South to the Future

Mumia Abu-Jamal Changes Name, Urges Supporters to Expand Campaign

6 October 1999

HUNTINGDON, Penn. -- Condemned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal has announced that he will no longer answer questions pertaining to his guilt or innocence. He will also petition the court to change his name.

In a press release issued yesterday, Abu-Jamal, a writer and radio reporter on Pennsylvania's death row for the 1981 slaying of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, called for his supporters to abandon the campaign for his release and to focus instead on the fate of the thousands of poor and minority men and women on death row.

"This movement must be more than a cult of personality. ... From this day forward I am no longer Mumia," the 45-year-old inmate said in a written statement. Abu-Jamal's lawyers have filed papers in court requesting that his name be legally changed to "Blackmen."

Claiming that minorities are overrepresented in U.S. prisons, Abu-Jamal also said that he will no longer grant individual interviews to the press. Instead, he will participate only in group interviews that offer media exposure to others on death row. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 65 percent of state prison inmates belonged to racial or ethnic minorities in 1991, up from 60 percent in 1986.

At a press conference in New York, Leonard Weinglass, Abu-Jamal's lead attorney, made an impassioned plea to the incarcerated journalist's supporters. "We are being asked to abandon Mumia but take up the cause of Blackmen. ... Let us continue to fight for Blackmen on death row and Blackmen in prison and all the black men held captive by a system that disproportionately convicts and sentences minorities."

Among Abu-Jamal's supporters, there was mixed response to this latest directive. Nigel Davis of San Francisco Free Mumia expressed disappointment at Abu-Jamal's change of heart. "I'm sure he has his reasons, and I respect that. But I still believe that Mumia is innocent and will continue to work for his release," Davis said.

But the continuing efforts of groups working on Abu-Jamal's behalf may become a contentious issue in light of his newly announced strategy. It is yet to be seen whether the dozens of organizations that use Mumia's name, image, and life story as an anti-death-penalty rallying cry will drop his likeness and adopt the inmate's self-chosen moniker of Blackmen.

If Abu-Jamal removes himself from the center of the campaign for his own release, the resulting confusion may even result in legal wrangling over the use of his identity. Allison Cheek, a spokesperson for the National Lawyer's Guild, believes that eschewing Mumia for Blackmen and highlighting the plight of other inmates will ultimately advance the cause of the prisoners' rights movement. "But what will become," asks Cheek, "of the Mumia fund-raising merchandise, or of Web sites like www.mumia.org? That's an interesting question."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.

 
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