'Angola 3' Prisoner Robert King's Survival Story: 29 Years in Solitary Confinement for a Crime He Didn’t Commit

Posted April 2, 2014

MP3 Excerpt of speech by Robert Hillary King, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

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Robert Hillary King, known as one of the “Angola 3,” was imprisoned for 31 years – 29 in solitary confinement spent in a six-by-nine-foot cell at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit. He was released in 2001 when the state overturned his conviction.

King first served an almost-ten year sentence on a robbery conviction for a crime in which he also said he was innocent, but as a poor African American teenager in the Deep South in the 1960s, he said that was par for the course. During his second time in prison, he joined the Black Panther Party and began organizing other inmates to demand basic improvements in prison conditions. When two other inmates, who were also Black Panther members, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, were wrongly charged in the murder of a prison guard, all three were placed in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace was released last October, terminally ill with liver cancer, and died three days later. Woodfox is currently serving his 41st year in solitary confinement.

In 2008, King wrote his autobiography with Terry Kupers about his time in prison titled, “From the Bottom of the Heap.” During a talk on March 30 at New Haven's Center Church on the Green, Robert King spoke about his years of incarceration where he said it was his political convictions that helped him survive almost three decades in solitary confinement. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus was there and brings us excerpts of King’s talk.

ROBERT KING: And this was in 1970. It was that time that I became angry. I began to revisit my thoughts about the system. I looked at the system and I just wondered why things were like they were. But again, at the time I was not politically aware or politically active. I was just a little rebel – a rebel with, maybe a cause, but I did not have a political consciousness. But anyway, I ended up getting 35 years, and I got angry, and I decided to do a thing that I felt it necessary to do. I took the right that only a slave has. A slave, without being able to articulate it, I began to ruminate and think about and hearing about slavery, I decided I should take this right. The only right a slave has is the right to rebel. You don't have a legal right if you're a slave. As the years went on I kind of perfected this thought because I made the equation that just because something is legal does not mean it is morally and wholly correct. I deduced and thought about slavery – chattel slavery was something that was legal – but morally it was wrong and it wasn't until people began to see and spell out the immorality of slavery that people began to see it as reprehensible. And I saw the system that alleges the abolishment of slavery, and then when I read the words, "No slavery or involuntary servitude shall exist on these shores unless a person has been duly convicted of a crime," it dawned on me that something is wrong with that. There's an exception. To say that slavery was abolished ... it is the wrong thing. Slavery for some people was never abolished, and especially at this time, I looked at that and made that equation, that slavery still existed.

And that's the reason I took the moral right to rebel. And I felt justified. Nobody got hurt. I made plans. People were talking about having a lawyer to file a habeus corpus, well, I filed a habeus excapus. (Laughter) I was successful for a minute, but they recaptured me. It was short-lived. They actually charged me with aggravated escape, despite the fact that no one was ... well, if getting out of prison aggravates people, I aggravated them, because I got out. (Laughter) I got out of prison, and not only did I get out, I brought 12 others out with me. They were angry with me. That is what I did, I brought 12 more people with me. Many of them was arrested that same night; however, I wasn't arrested the same night; I was out a minute. About a week or so later, not much more than that, I was rearrested.

BETWEEN THE LINES: King then explained that after he was sent back to prison, he got to know some members of the Black Panther Party, who were also incarcerated.

ROBERT KING: We began to communicate, and they began to say things to me that rang a bell. And I began to understand exactly what was going on. They asked me did I know anything about the Black Panthers? Did I know anything about the 10-Point Platform? They began to tell me things like, "We have a 10-point platform. We want freedom. We want power to determine our own destiny." And it dawned on me, I definitely wanted some freedom. I took all that literally. The ideology was okay, but I wanted some literal freedom out of prison, so that caught my attention. But they went on to point out other things, about the voting rights, and we want land, freedom, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace, and as our major political objective, a UN-supervised plebescite to be held throughout the black community in which black subjects would be allowed to participate for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.

BETWEEN THE LINES: King's talk focused more on his early years in prison and his growing political awareness and just a little on the 29 years he spent in solitary confinement before being released. In answer to a question about solitary, he said progress is being made.

ROBERT KING: We're making some headway. At one time it was unheard of to hear people talking about solitary confinement, or lengthy sentences, or holding legislative hearings regarding solitary confinement and regarding prisons. People are getting on board, and I think people now have begun to understand and see and equate a prison with slavery – something the Black Panther Party was saying a long, long time ago. And even before the Black Panther Party said it, there were other people – Malcolm X said it, Elijah Muhammed, we could go back to Frederick Douglass. The connection is there. Slavery is alive and well and it is in the form of prisons.

Learn more about King’s prison experience and the campaign to free Albert Woodfox, the remaining Angola 3 prisoner, by visiting Free All The Angola Three website angola3.org/ or Angola 3 News at angola3news.blogspot.com. Visit Robert Hillary King’s website at http://www.kingsfreelines.com/.

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