Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway, ¡presente!

Former Black Panther Party leader and political prisoner Marshall “Eddie” Conway died Feb. 13 in Long Beach, California. He was a leading member of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party and was falsely convicted in 1971 of the killing of Baltimore police officer Donald Sager. He, along with community supporters, maintained his innocence and fought for his release. After serving 44 years, Eddie Conway was finally released in 2014, imprisoned for 43 years and 11 months. 

Rev. Annie Chambers, who is a former member of the Black Panther Party and presently an organizer with the Peoples Power Assembly and Baltimore Socialist Unity Party, said, “We send our condolences to his family, loved ones, comrades and to the people of Baltimore, who have lost a real fighter. Eddie continued the struggle while behind bars and after his release. His legacy will live on in our continuing fight against this rotten racist capitalist system. Marshall ‘Eddie’ Conway, ¡presente! Free all political prisoners!”

Struggle-La Lucha shares the announcement released by Real News where Conway worked as an executive producer and host:

“Do your little part. Do whatever you can to help change these conditions. Because we’re moving into a critical period of history, not just for poor and oppressed people, Black people, but for humanity itself. So you need to engage. Do whatever little bit you can, but you need to do something.”

—Eddie Conway in 2019, celebrating five years of freedom

It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the death of our friend, co-worker, and comrade Marshall “Eddie” Conway.

Eddie joined the ancestors on February 13, 2023, surrounded by family and loved ones. After falling ill nearly a year ago, while still dealing with the immeasurable toll nearly 44 years of incarceration as a political prisoner took on his body, Eddie had been hospitalized and fighting valiantly to recover. That is who he is, who he was, and who he always will be: a fighter. After a lifetime of fighting, though, the time has come at last for our dear Eddie to rest—and for all of us to carry on his fight. 

Eddie was born on April 23, 1946, in a deeply segregated Baltimore—a city shaped by blockbusting, white flight, and the organized disinvestment from Black communities. At 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, an experience that would prove to be politically formative for Eddie, throwing into sharp relief the contradictions of a country founded on slavery, structural racism, and genocidal violence that nevertheless professed to defend “democracy” with bombs, guns, and endless war. 

Returning home to Baltimore, Eddie confronted the pervasive evils of racism head-on. He was working in the medical sector and at Bethlehem Steel when, in 1968, the city erupted like so many others following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. — an explosion of rage and pain and need for action that brought Eddie into the orbit of the nascent Black Panther Party, in which he became a core member of the newly-established Baltimore chapter.

The Baltimore BPP chapter, with Eddie’s support and leadership, built strong community ties through efforts like a free breakfast program, a system of robust internal political education, and an increasingly widespread local distribution network for the national BPP newspaper — despite near constant police harassment, and even high-level infiltration of the branch. This was the era of COINTELPRO, in which local police forces were enlisted by the national security state to crush the successful systemic challenge the Panthers and other associated revolutionary groups were posing to America’s racist, exploitative status quo. It was at the height of this era that Eddie was framed for the 1970 killing of a Baltimore police officer, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison in 1971, after a heavily politicized trial in which Eddie was denied proper legal representation. 

Even in the darkest of times, in the most hopeless of places, Eddie’s commitment to organizing for liberation was unwavering. Within his first weeks inside the Maryland penitentiary, he had already emerged as a leader of the incarcerated chapter of the BPP. Despite constant, dehumanizing, and often violent pushback from prison authorities, he would go on to play a lead role in creating organizations like the United Prisoners Labor Union and the Maryland Penitentiary Intercommunal Survival Collective, organizing with fellow incarcerated people to build collective power for self-determination and self-defense. While incarcerated, Eddie worked relentlessly to protect and expand prisoners’ rights to communication and education; for instance, he helped organize the “To Say Their Own Word” seminar program, developed as a way to cross-pollinate radical thought inside and outside the prison. He was also instrumental in the founding of Friend of a Friend, a mentorship program designed to help young incarcerated men prepare for reintegration into their communities upon release.

Year after year, decade after decade, Eddie carried on not only with the tremendous bravery needed to contest America’s brutal system of mass incarceration while he was himself confined within it, but also with an enduring and perhaps surprising commitment to modesty. As he wrote in his autobiography, published in 2011: 

Organizing is my life’s work, and even though I initially balked at becoming a prison organizer, that is where most of my work has been done. Friends and family tell me that I have influenced hundreds of young people, but I don’t know. I simply see the error of this society’s ways up close and feel compelled to do something about it; I have tried my hardest to avoid getting caught up in the cult of the personality that often develops around political prisoners. I have walked the prison yard and seen admiration in the eyes of others, but had to remind myself, as I straightened my posture, that it is about something bigger than me. Prisons are the place where society dumps those who have become obsolete, and at present there are perhaps no other people who have become more dispensable in this country than African-descended people. The minute that we began to stand up and hold this country accountable for the many wrongs done to us, the prisons began to swell with black women and men. It is as if the entire justice system is a beast that consumes black bodies, and prisons are the belly.

Eddie’s loved ones and supporters never gave up on him, keeping a decades-long solidarity movement going and agitating persistently for his release, but it was only in 2014—after a 2012 decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals that invalidated many historical verdicts due to faulty jury instructions—that Eddie was finally able to secure his freedom.

Despite the unimaginable toll that 44 years of incarceration had taken on him, Eddie’s organizing did not stop when he walked out of prison. He became our beloved colleague at The Real News Network, where he continued his passion for education and media-making in the service of the fight against mass incarceration as Executive Producer and the host of Rattling the Bars, his weekly video program. He also played a key role in the formation of Tubman House, which, in the wake of the Baltimore Uprising, seized vacant property and land for community needs in Sandtown-Winchester—the neighborhood where Baltimore police killed Freddie Gray.

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