(Updated May 1, 2014) Unemployment, dilapidated buildings, a dearth of municipal services, an overabundance of police, lack of healthcare, and hunger defined the social conditions that compelled Marshal “Eddie” Conway to join the Black Panther Party in the late 60s.
Forty-seven years later, Conway remains politically active, continuing a life-long struggle against social realities he said have only become worse.
Conway was released from prison this March after spending almost 44 years behind bars for a crime against which he has always maintained his innocence. He said he saw his political consciousness first emerge during a stint in the military from 1964 to 1967.
Confronted with institutional racism, Conway began to resist and found himself being trained and promoted as a result. “They opened doors for me and made things possible, and I ended up with a platoon of guys who really fared a lot better because I was in a position to take care of them,” Conway told the AFRO.
Conway left the military in 1967 when he came across a report of American soldiers with arms trained on African-American residents of Newark, N.J. in the aftermath of a riot that had occurred there. He decided that, rather than re-enlist and fight in Vietnam, he wanted to get involved in the ongoing struggle for civil rights at home.
When he returned to Baltimore in September 1967, Conway sought to address what he described as “the decaying conditions of the community.”
“Little did I know that it would really get worse,” said Conway, “but at that point, we were basically red lined into ghettoes – districts that had already been abandoned – and we were pretty much in the high unemployment category compared to the rest of the nation.”
Conway saw a need to organize around these issues and ultimately settled on the Black Panther Party as the organization whose discourse he felt best addressed the systemic nature of racism and oppression. He saw the organization focusing on the need for broad, structural change. The group’s programs and rhetoric were emulated by other groups, such as the White Panther Party and the Young Lords, but their use of socialist discourse and arms set the group apart from other Black nationalist organizations of the period. This, according to Conway, led to the Black Panthers being viewed as a threat to be destroyed.
In the 47 years that have passed since the plight of Baltimore spurred him to join the Panthers, Conway feels things have gotten worse. Among the devolutions, Conway cites a higher Black unemployment rate than was present in the ‘60s, as well as the problem of underemployment, a collapsed housing stock, and a drug problem that has spilled into the streets, helping drive an incarceration rate in the African-American community that is disproportionate to its share of the population.
Conway feels that the most important tool in any attempt to reverse urban decay in places like inner-city Baltimore is the creation of jobs that pay a living wage. “If you don’t supply jobs, nothing else is going to change, because the desperation of people that are in poverty is going to continue to collapse the social structure.”
Conway remains politically active with Friend of a Friend, an organization he founded while incarcerated that helps former prisoners transition into jobs and trains them to be mentors and community advocates. As part of his work with Friend of a Friend, Conway, along with other former prisoners involved with the organization, speaks to youth audiences in order that they might benefit from lessons learned over a lifetime of activism.
Conway emphasizes two things in those discussions with youth, the need to take one’s education as far as possible, and the need to take responsibility for those things in your immediate vicinity that you can help change and improve. “You can’t change everything, you just have to change your little bit around you.”
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