Eddie Ellis and the Struggle for Black Freedom
With the passing of Eddie Ellis in July of 2014, another giant of the black freedom struggle has joined the ancestors. Eddie features prominently in my dissertation research on prison-based organizations and study groups in New York. I was fortunate enough to get to know him over the past two years and his impression on me in that brief time was tremendous. As anyone who has encountered him knows, Eddie was a masterful communicator, guarded about his personal life, but immensely generous with his ideas in any sort of intellectual exchange. Over the course of his life he has been associated with luminaries like Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, Queen Mother Audley Moore, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansburry, Yuri Kochiyama, Stokely Carmichael, James Foreman, and Derrick Bell, yet when he and I spoke he would, at times, ask about my opinions and listen carefully to what I had to say. For this I was honored.
Eddie’s life was rich, and often painful, but it seems to me that his vital talent was his ability to draw on his personal experience and the experiences of those around him in order to analyze a given situation and create possibilities that otherwise would seem impossible, not just for himself, but also for those around him. He brought out the brilliance in others. In what follows, I will try to honor Eddie by providing a few political “snapshots” that illustrate this point.
In the mid 1960s Eddie traveled from Harlem to Lowndes County Alabama with several members of the nascent Revolutionary Action Movement. Their goal was to observe and examine the strategies being employed during the SNCC campaign to develop an independent black political apparatus. Inspired by what they learned, Eddie and his consorts returned to Harlem, a place where blacks had a numerical majority but very little political power, and established the first Black Panther Party. The group immediately began working with an ongoing campaign for control of community institutions. I have included what I think is Eddie’s clearest articulation of this moment from an unpublished 1992 interview with Dr. Muhammad Ahmad:
At the same time that we were organizing the Party in New York, we were right in the middle of the struggle for community control of the schools. One of our first major initiatives was to support that campaign. We lent or organizational resources to those people at IS201 in Harlem and Oceanville in Brownsville, Brooklyn who were organizing in this area. We knocked on doors, held community meetings, sent out press releases, and passed out leaflets. We talked about voter registration and the importance of getting involved in the struggle around community control of the schools. There was a city-wide school boycott in 1964 or 1965 and we played a major role in educating parents on the reasons why their children should not be sent to their schools under the kinds of conditions that existed at the time.
Out of that struggle we began to look at how we could broaden the base of the party by involving Latinos on the East Side, the Young Lords who were organizing around grievances and problems very similar to ours. During that time we also did a tremendous amount of writing, which we had hoped, would disseminate our analysis in order to educate and organize a wider audience.
What was significant and unique about the BPP and other nationalist groups during the period was that it ushered in a new consciousness into the black community. It was not an assimilationist or integrationist consciousness, but a rather a consciousness of self-determination, self-reliance, independence. This new consciousness brought a new kind of energy to the black community which ultimately led to a massive uprising of people all over this country.
In 1969 Eddie was targeted for “neutralization” by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program. He was arrested and convicted for the murder of James Howard, a crime for which Eddie steadfastly maintained his innocence. Nonetheless, Eddie was sentenced to 25 years in Federal Prison. Thus he joined the countless activists who were taken off streets and confined in prisons (or assassinated) during the period.
Eddie was sent to Attica, a place he described as, “one of the most brutal, oppressive and racist prisons that I have ever been in.” In 1971, these oppressive conditions, which persisted in spite of the repeated appeals issued by those who suffered from them, led to the Attica Rebellion. In response, Nelson Rockefeller led a vicious counter-rebellion in which 43 people – prisoners and guards alike – were massacred by a state assault force. Eddie witnessed this while he was locked down in C-Block, calling it “the most stunning event that ever happened in my life; to just witness cold blooded murder.”
I will not attempt to elaborate the full import of Attica here, but suffice it to say that not only was Attica a collective act of material and corporeal insurrection, it was also a collective manifestation of intellectual and ontological genius. It ushered in a decisive break in penal policy, prison organizing, and radical politics nationally and internationally. It also profoundly transformed Eddie and a whole generation of incarcerated and non-incarcerated prison activists. The Institute For The Black World called it “the highest stage of struggle reached by the black movement in this country.”
Following Attica, Eddie and approximately 500 others from throughout the New York Prison System were transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility. At Green Haven Eddie began to collaborate with and assist an organization of imprisoned intellectuals who were known as the Think Tank. In 1972, under the leadership of Larry “Luqman” White, the Think Tank began to develop and initiate several community development and research projects oriented toward improving prison conditions, politicizing the communities from which prisoners came, and undermining the penal rationality of incapacitation.
Members of the Think Tank were physically confined within the prison, thus the operations and functions of the prison and its role in American society became the focus of their analysis. A year earlier, just prior to the Attica Rebellion, Angela Davis, who at the time was incarcerated in California, had presciently written about this practice:
The vast majority of political prisoners have not allowed the fact of imprisonment to curtail their educational, agitational, and organizing activities, which they continue behind prison walls.
My dissertation research attempts to trace the impact of the political and intellectual work of the Think Tank and the ways in which their ideas and frameworks continue to circulate today – within and beyond prisons. Their accomplishments are numerous, yet they are best known as the architects of what became known as “The Seven Neighborhood Study” in the early 1990s. The study, which analyzed demographic data and offered public policy solutions was ahead of its time. It is often cited for clearly demonstrating that at the time 75% of the state’s prisoners came from just seven neighborhoods in New York City. Larry and Eddie wrote this study together and the Think Tank distributed it to their wide network of connections on the inside and on the outside.
Upon his release from prison in 1992, the New York Times wrote a story on the study which helped to elevate Eddie’s profile in criminal justice spheres. Although “free,” he continued to work on prison issues, helping to establish organizations such as the Community Justice Center, The Prison Moratorium Project, The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, and the radio Program, On The Count: The Prison and Criminal Justice Report.
In one of my interviews with Eddie I asked him why he kept working so hard despite his ailing health. He said:
We have a warrior mentality and warriors never put their shields down.
I remember being struck by how he referred to himself using the collective pronoun, “we.” I also asked him about Human Justice, the theoretical framework he had been developing right up until his passing. I wanted to know what he hoped it would accomplish. He said:
Our primary objective has to be to dismantle the criminal punishment system, but to achieve that we have to engage in some intermediate steps, most of which are reformist. For instance, we need to remove all of the people who could be somewhere else, such as the mentally ill, the elderly, the infirmed, or people who have substance abuse issues. These populations may represent 40 or 50 percent of the total system. As we begin to extricate them, we shrink the system. Right now the Prison Industrial Complex is so massive that it’s almost beyond our imagination. But if we shrink it, not only in terms of the number of people who are captive within it, but also in terms of the money that’s being spent as a consequence of it, we begin to make it more manageable. So I think that in terms of activism, that has to be our long-term strategy.
Eddie was an indefatigable agent of radical social transformation whose commitment to building institutions, exchanging knowledge, and redefining the “common sense” terms of a given debate will ensure that his countless descendants have the necessary tools and resources to carry on the struggle.
Orisanmi Burton is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill.