Even though he was framed for the killing of a local police officer, sentenced without a fair trial, and imprisoned for 44 years, former Black Panther and dearly departed TRNN Executive Producer Marshall “Eddie” Conway never stopped organizing. In 1980, while incarcerated himself as a political prisoner, Eddie helped organize a prisoners’ educational outreach program called “To Say Their Own Word,” which brought thinkers and scholars to Maryland Penitentiary to speak about topics like US fascism, capitalism, the prison-industrial complex, government surveillance, and many other issues that have become even more pressing today. Through their organizing work, Eddie and his fellow inmates were responsible for dramatically increasing literacy levels among prisoners inside the Maryland Penitentiary and transforming the lives of countless inmates.
This special edition of Rattling the Bars features a mini-documentary that lays out an oral history of the “To Say Their Own Word” program, with testimonies from Beth Saunders, Dominique Conway, Saleem El-Amin, Mansa Musa, and Gerald Dent. This mini-documentary, produced as part of a collaborative partnership between The Real News Network, UMBC Special Collections, and the Baltimore Field School, will be screened publicly at the TRNN studio in Baltimore on Wednesday, April 26, 2023.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: From October 1979 to October 1980, Marshall “Eddie” Conway helped organize a prison educational outreach program called To Say Their Own Words, where prisoners and radicals met inside the Maryland Penitentiary to discuss fascism, capitalism, the prison system, and many other issues that have become even more pressing today. To Say Their Own Words epitomized the genius that is Eddie Conway. I say this because the impacts of the program are still being seen.
Before To Say Their Own Words, the Maryland Penitentiary was known for being a brutal environment. The literacy rate of the prison population was very low. Either a prisoner could not read at all, or could only read at a sixth grade level. Though a library existed, the education department was in shambles, and the prison was overcrowded. Just eight years prior to the start Of To Say Their Own Words, prisoners at the Maryland Penitentiary rioted for better living conditions.
Eddie, in his genius, saw the potential in us, even in the face of all the blight. Eddie worked in partnership with Brenda Vogel, a librarian with the Maryland Department of Education, to create a library system inside the prison that included meaningful programs for prisoners.
You’ll witness these men changing by participating in To Say Their Own Words. In the time following the 50-week program, the Maryland Penitentiary Prison population became more literate. Prisoners were going to school and graduating from college. Some of the participants have passed on, but the ones that are still alive are doing remarkable things within the community. They are living their own words.
Gerald “Soldier” Dent: Say Your Own Words, man. That was a program created in 1980 in the Maryland State Penitentiary and was the brainchild of Eddie Conway. And I found it to be one of the most important things in my life.
Eddie Conway: These brothers – And this is on a serious tip – Without these brothers here, this program would not be functioning.
We decided to develop a larger university style people’s program in the prison that would help educate prisoners that weren’t necessarily involved in the local politics, but would bring them abreast of what was going on locally, nationally, and internationally. So we put in for a grant. We got that grant, we used the library as our base, and we got an auditorium, and we operated the program to bring the prison and the community closer together.
Gerald “Soldier” Dent: Eddie put me on the first steps of PE, political education. The truth be told, really Eddie politicized me.
Eddie Conway: The 13th Amendment, the one that says that slavery don’t exist in America except in prisons. And of course we know that we’re not slaves. We don’t have any desire to be slaves. So we are contributing some of our time and our energy to look into this, to do some research on it, and find out whether or not we can’t persuade some people that that amendment should be amended
Bruce Franklin: Since at least ’64, some of the leading ideas in our society, in theory, in our society, have been coming right out of the prisons.
Kermy Hughes: I’d just like to say that tonight was very educational.
Speaker 1: Thank you.
Kermy Hughes: And every night that I’ve been here, it’s been very educational, and I don’t think anyone could come here without learning something.
Eddie Conway: I think we had two things in mind. One was to have a university-level program for the average prisoner. And, two, to recognize the amount of intellect and talent and the ability to analyze things among the prison population by allowing them to say their own words.
Gerald “Soldier” Dent: And it gave you the incentive to stand up, that you ain’t have to be eloquent, you had to be no great orator, but just know that you had a right to express yourself and your opinion really mattered.
The answer’s that we got to do something. Like five years ago, I would have said, yeah, let’s burn this motherfucker down. No questions asked, but it’s different now. I know we can come together collectively.
You got to find a willful thought in yourself to speak up. And you’ll be more comfortable speaking up if you understand your subject matter. Develop your own narrative. That’s the key.
Kermy Hughes: And I’m interested to know what you think that Black folks, particular, should be doing in terms of making those alliances with the folks that suffer the same thing that not necessarily suffering because they’re Black, but because they just poor, the Chicanos, Native Americans, the poor hillbillies up there in Appalachia or wherever.
Eddie Conway: People were always surprised and impressed when they came into smaller gatherings of prisoners and had discussions about all kinds of things. And they would leave saying, damn. I didn’t expect to find that in the prison, or I didn’t expect they would be like that. And they were always surprised. And the reason they were surprised was because they did not get a full picture of what prisoners were thinking about, talking about, and doing at that time.
This is To Say Your Own Words. And you ought to view and express yourself the way you see it.
Saleem El-Amin: Even before the project, speak up, Say Your Own Words, I met Eddie. It’s in the ’70s, around ’71. I was in the Maryland Penitentiary. A young guy just got in prison. I didn’t even have a mustache.
Being a young guy who’s coming into prison, especially the Maryland Penitentiary, you don’t befriend guys you don’t even know. That’s a no-no. But Eddie was the kind of guy who was out there, you could see that he was some type of leader, because he was always giving directions. And for the most part, if he was talking to a group, or involved with a group, he’d be the one talking. Everybody else kind of be listening.
That got me curious about this guy that people was listening to in a penitentiary. And of course he had a little bush on, so I thought that’d be a little bit militant like. And so I slide over to him and then I eavesdrop a little bit. Come to find out that he was responsible for teaching young guys the best routes to take while you’re in prison. And I could see then that he was truly a good leader. His specialty is organizing. And he was one of the first guys I seen, as far as leaders go, that didn’t necessarily have to be out front.
Eddie Conway: Don’t let the ideas and the concepts of this program stagnate. You can use it with three people. You can use it with five people. You can take it back and teach your whole family. You can teach kids. You can teach each other. And everybody will learn. Now, I’m going to call the next speaker up here because I’m finished. [Applause]
By organizing this program, we allowed people from the community to see, have personal experience, but we allowed the prisoners to understand that they had power in their own words their self, and that went toward changing them and went toward making them want to change society. And that was the ultimate aim, is to get them involved in their community to improve the conditions of the greater community.
Saleem El-Amin: I’m one who believes that guys like myself, we’ve been around now and we know what we want to get done and we doing it, but we have to be able to pass this on to the younger generation. And if we’re not connected with them, then some of our stuff is going to get lost. So I think we need to get it where we can connect with other people as well. So that’s why I always mention the centers, the youth centers, the libraries, definitely them middle schools. I mean, you’d be surprised what that would do for a kid’s ego, his courage, his anticipation of exceeding, just to know that somebody take interest and put these kind of skill sets in his hands. So I think that’s what I would look forward to.
Gerald “Soldier” Dent: No, I just wanted to thank everybody who helped make this possible to give me another opportunity to say my own words.
Saleem El-Amin: And with that, I’m going to say that’s a wrap.
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