Students at Goddard College have invited Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist who has been in jail almost 33 years, to speak at their graduation ceremony this Sunday, sparking widespread criticism.
Abu-Jamal is an African-American activist and journalist. He is an outspoken advocate of racial justice who has written extensively about the criminal justice system and the death penalty while behind bars, according to an article in the local Vermont newspaper Seven Days.
The journalist was charged with killing a white police officer in 1981 and sentenced to death. Abu-Jamal spent almost three decades on Pennsylvania’s death row before his sentence was amended to life without parole in 2011.
Social activists and human rights defenders throughout the world consider him a political prisoner, and say he was framed for the murder of the police. His weekly radio commentaries are heard by thousands at prisonradio.org and he has authored seven books.
The slain officer’s widow and major Vermont (U.S.) police organizations have expressed their anger and requested that Goddard College cancel the conference. Fox News ran a story with the headline "Decision to let cop killer Abu-Jamal give commencement speech ‘despicable.’ ”
Goddard College officials defended the students’ decision and said they consider that Abu-Jamal’s message of social injustice and social change is relevant.
"He is convicted of murder. We all know that. The college is not questioning that nor are we condoning violence in allowing students to choose him as a commencement speaker," the Associate Director of Advancement and Alumni Affairs Dustin Byerly stated. "What students are attracted to in Mumia is his journalism, his ability to continue to speak for a very underrepresented population, the prison population, and his ability to do so in a way that's powerful to people of this generation.”
Similar controversies have arisen in the past when Mumia Abu-Jamal was asked to speak at universities such as Oberlin and Evergreen college, or when his texts have been included in school curriculums in many cities.
Abu-Jamal will send his prerecorded speech from inside the Mahanoy State Correctional Institution in Frackville, Pennsylvania. It will be played alongside a recent video documentary of his life and activism.