Although small in physical statue at 4’ 11’’ tall, her presence looms large worldwide where her organizational savvy plus sheer persistence helped pull off what many leaders, luminaries and laymen alike consider one of the most monumental equal rights victories in recent decades.
The advocacy of Pam Africa on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal — constructing support networks while confronting incessant opposition — contributed to the climate where U.S. federal courts killed the death sentence Abu-Jamal received following his controversial 1982 conviction for killing a police officer.
That elimination of Abu-Jamal’s government-endorsed death chagrined powerful figures across Pennsylvania and around America who had shamefully bent and broken laws (deliberately sabotaging court proceedings) in their various efforts to execute Abu-Jamal, known as the “voice of the voiceless.”
Pam Africa is the head of International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia-based organization at the center of the international movement seeking Abu-Jamal’s release.
Africa is the dynamo whom most Philadelphia police, prosecutors, politicians and many pastors love to hate because of her strident advocacy on behalf of imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal and MOVE members sentenced for a fatal 1978 shootout.
While winning freedom for Abu-Jamal and the MOVE Nine is a definitive focus of Pam Africa’s advocacy, she is frequently found on “front lines” nationwide fighting for ending mistreatment of people regardless of their color and creed.
“Pam Africa is in each and every struggle for social justice in Philadelphia, the U.S. and abroad. It’s not just Mumia,” said activist/writer Berta Joubert-Ceci while chairing a program in West Philadelphia a few weeks ago.
During that West Philly program Africa received praise from another warrior for right, former U.S. representative Cynthia McKinney, whose praise also highlighted Africa’s often overlooked soft side.
McKinney proudly displayed a stylish African-themed jacket Africa had given her as a present that evening, a garment McKinney had complimented Africa for wearing at an event in Atlanta that McKinney attended.
Interestingly, vicious beatings by Philadelphia police played pivotal roles in transforming Africa from a person committed to helping others work within the system to a vigorous opponent of the system that Africa sees as structurally unjust and irreparably corrupted.
Africa recalls her first beating by Philadelphia police as occurring when she politely questioned unprovoked police mistreatment of young male members of a Philadelphia youth organization where she worked in the early 1970s. At the time, Africa still used her birth name, Jeanette Knighton.
“We were coming from a citywide youth meeting when an officer stopped us and began roughing up the youth. I told the officer those young men did nothing wrong and when I attempted to take his badge number I got beat,” Africa said during a recent interview.
“During that time, I believed if you just talked to police they’d do the right thing. At the time I used to wear red, white and blue clothes all the time and a blonde wig. I was so far to the right politically,” she said.
“The police tore my wig off during that beating. I was beat up and locked up for doing nothing.”
Temple University African-American history professor Dr. Tony Monterio first met Pam Africa during an ugly June 1979 incident where police beat Africa. Police pummeled Africa with nightsticks with one stick-strike knocking out some of her teeth.
Monterio said police attacked Africa after she courageously shielded a man enduring a savage police assault during a protest near a South Philadelphia public housing development where police sided with racist whites who were attacking blacks.
The scholar in Dr. Monterio sees Pam Africa as a unique figure whose contributions locally, nationally and internationally merit both examination and recognition.
“She’s made history but she didn’t set out to make history. She started initially just to do the right thing,” Monterio said during a recent interview.
“I see her as one of the most significant rights leaders in the past forty-years. Where other black leaders have sought acceptance from ‘the system’ she never left the battlefield. She never retreated. She was never broken.”
Monterio is a force behind two events this weekend honoring both Pam Africa’s accomplishments and starting a process for what Monterio envisions as a study of Africa’s life works.
The first event is a reception this Friday (3-6PM) at Temple University’s Blockson Collection. The second event is a day-long colloquium on Saturday (11-5PM) at the Church of the Advocate.
“With this being the end of Women’s History Month I thought we needed to do a conference on Pam’s life. There is an importance in archiving her life. This is a step in establishing a way to study her life.”
Africa has a history of providing service to others. There is a 1960 photo in The Philadelphia Tribune of a young Jeanette Knighton receiving an ‘Outstanding Service’ award from the principal of a North Philadelphia public school she attended.
Dr. Suzanne Ross, a NYC psychologist whose worked with Africa on the Mumia and MOVE cases, calls her both a “spiritual leaders and general” able to connect with people through “her love” while providing direction by knowing when “to engage” and when to regroup.
Ross stresses that hers is not “some idealized version of Pam [because] I disagree with her A LOT.”
Pam Africa, provoking chuckles during that West Philly program, said, “People used to call me a foul-mouthed radical. But there is a method to that.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.