Goddard College Chose Mumia Abu-Jamal To Be Its Commencement Speaker, Sparking Both Praise And Fury
The arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of the most contested criminal cases in history. Since Abu-Jamal's conviction for the 1981 shooting of a Philadelphia police officer, human and civil rights groups have contested the fairness of his trial and sentencing, while opposition groups have maintained that he is guilty of murder. On Monday, Vermont's Goddard College announced that Mumia Abu-Jamal will be its commencement speaker, a decision that is, not surprisingly, drawing both outrage and applause.
Goddard College, where Abu-Jamal earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from prison in 1996, asked its fall 2014 graduating class to select a commencement speaker and the small class of 23 students chose Abu-Jamal, who has already given two commencement speeches previously. Abu-Jamal will deliver his remarks on Sunday via a prerecorded speech that will play alongside a short video from filmmaker Stephen Vittoria.
Goddard College Interim President Bob Kenny said that the school holds about 20 commencement ceremonies a year for specific degree programs. He explained the decision to invite Abu-Jamal in a statement:
As a reflection of Goddard’s individualized and transformational educational model, our commencements are intimate affairs where each student serves as her or his own valedictorian, and each class chooses its own speaker. Choosing Mumia as their commencement speaker, to me, shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.
How Abu-Jamal Got Here
Abu-Jamal was arrested in December 1981 and charged with first-degree murder of Philadelphia officer Daniel Faulkner. After an unconventional trial, during which Abu-Jamal attempted to represent himself but forfeited the right due to his disruptive behavior in court, he was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1982.
In 2001, a federal judge ruled for Abu-Jamal's death sentence to be overturned, but prosecutors appealed for the next 10 years. In December 2011, after nearly 30 years on death row, Abu-Jamal's death sentence was reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prior to the 1981 shooting, Abu-Jamal had been a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, and during his lengthy prison sentence, he has written and published six books and hundreds of articles. Abu-Jamal's controversial and disputable case has garnered him support from human rights groups like Amnesty International, who maintain that his trial "failed to meet international standards," and recognition from several countries. He has been made an honorary citizen of more than 20 cities around the world, and in 2006 Paris named a street after him: Rue Mumia Abu-Jamal.
On the other side is an equally passionate opposition, including Faulkner's family, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia, several politicians, and the Fraternal Order of Police. After Goddard announced Abu-Jamal as its commencement speaker, Faulkner's widow, Maureen, told Fox News:
It’s not appropriate. His freedom was taken away when he murdered a police officer in the line of duty. It seems like our justice system allows murderers to continue to have a voice over the public airwaves and at college commencement. It’s despicable.
Throngs of people have echoed Maureen's sentiment on Twitter, while Goddard's decision has also drawn fervent praise.