Interview By Jesse Muhammad
While there are some who may stick out their chests when telling about long stints behind prison walls, a man who served nearly three decades in solitary confinement sees it a different way.
He represents one-third of the widely recognized Angola 3. He was exonerated in 2001, but his other two comrades are not. He isn’t a man of many words, but one of many thoughts.
“One thing that got me through those 29 years was doing something that I always enjoyed doing and that was being a thinker”, says Robert Hillary King. “I in no way want to minimize the harshness of being in that cell but I worked hard to not to let them control my mind. So I read anything I could get my hands on and educated myself of criminal law.”
The Angola 3, which also includes Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, arrived at the Angola Prison under various situations in the late 1960s. While inside prison, the three resurrected a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1971. The men organized prisoners to build a coalition within the walls and reportedly worked as jailhouse lawyers helping prisoners file legal papers. Woodfox and Wallace were convicted of the 1972 stabbing murder of a prison guard.
King was said by authorities to be linked to the murder but was not even present in that jail at the time but was eventually given a life sentence. He was initially sent to prison for 35 years for an armed robbery charge that he believed was not justified. He then escaped from prison and was subsequently given an additional 8 years for aggravated escape.
By the time he was moved to the Angola Prison in November 1970, he had committed himself to a new found consciousness.
King said “I felt I could maintain my political consciousness behind bars. We were targeted because of our affiliation with the Panthers. The evidence in the case of Albert and Herman shows that they had no part in that murder.”
King was exonerated by the state on February 8, 2001 and released after 29 years in solitary confinement. Wallace and Woodfox are still prisoners in Angola prison and are working to get released. In March 2008 they were moved, after 36 years, from solitary confinement to a maximum security dormitory.
“Being released from jail was surreal”, said King. “I had always hoped that I would be out of prison but I always felt that there was a possibility I would die in prison too. It took time for me to acclimate to what I was coming home to.”
Since his release, King has worked to build international recognition for the Angola 3. He has spoken before the parliaments in the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Indonesia, Brazil and England about the case and political prisoners in the U.S. He credits Green Party Congressional candidate Malik Rahim of the New Orleans-based group Common Ground for bringing the plight of the Angola 3 to the forefront of people’s minds.
When describing the discipline it took to mentally overcome solitary confinement for that long, King said that, “by embracing the ideology of the Panthers I started to see the whole of America as a prison. Some people see America as heaven but it’s a hell for some especially poor Black people. So although I was in prison, the prison was not in me.”
“I changed my whole psychology. But in saying this I do not want to minimize prison. It is not sweet. It is nothing to brag about or wear on your shoulder like a badge of honor. It can devastate you. But some times the spirit is greater than the circumstance so that worked for me”, he added with passion in his voice.
He described the cruel treatment and “if you are not mindful of who you are, you may start to believe that you are this evil person they say you are. So you have to rise above it and I was able to do that but what worked for me may not work for others.”
King soaked up countless books and became what he calls a “prolific writer. I was thinking about my life and all of those things that connected us as a people together. It took discipline. Angola took a lot from me but it also gave a lot to me because I rose above.”
He has now released a book about his experience titled From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King which he says in part shows “that there are some things that overcomes logic and that we sometimes must go against the odds.”