The area directly to the west of Main Campus was an important center for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s easy to find reminders of this rich history on the 1600 block of Cecil B. Moore Avenue — called Columbia Avenue before it was renamed in 1987 to commemorate the civil rights leader — in the prominent headquarters of the NAACP and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. While it no longer exists, the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, formerly based at 1928 Columbia Avenue, was once home to a young Philadelphia activist and writer named Wesley Cook, known to most as Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Abu-Jamal was a Philadelphia journalist throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Today, he is remembered as the man convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. A new documentary titled “Long Distance Revolutionary,” set to screen in Anderson Hall Saturday, Dec. 8, aims to heighten public awareness of Abu-Jamal’s legacy as a journalist and an activist.
Stephen Vittoria, the director of the upcoming documentary, has been inspired by Abu-Jamal’s political writing and commentaries for years. In 2006 and 2007, while Vittoria was producing an unreleased documentary about manifest destiny, he sought out the voice of Abu-Jamal as an expert on the subject. Vittoria sent Abu-Jamal 25 in-depth questions and in turn, Vittoria said, Abu-Jamal returned 25 essays and recordings in response.
“When I started thinking about moving into another documentary,” Vittoria said. “I knew that I had these 25 recordings for [Abu-Jamal] and I started to seriously think about what aspect of this man’s life has not been told. There have been numerous films and books and articles and videos produced about [Abu-Jamal] case. I didn’t want to mine that information and that material again.”
Vittoria added that he’s impressed by Abu-Jamal’s life as a Black Panther and as a writer in prison.
Abu-Jamal started working atTemple’s WRTI radio station in 1975, where Vittoria said Abu-Jamal first familiarized himself with radio broadcasting.
Abu-Jamal’s distinguishing baritone voice could be heard on several local radio stations, including WHAT, WDAS, WCAU-FM, and even on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” His commentaries on marginalized communities earned him the nickname “the voice of the voiceless.”
The screening is organized by graduate student Drew Brown of the Organization of African-American Graduate Students and professor Anthony Monteiro of the African-American studies department. It is scheduled for one day before the 31-year anniversary of the murder of Faulkner during a traffic stop.
A pre-recorded lecture by Abu-Jamal was presented to an audience at the Mass Incarceration Conference held at the Temple Contemporary Gallery at Tyler School of Art on Nov. 29.
Despite being initially sentenced to death, the death penalty was later dropped by prosecutors on Dec. 7, 2011. Abu-Jamal now faces life imprisonment without parole.
Supporters claim that Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner, imprisoned for his radical views. Many organizations and individuals around the world have come to voice their support for Abu-Jamal while many others remain adamant in their opposition, including Faulkner’s family, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Monteiro believes Abu-Jamal’s importance is as a “representative of the resistance to injustice in Philadelphia and in this country” and that “[Abu-Jamal] connected the struggle against police brutality and [former Philadelphia mayor Frank] Rizzo to the struggle of black studies at Temple.”
Monteiro, who has personally known Abu-Jamal since the civil rights movement, claims Abu-Jamal remains a divisive figure not necessarily because of the crime he was convicted for but because he represents national divisions.
“You have some people — I think a diminishing number of people — who think that the answer to the problems of the urban poor is to have more police, and stronger police,” Monteiro said.
“On the other side you have people who believe that the answer to the problems of this country, especially those of the poor and the marginalized is not to be found in more police or more prisons and the death penalty but is to be found in social justice and a war on poverty and a struggle to employ the unemployed,” Monteiro added.
Chris Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @montchr.