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Prison Prose

A lifer explains his life

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America has a uniquely powerful literature of incarceration. From slave narratives to Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s moral exhortation from Birmingham Jail to the transmogrification of Malcolm Little into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz; from Jack London to Jack Henry Abbott we have something essential to our self-understanding as a country. H. Bruce Franklin in his Prison Literature in America: Victim as Criminal and Artist says these voices are not “some peripheral cultural phenomenon but something close to the center of our historical experience as a nation-state.”

Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther is an important book of history and humanity in the face of extremity. The book is testimony to a political history that has largely been erased, a prologue to a history of Baltimore that has yet to be written, and an extraordinary bearing of witness by a man denied due process who has spent more than 40 years in Maryland’s prisons. If we are to take a full measure of what we are as a city and as a country, then Marshall Law is a narrative to which we must pay attention.

Marshall “Eddie” Conway spent his early years in Cherry Hill as it was just being developed as a segregated enclave for African-American soldiers returning from World War II and the Korean War. His grandmother, from Virginia, and grandfather, from Seattle, came to Baltimore and were part of that larger diaspora and great migration that filled American cities with former slaves and their progeny in the less-than-a-century after the end of the Civil War. Conway’s father returned from fighting in World War II to his racially divided country and took a job with the Baltimore City Department of Public Works.

Conway, born in 1946, began his education in Baltimore’s legally segregated schools. After 1954 and the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Conway writes, “our school lives were supposed to change for the better . . . [b]ut nothing happened” in Baltimore. Adolescence combined powerfully with the civil rights movement for Conway: “What this really meant for many of us youth who were standing on the edge of adulthood was that we weren’t going to take shit from whites anymore.” While working a summer job as an arabber, Conway took in the deep inequalities of Baltimore. He watched as heroin made its way into the community, and over time how the lack of change turned into a “hopelessness [that] came to define the status quo for many young black men.”

Conway found his escape in the United States Army, enlisting in September 1964, where he became a medic and ascended to the rank of sergeant. But the images of National Guard troops locking down American cities, combined with the news of the death of his brother-in-law in Vietnam and the day-to-day experience of racism in his deployment in Europe, ended his hope that the American military offered something different from the Baltimore and America he had left.

His return home in 1967 brought more disillusion. Working as a technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Conway attempted to expose the poor medical treatment of African-Americans only to be confronted with indifference and denial. “After the racism in the army,” he writes with anger, “racism in the medical community was hard to swallow . . . people were being killed in the very places they were going for help.” From there Conway took a job as a fireman at the former Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point, and it was in his firefighter’s uniform that Conway walked the streets of Baltimore as it went up in flames in April 1968.

Conway’s chapters on his work with the Black Panther Party in Baltimore provide a necessary firsthand account to add to the ongoing revision of the role of black militancy locally and nationally. Unique testimony of the good works, such as breakfast programs and education advocacy, combine with narratives of internal struggles, strategic failures, and how local chapters of the Panthers, like Baltimore’s, were buffeted by the forces of change nationally. Importantly, Conway details the unprecedented response that the Panthers and black militancy inspired in Baltimore. Local police combined forces with federal agencies in ways that go beyond even the acknowledged excesses of the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) targeting the Panthers. Conway’s narrative conjures the visceral fear that the specter of an armed rebellion in hyper-segregated Baltimore created and that provided justification for any legal or extra-legal response.

The story of Conway’s arrest and conviction in the shooting death of Baltimore police officer Donald Sager is a set-piece drama in that response and one act in the larger dissolution of the Black Panther Party and black militancy more broadly. As Curtis Austin has it in his important Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, truth was often the first casualty: “Once violence had spawned [the Black Panther Party] it had to use that violence, physically and rhetorically to stay alive. This move made it a target and the federal government declared open season on the Panthers. When the season closed and the smoking guns were put away, the violence of the federal government stood supreme and seemed to call for all takers in this war of nerves and steel.”

No other institution in American life is as invisible as that of America’s jails and prisons. One of the strengths of Marshall Law is that it provides a counterhistory to the common understanding of the tens of thousands of Baltimoreans who have passed through Maryland’s prisons. From his time at the Baltimore City Jail to the Penitentiary on Forrest Street to the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup to the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown and to the maximum security erasure of individual humanity at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, here is a unique personal narrative. Here are riots, deaths, negotiations, internecine struggles, political intrigue and repression, material and spiritual deprivation, and how, through all of it, a singular man can maintain not just his sanity, but his ethical bearing.

From the time of Conway’s incarceration, Maryland and America began an unprecedented expansion of the use of incarceration, creating what author Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow” in her Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Conway gives firsthand reportage from a world many of us will never know and regularly ignore.

The book’s title highlights a Black Panther identity but the narrative and arc of Conway’s life are more than this. Rather than having his politics completely color the consciousness he sketches here, Conway is at times painfully honest. He explores his limits and personal failures, particularly with relationships, and is unflinching in his analysis of the toll political organizing and activism can take. And while this memoir could easily have been offered up as sentimentality or sanctimony, it is not. Conway’s work is one of thoughtful self-examination, which is all the more remarkable because of his deep political commitments and the psychic burden of a life lived in the penitentiary.

In this narrative, summoned from the void that is prison, a unique individual is called into being. Like many narratives of incarceration, Marshall Law is also the story of a soul that has freed itself. We should take note. Now the state of Maryland needs to let Marshall “Eddie” Conway come home.

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