Mumia Abu-Jamal as Graduation Speaker: The Evergreen Experience

By Chris Dixon, July 1999

Since 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal has been an internationally-recognized symbol of resistance to the farce known as the US criminal justice system. Everyone from South African president Nelson Mandela to the European Community stands behind the demand for a new and fair trial for him. During the 1998-99 academic year, we at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington decided to make our own contribution to Mumia’s struggle for justice by selecting him as our graduation speaker.

Like most successful activism, the roots of what we accomplished in June of 1999 grew out of long-term organizing efforts. Evergreen campus activists had been holding educational events about Mumia and other political prisoners in the US (most notably, during a Prison Awareness Week) for a few years. A couple of students had also called for electing Mumia Abu-Jamal as the graduation speaker during the 97-98 academic year.

In the fall of 1998, a handful of us at Evergreen began intensively organizing to educate our community about Mumia and what he represents. We pushed to move awareness of him out of the confines of “activists” into the minds of all students. And we also decided to take another longshot at him as the commencement speaker by urging graduating seniors to nominate him. We realized how slim the chances were, but we knew we could use the campus campaign as a further educational opportunity. Imagine our surprise, then, when a few dedicated students began going to Graduation Committee meetings and were able to successfully push for Mumia as a commencement speaker!

Instead of using a ballot among graduating seniors, the Committee had taken the original nominations as tallies of support for different speakers. Washington Governor Gary Locke had received the most nominations, but when he declined an invitation, Mumia quickly became the next best possibility. The write-ins in the fall, combined with sustained pressure of activist seniors in the Committee had created a space for Mumia. And after being contacted, Mumia came through, recording a thirteen-minute speech over the telephone, centering around the graduation theme, “Live your life deliberately.”

The controversy was just beginning, though.

Governor Gary Locke soon claimed that he hadn’t actually declined the invitation to speak at Evergreen’s graduation. According to him, there had been a mix-up with his office. So, the Graduation Committee decided to have both Locke and Mumia as speakers. But then the Washington State Troopers began pressuring Locke to refuse to speak with Mumia–who they called “a cop killer.” So–this time for real–Locke declined to speak. Statewide, the graduation ceremony at a small public liberal arts college was beginning to gain enormous attention. Hastily overriding its own Graduation Committee (which suddenly became “advisory”), the Evergreen administration chose a rather bland professor to be the “keynote speaker.” Fortunately, they kept Mumia as “a” speaker.

A month and a half before graduation, in May, a small group of students and faculty prepared a press release about Mumia speaking at our graduation, which we released to national print, radio, and television media. Slowly, what we were organizing was making its way onto the national scene. By the end of May, Ron Reagan (son of Ronald Reagan) was chastising us on his nationally-syndicated radio show, Olympia newspaper reporters and Seattle television news crews were interviewing Evergreen students about what they thought, and people were reading about our graduation in local papers around the country. On our own campus, some graduating seniors were claiming that we, as Mumia supporters, were a minority disrupting their ostensibly “celebratory” event.

And the controversy only got hotter.

Two weeks before graduation, a group of seniors (and supporters) began meeting intensely to strategize ways to highlight and support Mumia’s recorded speech at our graduation. Quickly, our core group grew to over thirty committed students, faculty, and community members. We split up tasks, creating a pamphlet to hand out to all 6,000 people who were expected to attend graduation; preparing press advisories, press releases, press conferences, press liaisons, press statements, and spokespeople; designing and making banners and armbands in support of Mumia; and much, much more.

We decided upon the theme of Mumia as a canary in a cage. As the front panel on our pamphlet said: “Miners took canaries into mine shafts to test for the presence of lethal gas. If the canary died, the miners knew the air was too poisonous to sustain life. Mumia Abu-Jamal’s presence in our national life serves as a warning that our freedom, too, is in danger. In these times of violent aggression on others’ soil and increased imprisonment on our own, the canary’s voice reminds us that our freedom is connected to the freedom of others. Mumia is the canary in our coal mine. If he dies without a fair trial, we will know that we live in a society that is unsafe for all of us.”

Meanwhile, Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the police officer that Mumia allegedly killed, announced that she would be attending the Evergreen Graduation Ceremony with her supporters. The weekend before, she took out ads in the local newspaper condemning the college for hosting “a cop killer.” At the same time, the Evergreen administration began taking security measures: preparing bomb sweeps starting at 3 AM on the day of graduation, bringing in extra police and security officers for the ceremony, and creating large signs for exits. All throughout, the rumor circulated that during Mumia’s speech, discontented seniors and Faulkner supporters would be playing horns or screaming to make his words inaudible.

On the day of graduation, our first check-in meeting was scheduled for 8 AM on campus. As we picked up loads of pamphlets and strategized about media, we heard that a student activist had been interviewed on the “Today Show” earlier. By mid-morning, CNN cameras, Seattle newspaper reporters, and radio microphones flew all over the place. With well-organized spokespeople (including representatives from students, faculty, and alumni), we outshined the poorly prepared “official” public relations folks supplied by the administration. Meanwhile, each of the 6,000 people attending graduation were offered a canary-yellow pamphlet. We were making history.

By the early afternoon, we were all seated anxiously awaiting the moment of truth–Mumia’s speech. The college president gave the first address, followed by “the” commencement speaker and the two student speakers. As Mumia’s turn came, a handful of graduating seniors got up to walk out in protest of this “cop killer” and a few others turned their backs. The rest of us sat, waiting for noise disruption.

Mumia’s voice came, “I feel privileged to address your chosen theme, not because I’m some kind of avatar, but because a life lived deliberately has been the example of people I admire and respect…” Where were the horns? The yelling? As someone later pointed out, you could have heard a pin drop among those several thousand people sitting outside on that sunny day.

Mumia’s speech went on with no disruption. The few seniors standing with their backs turned were slowly outnumbered by raised fists, armbands, and banners with the silk-screened image of a canary in a cage. Mumia spoke directly: “Out of the many here assembled, it is the heart of he or she that I seek who looks at a life of vapid materialism, of capitalist excess, and finds it simply intolerable. It may be 100 of you, or 50, or even ten, or even one of you who make that choice. I’m here to honor and applaud that choice and to warn you that, though the suffering may indeed be great, it is nothing to the joy of doing the right thing.” It was one of those moving, incredibly transformative moments.

His last words were simply: “From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.” The crowd (students and guests alike) rose quickly to a standing applause. Apparently, we who supported hearing Mumia weren’t a minority. Indeed, on that day, we won a very small battle, bringing more national attention to Mumia than some 35,000 people marching in San Francisco and Philadelphia had a month and a half earlier. And it all started with a handful of creative, dedicated people and an idea.

This account was originally written for and distributed by the Prison Activist Resource Center in Berkeley, California, following Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech at the Evergreen State College in June, 1999. For my recommendations on organizing to select Mumia as a commencement speaker, see How to Bring Mumia Abu-Jamal to Your Campus Graduation.