Shujaa Graham, who spent three years on death row in California for a crime he did not commit, will be a special guest at the 11th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. Shujaa is coming as a member of the Journey of Hope and Witness to Innocence. He will join exonerees Curtis McCarty, Ron Keine, and Greg Wilhoit at the march. Shujaa was last in Austin during the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break in March talking to students about his experience as a wrongfully convicted person condemned to death.
Shujaa Graham was born in Lake Providence, Louisiana and grew up on a plantation. His family members worked as sharecroppers in the segregated South of the 1950s. In 1961, he moved to join his relatives in South Central Los Angeles and build a more stable life. As a teenager Shujaa experienced the Watts Riots and police occupation of his community. In and out of trouble, he spent much of his adolescent life in juvenile institutions, and when he turned 18 he was sent to Soledad Prison.
Within the prison walls, Shujaa came of age, mentored by the leadership of the Black Prison movement. Shujaa taught himself to read and write, he studied history and world affairs, and became a leader of the growing movement within the California prison system, as the Black Panther Party expanded in the community.
Shujaa was framed in the 1973 murder of a prison guard at the Deul Vocational Institute in Stockton, California. Despite the local community’s involvement and support, Shujaa and his co-defendant Eugene Allen were sent to San Quentin’s death row in 1976. Because the district attorney had systematically excluded all African-American jurors, in 1979 the California Supreme Court overturned the death conviction. After three years on death row, Shujaa and his co-defendant continued to fight for their innocence. Their third trial ended in a hung jury, and it was not until after a fourth trial that they were found innocent. Rather than being protected by the United States’ criminal justice system, Shujaa often points out that he won his freedom and affirmed his innocence “in spite of the system.”
Shujaa was released in March 1981, and began work in the Bay area building community support for the prison movement and against police brutality. Since then he has moved away from the Bay Area and created his own landscaping business. He now gives lectures on the death penalty, the criminal justice system, racism, incarceration and innocence in America. “I’m filled with ideals for a better future,” he says. “That’s my struggle, and that’s going to be my struggle until I die. But I have no regrets. The movement has become my life; it gave me something to live for, made me proud of myself, and offered me a greater sense of dignity. I may never enjoy the fruits of this labor, but our children will. Hopefully they won’t have to experience what we experienced. We’ve spent many hours campaigning for something that should be here already —justice.”
Shujaa and his wife, Phyllis Prentice, raised three children together, and he developed a program combining his story with original blues lyrics put to music. Shujaa indomitable spirit and commitment to justice through Witness to Innocence make him a powerful leader in the anti-death penalty and human rights movements.