Assata Olugbala Shakur is an American ex-member of the ‘Black Liberation Army,’ murder convict, and fugitive, who is on the ‘Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) list of most-wanted terrorists, as “Joanne Deborah Chesimard” (marriage surname). She is also known as the "godmother" or "stepaunt" of the fatally shot American rapper and actor Tupac Shakur, known for his activism against inequality. Assata became associated with political activism during college and adopted the name “Assata Shakur” following her graduation. She was a member of the ‘Black Panther Party’ for sometime before joining the ‘Black Liberation Army,’ which ran campaigns to take up arms against the US Government, for freedom and self-determination of black people in the country. Eventually, Assata became a prominent figure of the organization and faced several charges, including those of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, bank robbery, and armed robbery. She was convicted of the murder of trooper Werner Foerster and seven other felonies during a New Jersey Turnpike shootout. She managed to flee from prison while serving life imprisonment. She currently lives in Cuba. She had relocated to Cuba 3 decades ago and was given political asylum.
Childhood & Early Life
Assata Olugbala Shakur was born on July 16, 1947, in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, New York, US. Initially, she lived with her retired grandparents, Lula and Frank Hill, and her school-teacher mother, Doris E. Johnson, for 3 years. Following her parents’ divorce in 1950, Assata shifted to Wilmington, North Carolina, with her grandparents.
Following elementary school, she returned to Queens with her mother and stepfather and studied at the ‘Parsons Junior High School.’ The financial struggle and disharmony at home led her to run away and live with strangers while working for brief periods. She was finally taken in by her maternal aunt and civil rights worker Evelyn A. Williams, who later acted Assata’s lawyer.
She studied at the ‘Cathedral High School’ for 6 months, after converting to Roman Catholicism, and then transferred to a public high school, only to drop out later. She is not a Catholic anymore. Her aunt later aided her in obtaining a ‘General Educational Development’ (GED) certificate.
She attended the ‘Borough of Manhattan Community College’ (BMCC). She faced her first arrest in 1967, when she, along with 100 other ‘BMCC’ students, were charged with trespassing, for blocking the college building entrance while protesting against the recruitment of fewer number of black faculty members and the lack of black studies programs.
She later joined the ‘City College of New York’ (CCNY), where she took part in several political activities and protests. While there, she married fellow student-activist Louis Chesimard in April 1967. The marriage lasted till December 1970.
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Political Activism, Allegations, & Convictions
Assata joined the revolutionary political organization ‘Black Panther Party’ (BPP) in Oakland, California, following her graduation from ‘CCNY.’ Her activities there included organizing protests and community education programs in Oakland. She later moved to New York City, where she led the organization’s Harlem chapter. She worked in the ‘BPP Free Breakfast Program’ for children. However, she left the ‘BPP’ after a short while, becoming critical about the macho attitude of the men in the organization and also of the organization’s disinterest in collaborating with other black organizations.
She then adopted the name “Assata Olugbala Shakur.” “Assata” was derived from the Arabic name “Aisha,” meaning “she who struggles”; “Olugbala” meant “savior” in Yoruba; and ‘Shakur’ meant the “thankful one” in Arabic. After leaving the ‘BPP’ that year, she joined the underground ‘Black Power’ organization called the ‘Black Liberation Army’ (BLA). They campaigned for an armed struggle against the US Government, for freedom and self-determination of black people in the country. They carried outterrorist activities such as bombings, murders of police officers and drug dealers, prison breaks, and robberies.
Assata was charged with attempted robbery, reckless endangerment, felonious assault, and possession of a deadly weapon, after she had a conflict with a ‘Statler Hilton Hotel’ guest on April 6, 1971, which also saw her being shot in her stomach. She was involved in many other crimes that occurred in the ensuing months and years. She conducted armed robberies, wounded and killed police officers, and orchestrated a hand-grenade attack. This brought her under police scrutiny and questioning.
A multi-state manhunt was made to catch Assata in 1972, after the ‘FBI’ accused her of leading a cell of the ‘BLA’ in carrying out the cold-blooded murders of several New York City police officers, including the May 21, 1971 murders of Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. Assata, however, asserted that her association with black liberation organizations had led her to become the target of ‘FBI's ‘COINTELPRO.’
Assata was arrested by the police after she got wounded in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in May 1973. The shootout involved her acquaintances and ‘BLA’ members Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur and New Jersey State troopers Werner Foerster and James Harper. While Zayd and Werner died in the shootout, Assata, Sundiata, and James were wounded. Sundiata fled but was arrested later.
Assata, after being indicted 10 times between 1973 and 1977, faced seven different criminal trials in New York and New Jersey, including one for the Turnpike shootout. She was acquitted from three of the charges, while three others were dismissed. One resulted in a conviction in 1977, when she was found guilty of murdering Werner and carrying out seven other felonies in relation to the Turnpike shootout. On April 25, 1977, she was sentenced to 26 to 33 years of state imprisonment to be served successively with her mandatory life sentence.
Imprisonment, Childbirth, Escape & Refuge in Cuba
Assata was kept in various correctional facilities at different points in time. She underwent a 21-month solitary confinement at the ‘Rikers Island Correctional Institution for Women’ in New York City. She conceived during her trial and gave birth to her only daughter, Kakuya Shakur, on September 11, 1974.
Aided by a group of ‘BLA’ members, known as "the Family,” Assata managed to escape from the maximum-security unit of the ‘Clinton Correctional Facility for Women’ in New Jersey on November 2, 1979. A court testimony given later revealed that till August 1980, she had lived in Pittsburgh and had then relocated to the Bahamas. By 1984, she was in Cuba, where she was given political asylum that year, and the following year, she got united with her daughter who then traveled to Cuba to live with her.
In 1987, it became a well-known fact that Assata was in Cuba. She wrote an open letter, praising Cuba and the then-Cuban president, Fidel Castro, and called herself a 20th-century fugitive slave. The same year, she published her autobiography, ‘Assata: An Autobiography.’ Her second book, ‘Still Black, Still Strong,’ written with Mumia Abu-Jamal and Dhoruba bin Wahad, was published in 1993. According to sources, she also served ‘Radio Havana Cuba’ as an English-language editor.
Assata continues to live in Cuba, and all extradition attempts made to bring her back to the US have remained unsuccessful to date. Meanwhile, in 2013, the ‘FBI’ included her on its list of “most wanted terrorists,” as “Joanne Deborah Chesimard,” marking her as the first woman to feature on the list. The ‘FBI’ also increased the reward of capturing and returning her, from $1 million to $2 million.
Assata is an inspiration to many who look up to her as a hero. She has found a place in several literary works. The documentary film ‘Eyes of The Rainbow’ (1997) and the biographical film ‘Assata aka Joanne Chesimard’ (2008) that starred Assata and premiered at the ‘San Diego Black Film Festival’ were made on her. Many songs, such as ‘A Song for Assata’ by rapper Common, have been based on her and dedicated to her..
The Chicago black activist organization ‘Assata's Daughters,’ founded by Page May in March 2015, was named after Assata.