch College in Manhattan and a Brown alumna who had been involved in the student takeover of University Hall, as part of an ultimately successful campaign for need-blind admissions and greater minority recruiting.
Murphy, the archivist at the Pembroke Center, a feminist research center at Brown, was also interested in acquiring Fernández’s papers, which record both her own activism and her work as a prominent scholar of radical movements. (In 2014, Fernández sued the New York Police Department over access to millions of pages of surveillance files of the Black Panthers and others.)
After a few conversations, Fernández followed up with an unexpected message. “She said, ‘Oh, I should probably mention I also have this other archive,’” Murphy said. She was shocked to hear what it was, and called Strauss. “I almost fell out of my chair,” Strauss recalled.
Fernández, in an interview, said she first heard about Abu-Jamal as an undergraduate. “He was the Che Guevara of our time,” she said.
She got to know him in 2005, when she began visiting him and other prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania, where she was living. She has since made a documentary about his case, and edited a collection of his prison writings.
She began storing his archive in 2012, when he left death row. “They were pressuring him to get rid of everything in his cell,” she said. “He wanted to throw it all away. But as a historian, I understood the importance of papers.”
He mailed her boxes and boxes crammed with material, which filled her closet and other corners of her apartment. She looked through them, and included an interview with Abu-Jamal in “The Young Lords,” her award-winning 2020 history study of the Puerto Rican activist group, which was modeled after the Black Panthers. But otherwise, she said, the papers have not been seen or used by anyone.
Earlier this month, a sampling of both Abu-Jamal’s papers and Fernández’s (which were acquired in a separate transaction) were spread out on two tables in at an off-campus facility in Providence, Rhode Island.
The sampling from Fernández’s archive included her scholarly research materials and student diaries, as well as items that spoke to her long friendship with Abu-Jamal, like his watercolor portraits of her.
“These collections are really in conversation with each other, the prisoner and the advocate,” Murphy said.
The array from Abu-Jamal’s archive included a box of art supplies, a clear-plastic prison radio and a pair of his heavy-framed plastic aviator glasses. But the bulk of the collection is paper.
Much of it speaks to daily life in prison, like a price list for snacks, and correspondence from prison administrators on requests for reading material. “In a way, the archive is actually generated by the prison system,” Murphy said.
The archive also includes voluminous notebooks. And there are thousands of letters from supporters around the world, as well as correspondence with notable figures including writers Angela Davis and Alice Walker, activist Kathleen Cleaver and Harvard legal scholar Derrick Bell (who debated Abu-Jamal, Murphy said, on the significance of rap music).
Some items speak to the impact Abu-Jamal had on other incarcerated people. There’s a typed 2007 letter from Bomani Shakur (born Keith LaMar), a death row inmate in Ohio who is scheduled to be executed in November 2023 for his role in the killing of five fellow inmates during a 1993 prison riot.
“I have poured over your writings and have tried to use them as a guide for my own transformation,” Shakur wrote. “And now I want to make a contribution and, along with you and others, advocate for a better world.”
There was handwritten sheet music for original songs by Abu-Jamal, with titles like “Panther Walk” and “Vampire Nation.” Murphy also offered a brief glimpse of what she described as one of the archive’s “rarest items”: a long, philosophical manuscript mailed to Abul-Jamal in the early 1980s by John Africa, the founder of MOVE, who was killed in the 1985 firebombing.
The curators would not allow that item to be photographed. They said the library is still working out any privacy-related restrictions, but expected most of the archive to be processed and open for research in about a year — very fast by archival standards.
Murphy said the collection is historically important, however one views Abu-Jamal.
The prison system, and the experience of those inside it, Murphy said, “is a massive piece of American history.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.