On Feb. 13, Baltimore lost a giant with the passing of Marshall “Eddie” Conway. I first met Eddie Conway through a phone conversation in 2013 while he was incarcerated in Maryland, during a community meeting with grassroots leaders seeking his freedom. In my early 20s, I was eager to join efforts to advocate for his release and to return his political advocacy and voice to our community.
Over the years, I had heard so many stories about how he was still actively organizing and empowering his community, even during his incarceration. Conway was a member of Baltimore’s chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. He joined the organization while witnessing the ravages of institutional racism in the Black community. The normalization of state-sponsored violence and daily oppression inflicted on Black people prompted him to seek out an organization that could address those issues.
As a member of the chapter, he helped administer community programs such as a free medical clinic, a push for community-controlled policing, a free breakfast program, community-based political education and local distribution for the national Black Panther Party’s newspaper. During his time in the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway was a fierce political advocate for working-class Black people in Baltimore.
He carried out this work in the community during a time when, nationally, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, sought to infiltrate, undermine and destroy the Black Panther Party and all of its chapters. This, of course, included Baltimore.
In 1970, Conway was arrested, and, I believe, framed, for a crime he did not commit. This eventually led to 43 years of political imprisonment. Conway chronicled his experiences in his autobiography, “Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.”
While incarcerated, he worked tirelessly to expand prisoners’ rights. In 1980, he helped organize a prisoners’ educational outreach program called Say Their Own Word, where thinkers and scholars came to the Maryland Penitentiary and spoke about topics such as U.S. fascism, the prison-industrial complex, the impact of capitalism and increasing surveillance.
He also played a leading role in a variety of other prisoner-support initiatives, including the formation of the Maryland chapter of the United Prisoner’s Labor Union and the ACLU’s Prison Committee to Correct Prison Conditions. He also participated in the American Friends Service Committee’s A Friend of a Friend program.
His commitment to the Black community was unwavering and never stopped.
In 2013, my colleagues and I created a youth program in his honor, The Eddie Conway Liberation Institute. We wanted to speak to him about continuing his legacy in the Black freedom struggle. We exchanged kind words, said our goodbyes, and our group discussed how we were going to advocate for his freedom. A few weeks later, I wrote to him about our program with photos of the students. To my delight, he replied with words of encouragement for us to continue our work and to collaborate with him on programming in the future.
The following year, in 2014, I was heartened by the news that he had been released from prison after decades of unjust incarceration. He went on to work for the Real News Network — whose headquarters was in the same building as my organization, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. I re-introduced myself to him and was eager to get to work collaborating.
One memory that I cherish is Eddie accepting an invitation to speak to our young people. The same students in our program who had only heard about him through his memoirs at a program bearing his name were now able to speak to him directly. It was a beautiful full-circle moment. From that point, we had the honor of working with him on multiple projects. I could rattle off the various initiatives in which we worked together and his sterling accomplishments in the community. But Eddie Conway, the person, was much more than that.
You would think being behind prison walls for such a long time would have hardened him, that he would have become embittered after being subjected to racist targeting by police and the forces of government and politics.
But not Eddie.
I would often spend late hours in our office working, and he would always pop in and ask me how I was and offer me advice whenever I needed it. In the aftermath of the Baltimore Uprising caused by the death of Freddie Gray, Conway was immediately on the ground in West Baltimore working to empower working-class people, as he had done all those years ago as a Black Panther. I always used to think to myself, “Eddie moves like a man who’s 30 years younger.”
In the summer, if Eddie wasn’t traveling the world building solidarity with Black and brown community leaders, you could find him in Gilmor Homes tilling the soil in the community gardens he helped create. In the winter, he would often raise money during the holiday season for the residents of that neighborhood for food, toys and warm clothes. I fondly remember getting late-night phone calls from him telling me, “Hey, man, I need you to help me raise this money for these families.” Without hesitation, I would tell him yes each time. He bought books for school libraries, mentored men returning home from jail, collaborated with numerous community programs, and so much more.
He did more in his nine years at home than most of us could do in a lifetime.
Even in his 70s, after spending almost half his life in prison, Eddie Conway was still at it — coordinating programs, purchasing supplies, organizing residents and conducting interviews about pertinent social issues in Baltimore.
He was still working for all of us with that same energy, passion and tenacity.
It is one of the greatest honors of my life that I got to call Eddie a friend, mentor and elder. Now, as an ancestor, I know his spirit and energy will continue to guide future generations of activists in Baltimore and around the world.
I’ll miss him.
Adam Jackson is chief executive officer of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.