Last Friday, I was honored to give a graduation address at Folsom Prison.
Folsom State Prison (FSP) is a California State Prison in Folsom, California, U.S., approximately 20 mi (30 km) northeast of the state capital of Sacramento… It opened 137 years ago in 1880, Folsom is the state’s second-oldest prison.. Folsom was also one of the first maximum security prisons, and as such witnessed the execution of 93 condemned prisoners over a 42-year period.
Folsom is probably best known in popular culture for concerts performed at the facility by musician Johnny Cash, particularly in 1968, when the two shows of January 13 were made into a live album. He had written and recorded the song “Folsom Prison Blues” over a decade earlier. Source.
The prison is as the end of a long, beautiful winding road through cow pastures and is located in front of Folsom Lake.
I was instructed not to wear blue or denim (which is basically my entire wardrobe plus a blazer). I also had to leave behind my Apple Watch, iPhone and my doctoral tam (no hats).
The security to enter and exit the prison is incredible! I first had to sign in and show a state issued id at the gate. One of the prison’s employees picked me up in a golf cart to drive me to B-wing. Once we arrived at the second gate. There was a double 20 foot fence topped by razor wire. In between the fence was an electrified fence. The employee mentioned that every week the prison retrieves birds that have met their demise from coming into contact with the fence. There is another guard station at the triple fences where you sign in and show state issued id again.
We entered the B-wing through a set of stairs that were remotely locked at the top and bottom. We then walked down a few hallways. To enter the graduation auditorium, we then had to pass another guard station with two sets of locked doors. Here we showed our id for a third time. Strangely, the entire experience reminded me Lockdown, a zombie podcast that I recently listened to where the apocalypse setting is a prison.
When I entered the auditorium, there were about 50 prisoners sitting that were receiving diplomas and certificates of different types. One student was finishing his four-year college degree and two others were finishing two-year associates degrees. There were about 10 other prisoners that had finished their high school equivalency. The other 35 or so were receiving honors such as Microsoft, technology and parole program certificates.
The audience also contained a section of supportive prison staff on the left. The prisoners that were receiving diplomas were allowed by the prison to invite family members to celebrate with them— the family section was to the right of the prisoners.
The instructors of the prison education program opened the graduation program with congratulatory comments. Then two of the prisoners from the college programs gave speeches. In fact, the prisoner who was receiving the four-year college degree gave an outstanding address. I have had to follow or open for some great speakers in my time such as Cornell West, Cecily Mart-Cruz, Jitu Brown and Rev. Dr William Barber— and this young man was right up there on the inspiration scale with some of our nation’s outstanding speakers.
I wanted to talk to the prisoners about Malcolm X in my graduation address because of the inspirational fact that the education he gained in prison was the foundation of his later work for civil rights. Here is the text of my address.
I am honored to join you today. I have spoken in front of many audiences this year, and this is the highlight.
I would like to talk to you today about the inspirational life of Malcolm X.
I grew up in public subsidized housing on the south side of Lansing, Michigan, only a mile from Malcolm X’s childhood home.
But I never learned about him until Spike Lee’s film entered popular culture in the early 1990s.
Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, Malcolm X was one of the most articulate and powerful leaders of Black America during the 1960s. A street hustler convicted of robbery in 1946, he spent seven years in prison, where he was self-educated.
For this address, I’d like to use an abridged excerpt from Malcolm X’s autobiography where he describes his education in prison. He coauthored his autobiography with Alex Haley and it was published in 1965, the year of his death,
“It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education. I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote…
In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there. I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional…
Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies…
Every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said. So I had come to the Norfolk Prison Colony still going through only book-reading motions. Pretty soon, I would have quit even these motions, unless I had received the motivation that I did…
I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying. In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks…
I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge…
Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.
The Norfolk Prison Colony’s library was in the school building. A variety of classes was taught there by instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. The weekly debates between inmate teams were also held in the school building. You would be astonished to know how worked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like “Should Babies Be Fed Milk?”
Available on the prison library’s shelves were books on just about every general subject. Much of the big private collection that Parkhurst had willed to the prison was still in crates and boxes in the back of the library—thousands of old books. Some of them looked ancient: covers faded; old-time parchment-looking binding. Parkhurst, I’ve mentioned, seemed to have been principally interested in history and religion. He had the money and the special interest to have a lot of books that you wouldn’t have in general circulation. Any college library would have been lucky to get that collection.
As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, an inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books. There was a sizable number of well-read inmates, especially the popular debaters, Some were said by many to be practically walking encyclopedias. They were almost celebrities. No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.
I read more in my room than in the library itself. An inmate who was known to read a lot could check out more than the permitted maximum number of books. I preferred reading in the total isolation of my own room.
When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P.M. I would be outraged with the “lights out.” It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing.
Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when “lights out” came, I would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow.
At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes—until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had slept less than that…
I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.” You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.”
Although Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. His determination for justice lives on in you and me today.
His life was like a rock thrown into a pool of water.
The positive ripples of his life have inspired people around the world to live better and important lives.
Even in his own life he broke the cycle of hatred and gravitated towards love.
He set goals for his life that he was able to accomplish through his education while incarcerated.
His values of accountability to his religion and the Black community were realized.
Yet, his commitment to justice cost him his life.
In the end, his integrity was something that not even shotguns with shortened barrels and stock could take from him.
He rose to excellence at a time of great need for the civil rights movement and the country.
I challenge you today, as Malcom X did, to ponder, accept and embrace the important role you have to play in this life.
Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
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