This is the final in a series about Quaker healing justice work, including Quaker activist J. Jondhi Harrell and AFSC’s Lewis Webb. I interviewed Marshall “Eddie” Conway at his office at the Baltimore Real News station, where he works as a TV producer when he’s not organizing at AFSC’s Baltimore office.
I’m nearly the same age that Eddie was when he was locked away for what would be nearly 44 years in prison, so when I read his autobiography recently I couldn’t help but compare his early life to my own. One story he tells that really stuck with me was of the first time he remembers being aware of race. In third grade, his class performed a Christmas play at a school in a nearby white neighborhood. Eddie was immediately struck by the differences between the white school and his own; he writes that in comparison “our books were of the worst sort, patched bindings and fraying pages. I am certain that this experience helped make me the man I am, because it is especially hard to accept lies written in books that we were not able to read.” To start our conversation, I asked Eddie to elaborate on how this experience shaped him as a young man. - Madeline
Eddie Conway (EC): It was devastating: going to a school in the white community and realizing that it was modern, it was very large, it felt like you could put our whole school in their auditorium – at least, it felt like that. To see that they had tracks, a swimming pool, a science lab, all that stuff was stuff that we'd never seen. It was a shock. It made us feel inferior, and it made us angry.
We were angry probably all that next year. Our parents hadn't prepared us for the fact that racism exists – I think they were protecting us. We had been in a cocoon black environment, so it hurt even more to be shocked into the reality of the disparity between the communities.
You don't really appreciate the difference of how people are living until you see that some people have wood steps and some people had trees; some people had garbage cans sitting out front, and some people had garages. When you can go from community to community and see houses with garages and lawns, and then you go to into lower class communities and you see houses so close together with no garages, and you go around the back and see concrete in the back yard instead of trees and grass. One community is kept clean and spotless because the sanitation workers are always in there, the other community might get service once a week.
It is detrimental to you in terms of who you think you are and what you think your worth is in comparison to others.
Madeline Smith-Gibbs (MSG): What spurred your involvement in the Black Panther Party?
EC: Eventually I realized – beyond the disparities in wealth – how terrible the conditions were in the black community for raising young people: children were going to school hungry every day, there was no healthcare, every weekend there was police brutality in the neighborhoods, old people were left to fend for themselves...I looked at the various organizations and tried to determine which one would actually do something that helped the community.
Ultimately I decided that the Black Panther Party was putting their money where their mouth was, not just talking about it. NAACP and CORE were working with one class of people, the potential black middle class, as opposed to the larger black population that was poor working class. That was the group where people were hungry, and that was where the Black Panther Party was.
MSG: What are you most proud of from your work in that time?
EC: Feeding the children. The fact that there were so many children hungry in itself was scary, but the fact that we could gather up and harness the resources of the community and make food available to them – I was most proud of that.
In 1970, Eddie was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Baltimore city police officer. (He maintains that he was framed for the crime due to his involvement in the Black Panther Party as part of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO.) While incarcerated, Eddie earned three college degrees, organized for prison unions, created a prison library, and organized a number of programs to help his fellow prisoners. I asked him about his work with the Baltimore AFSC office to create the Friend of a Friend program.
EC: The Friend of a Friend program grew out of desperation: there was a tremendous amount of young men going home from Hagerstown Prison and they were going home with negative ideas and negative attitudes about the community. They were planning on being destructive, planning to kill people, planning to take over drug territories.
So I engaged them, but every two or three that I engaged, 10 would go home. Eventually I realized that I couldn't keep up with the flood. I looked around to figure out how we could engage these folks, and I saw other people in the population doing the same things I was doing, and having the same kind of success rate. I started talking to them and decided to pool our resources to reach more people.
At that point we realized that we needed to have some kind of training, some kind of organizational structure, some kind of resource. So we got in touch with the American Friends Service Committee and asked them to come and help us organize, to give us training and resources. They allowed us to design our program, to decide what the rules would be, to decide what we needed – and once we did that and went through training for communication, negotiation, critical thinking, that kind of stuff, then we were ready to open the program up.
The first year was kind of rough, but then the next session was better. Each session we did, we had ambassadors out in the population from the people we trained, so we had good PR. It spread from jail to jail, and eventually reached five jails.
MSG: What messages did you express to these young men?
EC: We always tried to express that they have a commitment and an obligation to repair the damage that they've done in the community. They have a commitment and an obligation to remain in the community as a positive force. They have a commitment and an obligation to critically think about things they might do and how it might impact the community. In other words, don't be negative, stay calm, and then, to the extent that you can, rebuild the community.
MSG: In what ways do you see Quaker values in your work in prisons?
EC: We operate off of the premise that all people have good in them. No matter what their past might have been, all people are redeemable. In order to do the work that we do, we have to love.
MSG: AFSC has been working with Quaker meetings and Quakers around the country that are interested in getting involved in issues of mass incarceration. What advice or ideas do you have for people who want to be involved?
EC: My personal experience is that they need to go into the prison system. I attend Homewood Meeting every Sunday. One of the reasons I do is because over the years, the Quakers came with Alternatives to Violence, yoga, and other programs – they've taken their bodies to the prison system. People see that and respect that. Even if they don't understand the values, they see the behavior and that influences them. I think that as long as people continue to go, to participate, to act, there will be a broadening of the support base and people will get engaged and involved.