Biography of Assata Shakur

Black Radical and FBI's “Most Wanted”

'Assata Shakur is Welcome Here' Public Demonstration Hosted by Talib and Mos Def
'Assata Shakur is Welcome Here' Demonstration With Mos Def and Martin Luther. WireImage / Getty Images

Born JoAnne Deborah Byron on July 16, 1947, in New York City, Assata Shakur is the first woman to appear on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. An activist in black radical groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, Shakur was convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper in 1977, but supporters helped her escape prison and take refuge in Cuba.  

Fast Facts: Assata Shakur

  • Also Known As: JoAnne Chesimard
  • Born: July 16, 1947, in New York City
  • Parents: Doris E. Johnson
  • Education: Borough of Manhattan Community College and the City College of New York
  • Known for: Black radical activist with the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. US fugitive in Cuba.
  • Spouse: Louis Chesimard
  • Legacy: Shakur is regarded by many as a hero and her story has inspired works of music, art, and film
  • Famous Quote: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”

Early Years

Shakur spent the first years of her life with her schoolteacher mother, Doris E. Johnson, and her grandparents Lula and Frank Hill. After her parents divorced, she split time living with her mother (who later remarried) in New York and her grandparents who settled in Wilmington, N.C.

Shakur grew up in the 1950s, when Jim Crow, or racial segregation, was the law of the land in the South. Whites and blacks drank from separate water fountains, attended separate schools and churches, and sat in different parts of buses, trains, and restaurants. Despite Jim Crow, Shakur’s family instilled a sense of pride in her. In her 1987 memoir, Assata: An Autobiography“,” she recalls her grandparents telling her:

“I want that head held up high, and I don’t want you taking no mess from anybody, you understand? Don’t you let me hear about anybody walking over my grandbaby.”

In third grade, Shakur began attending a mostly white school in Queens, New York. She struggled to inhabit the role of a model Black child, even as teachers and students reinforced a message of the superiority of white culture. As Shakur progressed through elementary and middle school, the differences between Black and white, rich and poor became more pronounced.

In her autobiography, Shakur describes herself as an intelligent, curious, but somewhat troubled child. Because she often ran away from home, she ended up in the care of her aunt Evelyn A. Williams, a civil rights worker who took the time to nurture Shakur's curiosity.

Despite Williams' support, the troubled teen quit high school and got a low-paying job. Eventually, she met some African students at a bar and had conversations with them about the state of the world, including the Vietnam War. The discussion about Vietnam marked a turning point for Shakur, she said. The year was 1964.

“I never forgot that day,” she said. “We’re taught at such an early age to be against communists, yet most of us don't have the faintest idea what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.”

A Radical Coming of Age

Although Shakur dropped out of high school, she continued her education, earning her GED, or general educational development certificate. Afterward, she studied at both the Borough of Manhattan Community College and the City College of New York.

As a college student during the turbulent mid-1960s, Shakur joined black activist group the Golden Drums and took part in a variety of rallies, sit-ins, and the fight for ethnic studies programs that swept the nation. Her first arrest came in 1967 when she and other students chained the entrance to a BMCC building to draw attention to the college’s dearth of black professors and its lack of a black studies department. Through her activism, Shakur meet her husband, Louis Chesimard, also a student-activist. They would divorce in 1970.

After her marriage ended, Shakur headed to California and volunteered at Alcatraz prison during its occupation by Native American activists who objected to the US government’s failure to honor treaties and general oppression of their race. The activists' calmness during the occupation inspired Shakur. Before long, she returned to New York and and in 1971, she adopted the name “Assata Olugbala Shakur.”

Assata means “she who struggles,” Olugbala means “love for the people,” and Shakur means “the thankful,” she explained in her memoir. She felt the name JoAnne didn’t suit her because she identified as an African woman and wanted a name that better reflected that. To further embrace her African heritage, Shakur, like many other African-Americans in the 1960s, stopped straightening her hair and grew it out into an Afro.

In New York, Shakur joined the Black Panther Party Unlike civil rights activists, the Panthers supported using violence, if necessary. While the guns they carried made a number of news headlines, the group took concrete, positive actions to help the Black community, such as establishing a free breakfast program to feed low-income children. They also advocated for victims of police brutality. As Shakur noted:

“One of the most important things the [Black Panther] Party did was to make it really clear who the enemy was: not the white people, but the capitalistic, imperialistic oppressors.”

While Shakur grew close to fellow Black Panther member Zayd Malik Shakur (no relation), she quickly grew critical of the group, believing they needed to be better educated about history, African-American and otherwise, and to develop a systemic approach to challenge racism. She also questioned its leaders, like Huey P. Newton, and their lack of self-criticism and reflection.

Joining the Black Panthers led Shakur to be surveilled by law enforcement agencies like the FBI, she said.

“Everywhere I went it seemed like I would turn around to find two detectives following behind me. I would look out my window and there, in the middle of Harlem, in front of my house, would be two white men sitting and reading the newspaper. I was scared to death to talk in my own house. When I wanted to say something that was not public information I turned the record player up real loud so that the buggers would have a hard time hearing.”

Despite her fears of surveillance, Shakur continued her political activism, joining the radical Black Liberation Army, which she described as a “people’s movement” and “resistance” to the political, social, and economic oppression of African-Americans.

Legal Troubles and Imprisonment

Shakur began to get into serious legal trouble during her involvement with the BLA. She faced charges related to bank robbery and an armed robbery in which she was shot. She also faced charges related to the murder of a drug dealer and the attempted murder of a policeman. Each time, the cases were thrown out or Shakur was not found guilty. But that would change.

Assata Shakur, also known as JoAnne Chesimard.
Mug Shot of Assata Shakur. Bettmann/Getty Images

On May 2, 1973, Shakur was in a car with two BLA members, Sundiata Acoli and her close friend Zayd Malik Shakur. State trooper James Harper stopped them on the New Jersey Turnpike. Another trooper, Werner Foerster, followed in a different patrol car. During the stop, gunfire was exchanged. Werner Foerster and Zayd Malik Shakur were killed, and Assata Shakur and Harper were wounded. Shakur was later charged with the murder of Foerster and spent several years incarcerated before her trial.

Shakur said she was terribly treated while imprisoned. She was placed in solitary confinement for more than a year in a men’s facility, tortured, and beaten, she wrote in her memoir. Her medical predicament was also an issue, as she became pregnant with the child of fellow inmate and BLA member Kamau Sadiki. In 1974, she gave birth to a daughter, Kakuya, behind bars.

While she was pregnant, Shakur’s murder trial was declared a mistrial for fear she would miscarry. But the trial was finally carried out in 1977. She was convicted of murder and several assault charges and sentenced to life in prison.

Her supporters claimed the trial was deeply unfair. They’ve argued that some jurors should have been removed, the defense team was bugged, documents were leaked to the New York City Police Department, and that evidence, such as the lack of gun residue on Shakur’s hands and injuries she sustained, should have exonerated her.

Two years after her murder conviction, BLA members and other activists posed as visitors to the prison and broke Shakur out. She lived underground for several years, eventually fleeing to Cuba in 1984. The nation’s then leader, Fidel Castro, granted her asylum.

Legacy

As a fugitive, Shakur continues to make headlines. Forty years after her arrest for allegedly killing Foerster, the FBI added Shakur to its “top 10 most wanted terrorist list.” The FBI and the New Jersey State Police are offering a combined $2 million reward for her, or information about her whereabouts.

Politicians such as President Donald Trump and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have demanded that Cuba release her. The country has refused. In 2005, then President Fidel Castro said of Shakur:

They wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie.”

In the African-American community, Shakur is regarded by many as a hero. As godmother to the late rapper Tupac Shakur, Shakur is a particular inspiration to hip-hop artists. She’s the subject of Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause,” Common’s “A Song for Assata,” and 2Pac’s "Words of Wisdom." 

She’s also been featured in films such as “Shakur, Eyes of the Rainbow” and “Assata aka Joanne Chesimard.” 

Her activism has inspired Black Lives Matter leaders such as cofounder Alicia Garza. The campaign Hands Off Assata and activist group Assata's Daughters are named after her.

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