Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, is a 70-year-old social activist who was released from prison on Dec. 5, 2019, after being locked up for 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes. Now a free man and cohost of TRNN’s original show Rattling the Bars, Mansa Musa speaks with Executive Producer Eddie Conway about how the two met while they were both incarcerated, joining the Black Panthers, and about Mansa’s life before, during, and after prison.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this special episode of Rattling the Bars. I want to take this opportunity to introduce my new co-host Charles Hopkins, also known as Mansa Musa, who’s been working with me for the last couple months, and will continue to work with the program. Mansa Musa, thanks for joining me.
Charles Hopkins: Thanks for having me, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: Tell me a little bit about your background for our audience. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Run through the area in your early years up to your teens.
Charles Hopkins: Yes, I’m native Washingtonian. I was born and raised in Washington, DC, the Southeast section of Washington. Currently, I’m 70 years old. Well, to start out, I was an incubator. I was pre-born prematurely, so that started a whole different struggle with me in my life. But growing up I had six sisters, a brother. It was eight of us. Now I have two sisters that’s passed and my brother, my father, and my mother.
Basically, growing up in the projects and all things that’s relative to that kind of living. We lived in a close-knitted family. Not having a lot of brothers and living in the projects, you have to have a knack to survive. So my not being a physically imposing person, I enjoyed being out and I enjoyed being out and about. I basically stayed out in the neighborhood and had my bouts here and there trying to survive.
We ultimately moved to Maryland in 1967, and that’s the first time I ever saw anybody other than Black folks. We moved in an area that was predominantly white. Completed junior high school and dropped out in the 10th grade when the job called. This was like the early ’60s, ’68 dropped out, a job called. Came home. And when I came home, I came home into an environment where there was an influx of drugs coming into the community. Ultimately I became addicted to heroin, which drove me to be involved in a lot of petty crime that ultimately led me to be arrested and given a life sentence in the Maryland State Penitentiary.
Eddie Conway: Well, tell me a little bit about this arrest. What’s that about and why did you get life?
Charles Hopkins: Well, me and a couple of my cohorts, we were naturally out trying to get some money for heroin. Stumbled upon the 7-Eleven store. In the course of the robbery, robbery went awry, a patron got shot which later turned out to be an off-duty park police officer. I was ultimately, along with them, charged with and eventually found guilty. During that period I was tried, and Prince George’s county was where the crime was committed. Well, my case was transferred to Calvert County, and Prince George’s county was blatantly racist. Well, Calvert County was beyond blatantly racist. So the prospect of me getting a fair trial, the prospect of me even remotely getting a fair trial was null and void.
During that time, the only thing I was concerned with was whether or not I was going to make it out the court alive and be able to start as soon as they gave me. I would later find out – And we can talk about this later on – I would later find out when Terrence Johnson, noted political prisoner, [his] case came up, that all the police that were involved in my case were members of what was known as the death squad. What they would do, they would go around, set people up for robberies and/or they would fabricate evidence against people that they arrested to ensure they get convictions. That’s what ultimately led me to receive a life sentence. The fact that I wasn’t given a fair trial, the fact that all mitigators or all things that would show to depreciate my involvement or my state of mind in the crime was ignored, and all evidence that came out that could have possibly exonerated me was suppressed.
Eddie Conway: Well, tell me. You, at a fairly young age, in fact, tell us how old you were and then what was it like to be thrown in the jail off the street? How did that strike you?
Charles Hopkins: Good question, Eddie. Like I told you, when you look at my evolution, I’m really aimless in terms of my identity and what I want to do. So I’m moving from one job to not… No steady employment. When I got thrown into prison, I had just turned 19 and I was thrown into the county jail. This is my first time ever being locked up, ever being confined. I had an instinct to survive, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t prepared for being confined 24/7 to a cell block. I wasn’t prepared to be in an environment where you literally had to fight or flight for everything… You were in basically a predatory type environment. I wasn’t prepared for it, but I positioned myself to be able to survive it by starting to do some introspection and look at myself and the things that were going on with me that got me there.
I was put in prison during the time when you had a political upheaval going on in prison in the nation. During that period, Dr. King, Malcolm X, they got killed. Dr. King was assassinated. In respond to Dr. King’s assassination, DC, like all cities, caught fire. You had riots in the city. You had major industries, stores were burned down. You had a lot of the… You had police presence. For a long time you had the police that were in this community en masse because of the close proximity to a lot of the projects to commerce districts. Then as it moved on, at one point you had the war in Vietnam. You had a protest. It was constantly being protested. The war in Vietnam was constantly coming to DC. So you always had some type of political upheaval, political activity going on.
Also, you had the influx of heroin into the District of Columbia. It was during that time when we saw the thing, Blue Magic, we saw the movie with Denzel in it. But this heroin that they were talking about found its way into DC, and you had a lot of people becoming addicted to heroin because they were selling it at what they were calling a buck action: One pill of heroin cost a dollar. This is the type of activity that you had going on. On the one hand you had a lot of political discourse, and then you had a lot of criminal activity and substance abuse, and that type of behavior that was going on in Washington during that time that I was growing up.
Ultimately, being involved in heroin would ultimately lead me to become incarcerated and put into the county jail in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. And like I said, I wasn’t really prepared for that. But I knew that I was in a situation where, because of the way that I was arrested and the circumstances upon how I was arrested, that the likelihood of me getting found not guilty was slim to none. So my main course was to do some introspection, look at me and see what it is that I need to do to be able to survive what I was going to be confronted with. The one thing I knew that I needed to do was change my thinking. And in terms of that, I started reading. No More Lies by Dick Gregory, Native Son by Richard Wright, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I was reading a lot of Black classic books and getting a good perspective.
But one book that had the most devastating impact on me was Malcolm X on Afro-American History. That changed my whole outlook on the way I looked at myself, because although it was a relatively small book, he talked about history and how we were deprived of our history and not given an accurate description of it. And more importantly, he described how names came from our slave masters. This is where I adopted the name Mansa Musa, I took it right out of this book. I saw a name. I said, this is going to be my name from now on because I don’t want to be identified with the name of my slave master. Embryonic thinking at the time. But it started a process in my thinking,
Eddie Conway: Well, now I met you in the early ’70s, I guess, doing a riot. You were already political and active then, because a number of comrades that I had been working with for the last couple years once I had got locked up, they were all like, man, we got a comrade over there on the other side. We need to go get him. And so they actually, a team went over and brought you back over to the other side because the rioting was happening on both sides, but the rioting on the side where you were was out of control. So you were already political then, and comrades already knew you then. How did you get involved with the Black Panthers?
Charles Hopkins: Well, that’s interesting, Eddie, because when I was in the county jail, one of our comrades later became our comrade Calvin Hubbert. He had came assassin. He was in Soledad doing it right on the heels of comrade George being assassinated. He was out in California. He had come into the county jail. And when he came into the county jail, he started giving me political education, and broadened my political thinking, and stop looking at things in such a myopic view as far as a nationalist perspective, but more looking at it from a more dialectical perspective in terms of understanding social conditions and understand that the things that our people and people of color and oppressed people and poor people was going through was not the result of that color in and of itself. But it was like an economic situation that capitalism, imperialism, and fascism that we’ve seen that racism was just being utilized to continue to displace people and oppress people.
So this started me on the process of becoming more educated, introduced me to the… I got a Red Book by Mao Zedong and I had also got Blood in My Eye and The Prison Letters of George Jackson before I had left the county jail. So I had started developing a political perspective. I just didn’t have the knowledge of what I wanted to do. I understood the Black Panther Party, but I still had this nationalist thinking because [nationalism] was a heavy influence on everyone during that time. So I still had this attitude because of the way I was being tried and this racism that was permanent in my face, made me more or less gravitate towards a nationalist perspective.
When I got into the Maryland Penitentiary, when our comrades Tahaku and Thomas Gathen, Tahaku, he was… The collective in the Maryland Penitentiary had a newsletter they were passing around, and he came on the [tear] with it. When he came in the [tear] with it, I asked him about it. He gave me a copy of it and we started talking, and he was the first one that made me aware that we had a collective of people in the Maryland Penitentiary that was Black Panthers, and told me that if and when I was sent into the population [inaudible] that I should look y’all up.
To digress, speaking of the riot, it was March the 29th where it was a foiled escape attempt by some prisoners. I was on the receiving side of the prison, and they opened up all the doors in order to cover up the foiled attempt. They opened all the doors on the receiving side, and our box being locked down 24/7, when they opened the doors up, everybody came out and it was mayhem. Prisoners was being raped. Guards were being assaulted. Prisoners were being assaulted. It was all-out mayhem. Like you said, some of the comrades that were in the west wing came and gave me some direction in terms of, this is not what it looked like. Because I’m thinking that it’s a political act and that this is a form of resistance towards the oppression that was going on in that particular prison at the time.
Eddie Conway: Yeah. Well, once you got over into the main population, you hit the ground running. So tell me a little bit about some of the work you did once you joined the Black Panther Collective. Actually, it was called the Maryland Penitentiary Inter Survival Committee.
Charles Hopkins: Maryland Pen Intercommunal Survival Committee.
Eddie Conway: Yes. Thank you.
Charles Hopkins: [inaudible] The old PISC. But, yeah. The first thing I did – And this was what really solidified my thinking – The first thing I did upon joining Maryland Pen Intercommunal Survival Collective, myself, as well as you, we had political education classes, and you took a particular interest in me in terms of spending some time with me and educating me on things relative to understanding the contradictions, dialectical materialist, understanding how to look at conditions and not be too emotional about what was going on in the environment while trying to understand them in order to be able to control them or create something that could change the narrative in terms of the way we were being treated, and not be more emotional about the fact that we were being treated inhumane. The fact that medical conditions were bad, the fact that the food was garbage, the fact that we were living in some squalid kind of living conditions, no hot water. The reality was that we had to change these things.
The way you change these things was to organize people – This is what our political education class, they were teaching – That we had to organize people to get them to see that these things were wrong and then give them a direction on how to change them. So oftentimes the work that I would be doing, I took a job primarily to make sure to serve the food to people that were in segregation. My first concern was to make sure the food that went over there was hot and was sufficient enough for them to eat. I also used that as a opportunity to make sure that things that they couldn’t get over there, that we could smuggle them over there to them to make sure that everybody was on that side that was locked up for disciplinary reasons – Be it they did, some of them didn’t – That they would be able to get the support from the general population.
Other things that I did and that I was responsible for being a part of, we organized prisoners around going to school and getting their education. We organized prisoners around understanding how to stop being more combative towards each other and identify the problem is not being with each other but the administration. We organized prisoners to start demanding more programs, more activities outside of a basketball and a football, but to have more substantive programs and activities such as self-help groups that came in. One in particular was a seven step group, which was an alternative way of thinking. But it did give prisoners the opportunity to look at themselves and examine themselves and start looking outside of, yeah, I’m in prison. It’s my fifth time in here. I’m going to get high or I’m going to be this, I’m going to be that. We started giving them a purpose. And these were some of the things that we did.
I was involved with teaching our creative program called Tutorial Assistant Program where we taught prisoners, functionally illiterate prisoners, illiterate prisoners how to read and write. We did, we organized different activities in the library that we constantly made or were bringing people off the street into the institution to show the people that’s inside as well as outside that this is an untapped resource and that they have value.
Eddie Conway: You know, now, that’s interesting because what I remember most about your activities is the effort that you put in organizing prisoners around the country to engage the United Nations in our plight. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think you, for the Maryland Penitentiary Panthers, you led that charge. Talk a little bit more about that.
Charles Hopkins: Right [crosstalk] Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I recall it clear because when in the Black Panther Paper, we was getting the Party paper and we was getting other newsletters, and some comrades in New York from Black Liberation Army members and political prisoners was making a call to take the problem with prisons to United Nations, to bring it to get an international resolution on the cruelty that prisoners in America was being subjected to. I was corresponding with a comrade named Jalil Martin, I think it is, Muntaqim –
Eddie Conway: Anthony Bottom.
Charles Hopkins: – Anthony Bottom. I was also corresponding with Sundiata Acoli and Anthony Bottom. They were saying that we would try to organize in each city people to protest at a given date the plight of prisoners and political prisoners in the United States. So we did for a year straight, we was telling people, we was telling prisoners to get their families involved, educating them about the necessity to try to have this issue raised on an international level in order to try to influence the direction that prisons was going in during that time, because prison was very politicized at that time. But more importantly, the more political they became, the more brutal they became, the more repressive the administrations were becoming towards the prison population. So it was our responsibility to try to educate the community to understand that if we don’t come up with something to restrain them, then we’re going to see a lot more deaths taking place at the hands of the fascist police that were coming into prison, the formal guards.
So we had, ultimately, when the call was sent out, we ultimately organized and we had out there on 4th Street, we had people come out. We had a handful of people come out with signs in unison with what was going on around the world at that time to highlight the fact that people in prison were political prisoners, were not just criminals, and that we had worth. And that the conditions that we were being subjected to, inhumane conditions that we were being subjected to, had to change and that the only way they could change is that we had to get people on the outside and the prisoners on the inside to understand the need for the change and how to go about changing and being effective in change.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Can you take a minute because you kept disappearing, being transferred from one jail to the other, depending. Once they realized they couldn’t control you, they would ship you out. So how many jails have you been in? Talk a little bit about that. In Maryland, how many of those jails have you been in, and what was it like?
Charles Hopkins: Well, I know in ’69 I was transferred to Hagerstown, Maryland Correctional Institution, and a blatantly racist institution. Had a nepotism system where everybody up there was either cousins, uncles, or fathers and sons. I went up there out on the hill in ’69. I went up there and I went with the attitude that I was real militant. I was well-educated in terms of understanding politics and understanding that I was a political prisoner. I went up there with the understanding that I was not going for anything. I stayed up there all of, I think, two years before they sent me back to the Maryland Penitentiary. But while I was up there, I had organized a series of activities and changed the narrative as to how prisoners looked at themselves.
I was also sent to Jessup, what they call The Cut. Jessup Correctional Institution. I stayed down there all of nine months before they locked me up for attempted escape. I was sent to MCTC, Maryland Correctional Training Center. I stayed up there. I left the amount of time till they locked me up for finding some bolt cutters and gave me the charge for them. Ultimately, I went from there to the supermax. I spent four and a half years in the supermax, and upon release from the supermax I was sent to Jessup Correctional Institution, JCI. Back over to The Cut, Jessup Correctional Institution for a minute, and then sent back to JCI. Ultimately, before my release, I was sent to the county jail from North Branch Correctional Institution. So ultimately I’ve been in about six or seven institutions in the state of Maryland.
I think that my attitude has always been that, the entire time I’ve been incarcerated, my attitude has always been that if I’m going to die, I’m not going to die in the prison. I can fall out on the other side of the fence as long as I don’t fall out on the side of the fence where I’m held captive. So my attitude has always been one of resistance and one of trying to change the conditions and the narrative that we were undergoing in the Maryland prison system. So I’ve always been involved in organizing activities and programs. I’ve always been involved in mentoring younger prisoners. I try to pass on what was given to me, which was something that we were big on, talking to prisoners, trying to get them to understand their conditions, trying to get them to understand and change their thinking.
I think comrade George has said that when he got together with William Knoll and the early comrades, that their goal was to change the Black criminal mentality to a Black revolutionary mentality. Our goal was to change the mentality of prisoners in the state of Maryland from looking at themselves as victims and looking at themselves as not having worth, to looking at themselves as having worth and also being instrumentally changing the way they live and changing the community upon where they live then.
Eddie Conway: Okay. So you spent an inordinate amount of time locked up. How long did you spend and what kind of impact did that have on you?
Charles Hopkins: I spent 48 years, 9 months, 5 days, and some change in the Maryland prison system. To say what kind of impact it had on me, I had already made my mind up once I got out that I would try to get some type of psychological evaluation. I would try to put myself in a space to have somebody that I could get to unpack some of the things that I thought was going on with me. I’m aware that all those years of being incarcerated had an impact. I’m traumatized. I got post traumatic stress. I understand all those things. And I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t so damaged that I lost sight of reality and that I started making reality what I thought it should be as opposed to what reality was and what reality is. But to my own credit, I understood that.
Once I knew I was getting ready to get out, I knew I was getting ready to get out. I started really looking at what I’m going to do upon my release. I started evaluating what resources I would need upon my release. I started evaluating, did I have these things? Were these things available? If these things weren’t available, what would be the alternative? If I didn’t have a place to stay, where would I stay? If I didn’t have a source of income, how would I get an income? I started looking at these things and I started networking with different people in the street, and I started taking advantage of the little resources that they had in the camp system to develop a network that I could rely on upon my release.
I knew I had people such as yourself that I could turn to. I knew I had a broad network of people I could turn to. But I wanted to make sure that I was preparing mentally and emotionally to be able to interact and not bring no drama to nobody, but bring attention to detail and bring some type of progression and progressive activity to this space as opposed to being a problem. So the transition, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. I’m still going through it. I’ve only been out for two years. I’m still going through it. But I’m a lot better now than I was before.
Eddie Conway: Well, now, once you got out after 48 years, really, how did society look to you? Obviously, I mean, this is a Rip Van Winkle situation. You’ve been gone. You’ve been in one cage or another. Society changed tremendously. How did it appear to you? And once you got out, what did you think from when you went in and you got politicized, how did you see society once you got out?
Charles Hopkins: See, the thing about being politicized and having a political education and looking at things from a dialectical materialist perspective is your level of confidence is a lot different than everybody else’s. Because if you rely on that information, if you rely on that education, which I do, and which I did, then a lot of the angst and the anxieties that I was confronted with didn’t take root because I was able to look at conditions from what I understood them to be. I knew getting out that I was going to be subjected to being on paper. I knew that I was going to be on parole. Unlike everybody else that got out, they were trying to retry me. So I had to get out on conditional release. I had to wind up pleading guilty, and I came out with a lifting parole situation.
So I knew these things. I knew I wasn’t going to go to Maryland. I had my parole transferred to the District of Columbia. I knew that being transferred to the District of Columbia that the District of Columbia had a wealth of information and resources for people who were coming out of prison. But I also knew that in that space, it was a lot of people that were poverty pimps. I knew that in that space there were a lot of people that were opportunistic, that they were getting money in the name of people coming out with their designs to help them, but they weren’t. So I had made my mind up when I got out that I was going to look at the landscape, identify some areas that I wanted to work in, and start making inroads into those areas.
And the area that I wanted to make inroads into was returning citizens. What was going on with people coming out? What type of services were being provided for people coming out? In that regard, I started networking with some prisoners, some returning citizens, who were not as political as I am, but were committed to helping people coming out. So my transition in terms of being able to adjust was not that severe as it would have been had I not been educated.
Give you a case in point, Eddie. Six months after I was out, I was homeless and utilizing this network of returning citizens, I was able to find a transitional house that allowed me to be able to be in there and not have to worry about thinking I’m in a dormitory, or not having to worry about I’m thinking I’m in the cell and have to carry a knife. I was able to make the adjustments. I was able to focus on getting out of there, so I was able to get a job. I was able to save my money. I didn’t allow that environment to… I didn’t have a woe-is-me pity party because I understood that this was not me, this was just a temporary situation. And the best way to deal with it was to move forward and not look back.
So I was able to save some money. I was able to position myself in a different program. And ultimately, I got my own place. I signed the lease for my own apartment, and I’m constantly moving forward. So to reflect back on what you said, society looked different. I came out. Remember, when I got out, it was only two months till COVID hit. So that helped a lot because I was used to being in a controlled and structured environment. COVID hit and they locked down the entire country. I didn’t have no angst about coming out, going or coming. I basically had just made the adjustment that I could go to certain places and I couldn’t go to certain places. Not much different than being locked up.
Eddie Conway: Okay. So tell me a little bit about what you are doing now [crosstalk] that you’re out –
Charles Hopkins: Okay, so [crosstalk]
Eddie Conway: – Settled down. What are you doing now?
Charles Hopkins: Right now what I’m doing in addition to having a cameo appearance on Rattling the Bars –
Eddie Conway: Co-host.
Charles Hopkins: Co-hosting, yeah, Rattling the Bars. I’m involved with this group called Voices for a Second Chance, which is a reentry program that provides services for prisoners just returning. My responsibility there is to be a peer navigator, to write op-eds, to blog and write articles. They’re also developing a podcast. But they recruit for a program they’re doing called Train Our Voices that teaches advocacy. I’m doing that work.
I’m networking with the transition house that I used to live in. I’m doing some work with them in terms of making prisoners aware of the resources that’s available in the District of Columbia and showing them how to navigate them. Because I was real successful at navigating the resources, but more importantly I’m trying to get them to understand – And this is where I’m really beating the drum at – To be patient with the process. And the process is understanding who you’re talking to, whether or not these people are genuine. If they’re genuine in terms of wanting to help you, then be patient with what they’re offering. It might not come overnight, but it will come. So I’m doing those things and I’m working on developing a reentry program in Prince George’s County. I’m working with some people on doing a reentry program that will provide housing and wraparound services for prisoners coming out of the Maryland system that’s living in the Prince George’s County area.
Eddie Conway: How does Rattling the Bars fit into your program?
Charles Hopkins: Yeah. Good. That’s a good question because one, the political platform that Rattling the Bars is operating out of and The Real News is… I don’t look at it as alternative news, because it would be alternative to what? I look at it as being what it is, the real news, the news that’s really telling the story. And so Rattling the Bars is a platform that allow me to be able to get people that’s in those spaces, that don’t have a voice, that’s been disenfranchised, that need their story told, it allows me to be able to get those people and come to those and talk to those people and get their stories told in a fashion where they can tell their story without being in fear of being retaliated against, without fear of having the most critical part of their information edited, without fear of them being judged because of whatever their political views are, or their ethnicity is, or their sexual preference is.
If they’re in this space, they’re in this space because they have value and their story has value in terms of educating people about what’s going on. So this is what Rattling the Bars and The Real News is offering me, and the return that they going to get from me is I’m going to be out pounding the ground, keep my ear to the ground looking for information, looking for sources of information, talking to people that have stories that these particular mediums would be more than glad to air.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you. And you can be reached at your website or your email?
Charles Hopkins: My email. You can reach me, anyone that is interested in furthering this conversation or knowing more about me or some of the things I’m doing. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thanks for joining me.
Charles Hopkins: Thank you for [inaudible]
Eddie Conway: And welcome aboard.
Charles Hopkins: Oh, my. Thank you very much.
Eddie Conway: All right. And thank you for joining this special episode of Rattling the Bars.