• Ideas
  • History

How Afeni Shakur Put Black Women First In the Fight for Liberation

8 minute read
Holley is an award-winning journalist and author of AN AMERIKAN FAMILY: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created

54 years ago, on April 2, 1969, officers from the New York City Police Department’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations conducted a predawn raid on the homes of multiple members of the Black Panther Party. 21 Panthers—most of them from the Harlem chapter—were indicted on conspiracy to shoot police officers and bomb police stations, railroad tracks, Manhattan department stores, and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The case was formally recorded as The People of the State of New York v. Lumumba Abdul Shakur et al., but the defendants become internationally known as the Panther 21. Among the arrested Panthers was a young woman named Afeni Shakur.

Born Alice Faye Williams in Lumberton, North Carolina, Afeni had joined the Party only one year earlier, in the spring of 1968. She and the section leader of the Harlem Panthers, Lumumba Shakur, were married later that fall, and Afeni quickly became a leader herself—recruiting and training new members, helping launch the Party’s free breakfast for schoolchildren program, and helping tenants organize rent strikes against exploitative landlords. The arrest of Afeni and her comrades was a crushing blow to the Panthers and the community they served. The ensuing trial, which would become the longest and most expensive in New York state history to that date, revealed the devastating tactics authorities were willing to employ to eradicate the Panthers. It was also the beginning of Afeni Shakur’s recognition as a tenacious and deeply committed figure to the Black Power movement—a legacy that laid so much of the groundwork for Black liberation in America today.

Read more: The Black Power Movement Is a Love Story

After being held for ten months at the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan, Afeni was freed on bail on January 30, 1970. Her $100,000 bond was provided by female supporters in the labor movement and members of Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, who’d raised $66,000 in cash and used church assets as collateral on the remainder.

23 years old and a gifted writer, teacher, and mentor, Afeni was the first to be bailed, and she was entrusted with the responsibility of raising bail funds for as many other Panthers as possible by organizing and speaking at rallies in support of the defendants. With fashionable plaid pants, a black turtleneck, and a long black leather vest, Afeni stood on a makeshift stage before hundreds of White and Black New Yorkers, took the microphone in her hand, and called down all the fury of her ancestors—for the long history of brutality against her people, for the undue repression of her comrades, and for the indignity of being woken up early in the morning by the NYPD.

Of course, this wasn’t what she’d signed up for when she joined the Black Panther Party in 1968. A headstrong young woman from the Bronx, she’d joined the Party to give her life direction and purpose—something she had been denied as the youngest daughter of a single, working mother. Now, less than two years later, she was tasked with defending not only her life but the lives of her colleagues and husband, by channeling her internal rage and indignation into speechmaking and fundraising. When Afeni set out to do something, she did it completely. There was no half stepping. This tenacity, however, wasn’t always welcomed by others.

Against the advice of her Panther colleagues, Afeni chose to act as her own attorney, while the others were represented by activist attorney Gerald B. Lefcourt. Afeni had had no prior law experience, no training whatsoever, and she came to her decision only after determining that the attorney she’d been assigned, Carol H. Lefcourt, possessed “a tiny, squeaky voice” that wouldn’t command respect in the courtroom. “I’m facing the same 350 years everyone else is facing, and I am not going out like that,” Afeni later recalled thinking. “With this here, Carol Leftcourt, [sic] speaking for me? Shit.”

Lumumba tried to dissuade Afeni from representing herself. He mocked her as being “too emotional” and “not educated or qualified” and said that she would “fuck everything up.” This was only the beginning of the imminent and irreparable division between husband and wife.

In fact, Afeni and Lumumba had only been married less than a year before their arrest, and if found guilty, they would never see each other again. Afeni was still a young, attractive woman, confronted with a possible life sentence. All hopes, dreams, and plans for the future were placed on hold, including nuptial commitments. So while she was out on bail in the summer of 1970, Afeni took other lovers, including a Black Panther from Jersey City named Billy Garland, whom she met while laying low in a Jersey Panther pad. But though Garland was already married with three young children of his own, when Afeni discovered she was pregnant, she decided to keep the child. If she was found guilty, her child would be the only part of herself that remained free. She didn’t yet know the sex, eye color, or voice of her child, but she had a premonition he was destined for something big.

Afeni kept her pregnancy to herself at first, but as time went on, it was becoming harder to conceal. When the Panthers’ defense team got wind of Afeni’s infidelity and pregnancy, lead attorney Gerald Lefcourt told one of his colleagues, “Lumumba’s going to look at her some morning and find out about her, and then he’s going to knock me halfway across the room.”

As her child continued to grow inside her, Afeni became more and more appalled by the conditions of the penitentiary. “I would like to bring to the attention of the court what I am sure the court doesn’t know about,” she told Justice John Murtagh, “and that’s the situation that exists with Miss Bird and myself and for the other women that are being held in the house of detention. The boilers are broken there. There is no hot water. The conditions are not just abominable, as they were before; they are inhuman.”

There was no toilet paper, she said, and the food was spoiled. She then went on to address the prison doctors’ invasive and degrading examination practices, which she and Bird were punished for refusing to undergo: “Joan and myself are being held in a lockup simply because we refuse to be examined by those doctors who are not doctors, by those doctors who care very little about the structure of the female body. So we would request to have our own physicians come in and give us any examinations we need to have in the Women’s House of Detention, and we would request that some facilities be provided so we can take hot showers. The showers are dirty enough as it is, but to be subjected to cold showers in that filth is ridiculous.”

When Murtagh demurred, accusing the defendants of being interested only in winning attention from the press, Afeni interrupted, finally addressing the elephant in the room: “The interest, Mr. Murtagh, is in assuring the life of my child.” The court partially conceded, granting Afeni one daily glass of milk and a hard-boiled egg to contribute to the health of her child.

The journalist Murray Kempton, observing these proceedings from the gallery, reported how Afeni rose before the judge and spoke “as though she were bearing a Prince.” Despite the fact that her infidelity was now evident to all, Afeni stood in front of the court like Athena, single-handedly staring down the twin pillars of imperialism and patriarchy.

“Behind Afeni Shakur there could almost be seen the long scroll of birth and death and birth again, of pain and resurrection, the things women know,” Kempton wrote, “and it could be understood that the grandness of Afeni Shakur’s impudence consisted in her capacity to appreciate the special opportunities of Woman.”

On May 13, 1971, after a powerful closing argument by Afeni, the defendants were acquitted on all 156 counts. Their acquittal was celebrated as a triumph of the people over the imperious arm of the State, of justice and righteousness over authoritarianism. Despite growing up poor, with few opportunities and little education, Afeni had helped to prevent herself and her comrades from likely spending the rest of their lives in prison. Further arrests, trials, and painful losses were soon at hand, but, for now, Afeni could only celebrate bask in her victory.

One month after the acquittal, on June 16, Afeni gave birth to a son. She named him Parish Lesane Crooks, but one year later he was rechristened with a new name: Tupac Amaru Shakur.

Excerpted from the book AN AMERIKAN FAMILY: The Shakurs and The Nation They Created by Santi Elijah Holley. Copyright © 2023 by Santi Elijah Holley. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.