In 1970, Robert King was convicted of a crime he did not commit. He would spend the next 35 years in prison.
On Monday April 13th, King spoke to a large crowd in Exley 150 about his past, his involvement with the Black Panther Party while in prison, and the need for prison reform.
King’s story began in February 1970 when he was falsely accused and convicted of armed robbery. He had a prior police record, which he said made him vulnerable to the police.
“Just for the record, I had not committed the crime,” King said. “I was arrested because I had a previous record. It was a crime just being black…Despite the fact that the description did not remotely resemble me. The state got a witness to change his testimony in court.”
King entered the New Orleans Parish Prison. In looking back at his life before prison, he recalls having little interest in political issues. However, he realized in prison that legality was not equal to morality in America, and that the system was morally corrupt.
“I had begun to feel that I was chattel,” King said. “I took it upon myself to escape slavery.”
King never forgot that he was innocent, and made a plan with 25 other prisoners to escape. He was one of three who were successful, if only for a brief moment. They were recaptured on the prison vicinity. King states that he does not regret aggravating the jailers or his attempted escapes, because he was innocent and imprisoned by an unjust system.
“Some say justice delayed is justice denied,” King said. “I go a step further. Justice delayed is terrorism. I was taken from my home and imprisoned. Society considered me a vassal.”
While at Parish Prison, he came in contact with the Black Panthers. A chapter had been started in New Orleans, and twelve members were arrested for their activism. King asserted that they were peaceful and the arrest was part of a nationwide effort by local law enforcement and the FBI to demonize and destroy the Black Panthers.
King became involved with the Black Panthers, who were active within the prison. They taught political education classes, handed out flyers and held discussions. He connected with their message of freedom from a prejudiced government.
King was transferred to Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, because of his escape attempt and political activities. This prison was known as the “bloodiest prison in America,” and later triggered a state investigation into its corruption and violence. The prison’s administration at the time was all white, and the prisoners were all black. King compared the prison conditions to those of slavery. The prison was located on a former slave plantation, and named “Angola,” after the country that most of the slaves who worked there came from. The jail was run as a working farm – inmates harvested sugar for 17 hours a day, at two cents an hour. Although it was not an official rule, security guards required that the inmates call them “mister,” “boss”, “captain” and “sir”.
“I just think the connections he made between the prisons and slavery are very telling,” said Yael Chanoff ’11.
The Black Panthers tried to combat the brutal conditions, and the culture of violence and rape at Angola Prison.
“The guards had guns, knives, batons, bats,” King said. “If you tried to escape, they beat you and sometimes killed you. There was selling of younger inmates into prostitution [that the administration overlooked]. The Black Panthers took a stand against that, and became a target for the administration.”
In 1972, King and his fellow prisoners, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, were accused of murdering a prison guard, Brent Miller. There was no forensic evidence, and a bloody fingerprint at the scene did not match any of the accused men. They became known as the “Angola 3.”
The Angola 3 were found guilty. All three men were sentenced to solitary confinement in a six-by-nine foot cell for 37 years.
King was back at Parish Prison, not Angola, at the time of the murder, so his charge was downgraded to conspiracy to murder. Through his trial, he maintained that he was innocent, stating that he did not know the guard and had not been at Angola for six months.
King was kept in prison until he was freed in 2001, after a witness, a prison guard, finally admitted he had lied in his testimony. Woodfox has been found innocent as well, but is still in prison, along with Wallace.
“There are political prisoners in America,” King said. “[…] Slavery has not ended, prison is a new form of slavery. “
King spoke at length about his experiences, moving the audience with his story.
“I thought it was very inspiring,” said Nick Davenport ’10. “I think it’s astounding he spent almost 30 years in solitary confinement and he’s here, he’s still pushing and still a revolutionary.”
Jon Booth ’12, who helped bring King to campus, heard his story through a mutual friend. The African-American Studies department, WesPREP, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Adelphic Education Fund all helped to organize the event.
“He’s an amazing guy with a real story,” Booth said. “He’s experienced things we can’t imagine and he’s still dedicated.”