As one of the Angola 3, he was in isolation longer than any other American. Then he came home to face his future.
By Rachel Aviv
The New Yorker
January 16th, 2017
“What does it feel like to be free?” Woodfox asked. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?”Photograph by Mark Hartman for The New Yorker
Last summer, five months after being released from prison, Albert Woodfox went to Harlem. It was there, in 1969, during his last week of freedom, that he met members of the Black Panther Party for the first time. He had been mesmerized by the way they talked and moved. “I had always sensed, even among the most confident black people, that their fear was right there at the top, ready to overwhelm them,” he told me. “It was the first time I’d ever seen black folk who were not afraid.”
Woodfox had intended to go to a meeting of the New York chapter of the Party that week, but he was arrested for a robbery before he could. Instead, he founded a chapter of the Party at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in Angola, where he was held in solitary confinement for more than forty years—longer than any prisoner in American history. He and two other Black Panthers, who were in solitary confinement for a total of more than a hundred years, became known as the Angola 3.
Woodfox, who is sixty-nine, strolled along Malcolm X Boulevard with three former Panthers: his best friend, Robert King, one of the Angola 3, as well as Atno Smith and B. J. Johnson, members of local chapters of the Party. He had never met Smith or Johnson before, and the conversation was halting and restrained; they spoke of gentrification, Jackie Wilson, and the type of diabetes they had. Woodfox is reserved, humble, and temperamentally averse to drama. When he talked about himself, his tone became flat. He was scheduled to speak at a panel on solitary confinement the next day, and he felt exhausted by the prospect. “I get apprehensive when somebody asks me something I can’t answer, like ‘What does it feel like to be free?’ ” he said. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?” He’d developed a stock answer to the question: “Ask me in twenty years.”
They reached the Apollo Theatre, and Johnson told the others to stand under the marquee for a photograph. They all looked soberly at the camera and raised their arms in a black-power salute. There were pouches under Woodfox’s eyes, and a thick crease between his eyebrows. His Afro was straggly and gray.
On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, they browsed souvenirs, T-shirts, and jewelry arrayed on tables along the sidewalk. “Black Lives Matter!” one vender shouted. “We got the shirts—ten dollars!”
Woodfox walked by, paused, then turned around. “Give me one of those,” he said. He handed the man a ten-dollar bill. “I’ll wear it tomorrow,” he told the others.
Suddenly, the men’s mood became lighter. Now they all wanted to buy something. Johnson sampled musks and decided on a three-dollar glassine of “Bleue Nile,” while King and Smith contemplated buying their own “Black Lives Matter” shirts.
Then Johnson led the men four blocks south, to the original headquarters of the New York City chapter of the Party, now a bodega called Jenny’s Food Corp. Several elderly men sat smoking at a card table in front of the shop.
“We’ve got original Panthers here,” Johnson told the men at the card table.
“Originals?” one man said, putting out his cigarette and standing up.
“All right, all right,” Woodfox said, deflecting attention.
“Can I take a picture?” another man asked.
The four Panthers posed in front of the store, next to a sandwich board advertising hot oatmeal. Woodfox held his new T-shirt in a plastic bag and raised his other fist. The men from the card table stood behind him, clenching their fists.
“This is Brother Albert Woodfox,” Johnson said. “Longest man in solitary confinement in the history of America!”
One of the men said that he’d been in solitary, too. “I thought I was in the box a long time,” he said. “But I’ll just put my troubles in my pocket.”
“Look, one day in the box is enough,” King said.
When Woodfox was a child in New Orleans, he made money by stealing flowers from gravestones and selling them to mourners. The oldest of six siblings, he grew up in the Tremé, one of the first neighborhoods in the South to house freed slaves. He remembers standing at a bus stop with his mother when he was twelve and trying to figure out why, when a police car passed, she pulled him behind her, as if to hide him. “She was so scared of white folks,” he said. “We all knew they had absolute power over us.”
In 1962, when Woodfox was fifteen, he was arrested for a car-parking scheme: he and his friends charged drivers to protect their cars. Two years later, he went to jail for riding in a stolen car. That year, he got his girlfriend pregnant. He paid little attention to his newborn daughter, Brenda. He took pride in being a good crook. “They used to call me Fox,” he said. “You didn’t mess with Fox.”
When Woodfox was eighteen, he was arrested for robbing a bar and sentenced to fifty years in prison. After the sentencing, he overpowered two sheriff’s deputies in the basement of the courthouse and fled to Manhattan. He had been in the city for only a few days—he had just met Panthers in Harlem, and was angling to date some of the female Party members, who seemed more self-possessed than any women he’d ever met—when a bookie accused him of trying to rob him. “I remember thinking, What’s wrong with you—you can’t stay out of jail,” he said. “I thought it was just me, that something was wrong with me.”
Woodfox said that his tattoo was done by Charles Neville, of the Neville Brothers, while he was being held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Houston, Texas; October, 2016. Photograph by Mark Hartman for The New Yorker
He was extradited to New Orleans and placed on the Panther Tier at the Orleans Parish Prison. Eighteen members of the Black Panther Party, waiting to be tried for shoot-outs with the police, held classes on politics, economics, sociology, and the history of slavery. Steel plates had been affixed to their windows so that they couldn’t communicate with prisoners on other tiers. Malik Rahim, the defense minister of the New Orleans chapter of the Party, told me, “They thought they were separating us, but everywhere we went that infectious disease called organizing was taking hold.” They ripped apart Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” and divided it into sections, so that each inmate could study a chapter and teach the others what he’d learned.
Formed a year after the assassination of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party was disillusioned by the incremental approach of the civil-rights movement. Huey Newton, the Party’s co-founder, said that black people were tired of singing “We Shall Overcome.” He said, “The only way you’re going to overcome is to apply righteous power.” The Panthers saw a direct link between the country’s armed interventions abroad—in Vietnam, Latin America, and Africa—and what Eldridge Cleaver, a Party leader, called the “bondage of the Negro at home.” Black people, he said, lived in a “colony in the mother country,” shunted into inferior housing, jobs, and schools. The Panthers followed the police, whom they saw as occupying troops, through the ghetto. If an officer questioned a black person, the Panthers got out of their car and monitored the encounter, drawing loaded guns.
J. Edgar Hoover called the group “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and, as part of his COINTELPRO program, ordered the F.B.I. to disrupt and discredit its activities. But much of the Party’s work was focussed on providing community services in neighborhoods that had been neglected by the government. Under the slogan “Survival Pending Revolution,” the Panthers established screening centers for sickle-cell anemia, provided pest control and trash disposal, and gave free breakfasts to children, who ate while learning black history. The first goal on the Panthers’ ten-point program was: “We want the power to determine the destiny of our black community.”
Woodfox said that the Party “helped bring out who I really was.” He felt giddy when he used the language that the Panthers taught him for articulating his discontent. He realized that he’d been part of the lumpenproletariat, a term that Marx coined to describe “thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society.”
By the time of Woodfox’s trial, in 1971, he believed that it had been his moral right to flee. On the morning of his trial, he and three other Panthers who had been placed in a holding pen under the courthouse sang, “Pick up the gun / put the pigs on the run / there aren’t enough pigs / in this whole wide world / to stop the Black Panther Party!” Officers beat them and sprayed them with mace. When Woodfox was called into the courtroom, his face was bruised and burning. His ankles and wrists were chained to a steel belt around his waist. He turned toward the spectators in the courtroom and shook his chains. “I want all of you to see what these racist, fascist pigs have done to me,” he said.
Woodfox was sent to Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the country. The penitentiary, situated on eighteen thousand acres of farmland and bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, is a former cotton plantation and slave-breeding business. It was named for the African country, the source of its slaves. After the Civil War, a former Confederate general acquired the plantation and leased state convicts—most of them black, including children as young as seven—to work at Angola, easing the labor shortage brought by Emancipation. The state purchased the plantation in 1901, but convicts still slept in former slave cabins and worked seven days a week, cultivating sugarcane and cotton.
When Woodfox arrived, black and white inmates lived separately, in cinder-block compounds, and the cafeteria was divided by a wooden partition, to keep the races apart. Every guard at Angola was white. Woodfox and two other inmates he’d met at the Orleans Parish Prison requested permission from the Panthers’ Central Committee, in Oakland, to establish a chapter of the Party at Angola—the only recognized chapter founded on prison grounds. The new Panthers encouraged the other prisoners, who cut crops for two cents an hour, to work more slowly. Woodfox said, “It was this macho thing where the guys would deliberately work at a fast pace to show off how masculine they were, and we’d explain to them that all they’re going to do is take you to another field.”
A few times a week, a group of nearly fifty men pretended to play football while discussing how to conduct themselves as revolutionaries. Woodfox, who now described himself as a “dialectical materialist,” summarized what he’d learned from the Party’s list of some thirty required books, by writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Michael Harrington, and Marcus Garvey. Prisoners who knew Woodfox from New Orleans, where he’d earned a reputation as a hustler, at first thought that he was operating some sort of scam.
Angola was known as the most dangerous prison in the South. According to the editor of the prison’s newspaper, the Angolite, a quarter of the inmates lived in “bondage”: raped, sold, and traded, they generated income for their owners as well as for prison guards, who were paid to look the other way. The Panthers organized an Anti-Rape Squad, which escorted new prisoners to their dorms. “We would let them know who we were and that we were there to protect them,” Ronald Ailsworth, a member of the squad, told me. They armed themselves with bats and knives, which they fashioned out of farm equipment, and used mail-order catalogues and dinner trays as shields.
Woodfox was inspired by the 1971 uprising at Attica, and felt connected to a movement of prisoners, many of them Panthers, calling for reform. The McKay Commission, which investigated the situation at Attica, reported that “many inmates came to believe they were ‘political prisoners,’ even though they had been convicted of crimes having no political motive or significance. They claimed that responsibility for their actions belonged not to them but to society, which had failed to provide adequate housing, equal educational opportunities, and equal opportunities in American life.”
For years Woodfox had imagined that the Panthers existed on an otherworldly plane, free of fears and flaws, and he was surprised to see that they could pass as ordinary human beings. “I’m realizing how normal they are,” he said. “Made extraordinary by circumstances.” Houston, Texas; October, 2016. Photograph by Mark Hartman for The New Yorker
Woodfox took a similar view. In an interview with the Angolite, he said, “I’ve always considered myself a political prisoner. Not in the sense that I’m here for a political crime, but in the sense that I’m here because of a political system that has failed me terribly as an individual and citizen in this country.”
On April 17, 1972, Brent Miller, a twenty-three-year-old guard at Angola who had just been married, was stabbed thirty-two times in a black dorm. He and his bride, Teenie, had grown up on the grounds of the prison, in a settlement for three hundred families who worked at Angola. Miller’s father supervised the hog farm; his brother guarded the front gate; and his father-in-law ran the sugar mill. C. Murray Henderson, the warden, described the Millers as “one of my favorite families on Angola; they were a close-knit family, the boys made music together, they had a good band and played for dances.”
Friends of the Millers came to the prison armed with shotguns and baseball bats, to assist with the investigation. Woodfox was the first prisoner to be interrogated. Warden Henderson, who described Woodfox as a “hard-core Black Panther racist,” assumed that the murder was a political act. “You had a group of Black Panthers inside who felt that they had to do something to get attention, and they decided to kill a white person,” he said later. Woodfox said that the sheriff of St. Francisville, the town closest to Angola, pointed a gun at his forehead and told him, “You Black Panthers need to bring y’all ass down to St. Francisville. We’ll show you something.”
Miller’s body had been found near the bed of Hezekiah Brown, a black inmate who had been sentenced to death for rape. Brown initially said that he knew nothing about the murder. Four days later, Warden Henderson promised Brown a pardon if he would “crack the case.” Brown named four prison activists from New Orleans: Woodfox, Herman Wallace—a charismatic and scholarly thirty-year-old who had co-founded the New Orleans chapter of the Party—Chester Jackson, and Gilbert Montague. Brown said that he had been drinking coffee with Miller when the four Panthers ran into the dorm, pulled Miller onto Brown’s bed, and stabbed him. (The prison’s chief security officer later confided to the warden’s wife that Brown was “one you could put words in his mouth.”)
The four suspects and some twenty other black men, all known as militants, were transferred by van to Angola’s extended lockdown unit, called Closed Cell Restricted. According to the Black Panther, the Party newspaper, the men were dragged into the hallway at night and two rows of guards attacked them with baseball bats, pick handles, and iron pipes. An inmate told the paper that those “who weren’t beaten nearly to death were made to sit while 2, 3, or 4 pigs cut their hair in all directions.”
Two weeks after Miller’s death, the four men were charged with murder. There was an abundance of physical evidence at the crime scene, none of which linked them to the killing. A bloody fingerprint near Miller’s body did not match any of theirs.
In preparation for trial, the New Orleans chapter of the Panthers formed a support group, the Angola Brothers Committee. The treasurer was an F.B.I. informant, Jill Schafer, who, along with her husband, Harry, received nine thousand dollars a year to infiltrate radical organizations, as part of the COINTELPRO project. By instigating rifts among members, Schafer sabotaged the committee’s efforts to raise money for a defense lawyer.
At Woodfox’s trial, all the jurors were white. The prosecutor, John Sinquefield, referred to them as “common, ordinary everyday folk like us.” Although two inmates had testified that they were eating breakfast with Woodfox at the time of the crime, the jury deliberated for less than an hour before finding him guilty. A year later, Wallace was also convicted by an all-white jury. (Jackson became a witness for the prosecution, and Montague was acquitted, because prison records showed that he was in the infirmary at the time of the murder.) After the trials, the warden secured Hezekiah Brown’s pardon and release, using prison funds to pay for his campaign for clemency.
Woodfox and Wallace, sentenced to life without parole, were returned to Closed Cell Restricted and placed in six-by-nine-foot cells. For more than five years, they never went outside.
Woodfox allowed himself to cry only when everyone else on the tier was asleep. His youngest brother, Michael, who visited the prison every month, said that Woodfox no longer permitted himself the pleasure of reminiscing about their childhood. Handcuffed and shackled, he spoke through a heavy wire-mesh screen. “He can’t allow the pain to be expressed,” Michael told me. “He feels he has to be a conqueror, a leader, a demonstration for other men. He doesn’t want people to know he has weaknesses.”
Woodfox and Wallace soon became close with another Panther, Robert King, who was also in C.C.R. and had been convicted of killing an inmate. They believed that he, too, had been framed because of his connection to the Party. The three men had all been raised by single women in New Orleans; had met their fathers only a few times, or not at all; had dropped out of school, because they didn’t see the point of it; had been arrested for petty crimes—both Wallace and Woodfox were picked up for violations of Jim Crow laws, like standing too close to a building without the owner’s permission—and had been sent to Angola for robberies. They were all introduced to the Party in jail and saw its teachings as a revelation. Until then, King said, “I had the attitude that life had nothing more to offer me, nor could life get anything from me, for I had nothing. I felt I had done it all and, should I perish the next morning, so be it.” Woodfox said, “Our instincts and thoughts were so closely aligned it was frightening.”
In C.C.R., they were permitted to leave their cells for an hour a day to walk along the tier alone. During their free hour, Woodfox, King, and Wallace held classes for the other inmates, passing out carbon-copied math and grammar lessons. Woodfox gave them twenty-four hours to study lists of words—“capitalism,” “imperialism,” “feudalism,” “totalitarianism,” “bourgeoisie”—and the following day he quizzed them.
Gary Tyler, an African-American inmate in C.C.R., said that the teachings made him consider himself a political prisoner. At seventeen, Tyler was sentenced to death, after a jury convicted him of shooting a white classmate who had been protesting the desegregation of his school. (A federal judge called his 1975 trial “fundamentally unfair”; all the eyewitnesses eventually recanted.) Woodfox, Wallace, and King gave Tyler reading lessons and lent him radical newspapers, like Fight Back! Newspaper of the Revolutionary Brigade, and Final Call, founded by Louis Farrakhan. “These guys were able to break down the politics surrounding my situation—the educational structure of the schools, why the black schools were poorly financed,” Tyler told me. “I used to get mad at them sometimes, because they acted like they were my dads. They left me no room to be a risk-taker.”
Kenny Whitmore, another inmate in C.C.R., said that Woodfox “should have been a professor.” Woodfox told Whitmore to stop reading his “trash-ass pimp books,” urban crime novels that degraded black women, and to try “Native Son,” by Richard Wright. Whitmore told me, “Man, I kept on reading and reading. Then I looked in the mirror and saw Bigger Thomas. I was coming to terms with who I was as a person, with my blackness, with being at the bottom of the world.”
After reading a history of chattel slavery, Woodfox told the inmates in C.C.R. that Southern plantation owners used to inspect the rectums of the slaves they intended to buy at auction. Woodfox said that the process resembled what they endured whenever they left the cell block: they were forced to strip, raise their genitals while lifting each foot, and bend over and spread their buttocks while coughing. Woodfox, Wallace, and King circulated a letter to all the inmates on one tier, describing a plan for resistance. On the chosen day, nearly all the inmates began refusing the strip search. A few were beaten so badly by guards that they had to be hospitalized.
The three men worked to curtail their desires. None of them drank coffee or tea or smoked. “If I feel a habit is developing, or even a disorder of any kind, I counsel myself in spirit,” Wallace told a psychologist. “The more food you eat, the more your body craves food,” he wrote to a friend. “It’s the same for sleep—most of it is mental.” He didn’t like being dependent on security guards to turn the light on every morning, so he kept it on all the time and covered it with a legal pad when he slept, which he did for fewer than three hours each night.
In 1978, when the prison opened a small outdoor exercise cage in C.C.R.—inmates could go outside for a few hours a week—the three men ran barefoot outside, even when frost covered the ground. “We had to make ourselves think that ordinary things didn’t apply to us,” Woodfox told me. “We wanted the security people to think that they were dealing with superhumans.” It was also a coping strategy. “Before I let them take something from me, I deny it from myself,” he said.
Woodfox spent several hours a day writing letters to pen pals, many of whom were also known as political prisoners, like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal. He said he was “positive that the people—our brothers and sisters outside—would rise up and organize for us.” But the Party had splintered—Huey Newton envisaged a party devoted to community service, while Eldridge Cleaver advocated urban guerrilla warfare. By 1982, the Party had collapsed. The plight of the Angola 3 was forgotten.
Yet the three men, who communicated with one another by sending written and oral messages, passed from one cell to the next, continued identifying as Panthers. Wallace described the principles of the Party as “indelible mental protection,” the “key to the mental stability of every one of us.” The men were repeatedly singled out as important enough to take revenge on, a fact that helped them preserve their self-esteem. A security officer acknowledged in an interview with Warden Henderson’s wife, Anne Butler, who wrote books on regional folklore, that at one point he gathered a “good crowd” of officers at C.C.R., armed with pistols and a gas-grenade launcher. He said, “Everybody’d done went to arguing about who was gonna get Woodfox and Wallace.”
For twenty years, Woodfox had no lawyer. He, Wallace, and King taught themselves criminal and civil law. In 1991, King wrote a brief for Woodfox, arguing that he had been unconstitutionally indicted, because his grand jury, like every grand jury in the history of St. Francisville, excluded women. A judge agreed, and overturned Woodfox’s conviction. Before he could be released, however, the state indicted him again. One of the grand jurors was Anne Butler. She had devoted part of a book to the case, describing how the Angola Panthers left “their own bloody mark on history.” She said that she asked to be excused from the jury but that the D.A. insisted she serve. (Later, after an argument, the warden shot her five times, almost killing her, and was sentenced to fifty years in prison.)
The trial was held in Amite City, a town where many Angola guards lived. Woodfox’s lawyer, a public defender who drank heavily during lunch breaks, did not ask the state to test the bloody fingerprint, and he didn’t discover Hezekiah Brown’s special treatment. Instead, the focus of the trial was Woodfox’s militance, though his views had softened. When the prosecutor, Julie Cullen, asked Woodfox if he still felt that he had the right to escape from the courthouse, he said no. “I was afraid,” he said. “I was a young man. I was afraid.”
Cullen asserted that Woodfox’s political views were “diametrically opposed” to Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s nonviolent approach.
“No, they were not,” Woodfox said.
“All of this talking about revolution and bloodshed, death, sacrifices,” she said, referring to a letter he’d written in 1973. “You’re not an advocate of any of that? You’re a victim of all of that?”
“Well, I think I was a victim of racism in this country,” he said. “Yes—from the day I was born.”
When Cullen asked Woodfox if he was still politically active, he said that he tried to teach inmates on his tier to have “pride, self-respect, a sense of self-worth, and to see that the way to change things is to first change themselves.”
“Is that a yes or a no?” Cullen interrupted.
“That is a yes,” Woodfox said.
He was convicted and again sentenced to life without parole. “Some may view that victory as a sign to end my existence,” he wrote to a friend.
During his trial and the two years leading up to it, Woodfox was in the general population at a county jail in Amite City, where he was never disciplined for breaking a rule. When he returned to Angola, a social worker noted that there were “no indications of behavioral problems about this inmate reported by security.” Nevertheless, he was placed in solitary confinement.
Social workers, who occasionally circulated on the tier, described Woodfox as “respectful,” “positive,” “coöperative,” and “neat.” King was characterized as “friendly,” “calm,” and “polite.” When Wallace complained that he had been in solitary confinement for nearly three decades, a social worker noted that he “did not appear depressed” and that his attitude was “appropriate to situation.”
Every ninety days, a Lockdown Review Board set up a table at the end of the hallway on Woodfox’s tier. Shackled and handcuffed, he stood at the table for a brief conference with two board members. They had his disciplinary record, but they rarely looked at it. He often informed the officers that he hadn’t had a rule violation for years. Once, a sympathetic board member told him, “Hey, this comes from higher up. We can’t release you, and you know that.”
Prisoners in C.C.R. who had killed inmates or tried to escape—one had kidnapped the warden at knifepoint—were eventually released. But Woodfox, Wallace, and King remained. The Lockdown Review Summaries for the three men always provided the same explanation for their confinement: “Nature of Original Reason for Lockdown.”
Burl Cain, who was the warden from 1995 until last year, acknowledged in a deposition that Woodfox appeared to be a “model prisoner.” But, Cain said, “I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism.” He didn’t like that Woodfox “hung with the past,” he said. An assistant warden, Cathy Fontenot, said that the three men had to be kept in lockdown because “they have tremendous influence with the inmate population.”
Gary Tyler, who was eventually released from C.C.R. and placed in Angola’s general population, told me, “As time went on, it became utterly impossible for me to even reach these guys. The warden kind of built a wall around them. They were considered the pariahs of the prison.”
Woodfox often woke up gasping. He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death, a sensation that he began to experience the day after his mother’s funeral, in 1994. He had planned to go to the burial—prisoners at Angola are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family—but at the last minute his request was denied. For three years, he slept sitting up, because he felt less panicked when he was vertical. “It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong,” he told a psychologist. “Someday I’m not going to be able to deal with it. I’m not going to be able to pull those walls apart.”
In 2000, the three men filed a lawsuit, arguing that twenty-eight years of solitary confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The groundwork for the case was done by a law student, Scott Fleming, who began studying the court records in 1999, after receiving a letter from Wallace, who wrote to any lawyer or activist whose address he could find. Fleming knew the neighbor of the daughter of Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, and after learning of the case Roddick visited Woodfox in prison. She decided to pay for lawyers for the three men.
George Kendall, one of their new lawyers, said he thought that “part of this case is going to be figuring out how to hold these guys together mentally.” But their resilience became as much an object of psychological scrutiny as their suffering. Stuart Grassian, a psychologist hired for the lawsuits who studies the effects of solitary confinement, wrote, “I have never encountered any situation nearly as profound or extreme as that of the three plaintiffs in this case.”
Even the state’s psychologist, Joel Dvoskin, seemed impressed by the men’s endurance. He wrote that Woodfox “maintains a demeanor of quiet dignity, he asserts his rights in a similarly dignified way.” When Dvoskin asked Woodfox if he would ever take medication for his anxiety, Woodfox replied that he would control the problem through “concentration and will power.”
He told another psychologist, Craig Haney, that he was afraid of how well he’d been “adapting to the painfulness.” “There is a part of me that is gone,” he said. “I had to sacrifice that part in order to survive.”
Woodfox felt that his strength was his ability to hide “what’s going on deep inside of me,” and the conversations with the psychologists left him unhinged. At the end of the interview with Grassian, he said, “When you leave, I have just minutes to erect all these layers, put all these defenses back. It is the most painful, agonizing thing I could imagine.”
He steadied himself with a rigid routine that required at least two hours of daily reading. He decided, after a romantic relationship in the nineties that developed through letters, not to become involved with another woman as long as he was in prison. “From my reading, I knew that revolutionaries had to purge themselves of being chauvinistic,” he said. Rebecca Hensley, a professor of sociology at Southeastern Louisiana University, who corresponded with Woodfox for many years, said that when she expressed romantic feelings for him he gently declined. He told her to read a book called “The Prisoner’s Wife,” about the pain of prison relationships.
In 2001, King’s conviction was overturned, after the state’s two witnesses admitted that they had lied, and recanted their testimony. King was told that if he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge he would be released immediately. “King was real reluctant to leave us,” Woodfox told me. “It was the comradeship, the love between us. He felt he would leave us shorthanded.”
A sinewy fifty-nine-year-old, King walked from C.C.R. into Angola’s parking lot. He moved into a small apartment in New Orleans with a former Panther, Marion Brown, and rarely left. He couldn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time. Brown said that King was “filled with fear, suspicion, conspiracy.” If she moved a piece of furniture, he assumed that someone had broken in.
Prisoners from Angola often called King collect, and, though he had no income, he never refused the charges. Grassian, who met King when he was free, observed that he “somehow seems to feel that neither he nor Marion can lead any semblance of a normal life until he gains his friends’ release. He devotes almost all his concentration and energy to talking about, or thinking about, his two friends who remain at Angola.”
Not long after he was freed, King returned to Angola to visit Roy Hollingsworth, an inmate in C.C.R. who credits the Angola 3 for his moral awakening. Hollingsworth said that, years before, he was about to rape a young inmate and smash his head when King called out from another cell and asked him to reflect on what he was about to do. When King got to C.C.R., five security officers approached him and terminated the visit. He was told never to return.
In a deposition, Warden Cain said he expected that King would resume his “revolutionary stuff” if Woodfox and Wallace were ever released. “He is only waiting, in my opinion, for them to get out so they can reunite,” he said. “So they can pick up where they left off.”
In 2008, John Conyers, the chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary, and Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana state representative, learned about Woodfox and Wallace’s decades of confinement and visited them at C.C.R. After the meeting, Richmond told the press that a “massive amount of evidence” showed that Woodfox and Wallace were innocent. Brent Miller’s widow, Teenie Rogers, had also begun to question the state’s evidence, after a young investigator on the case, Billie Mizell, befriended her and made charts mapping inconsistencies in the state’s testimony. Rogers wrote Richmond a letter saying that she was “shocked to find out that no real attempt was made to find out who the fingerprint did belong to, which should have been a very simple thing to do.”
The state met doubts about the case with unusual vigor. After the case received national media attention, on NPR and in Mother Jones, the public-information office for the Louisiana Department of Corrections set up a Google Alert and notified Angola’s administration when the men were in the news. Louisiana’s attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, who was elected in 2008, said of Woodfox, “I oppose letting him out with every fibre of my being.” He had been friends since first grade with the original prosecutor in the case, John Sinquefield, whom he promoted to the second-highest position in his office.
Caldwell requested the recordings of nearly seven hundred phone calls made by Wallace and Woodfox, including conversations with their lawyers. Warden Cain said in a deposition, “We were kind of curious to see just how far they would go . . . to see what rules they would break.”
Investigators listened to all the calls, and found that, in an interview with a project called Prison Radio, Woodfox had stated that he continued to live by the principles of the Black Panther Party. As punishment, Woodfox was prevented from going outside. Soon afterward, Warden Cain decided that he no longer wanted Woodfox and Wallace at his prison. “I got tired of the Angola 3,” he said. The men were transferred to new prisons, at opposite ends of the state. They remained in solitary confinement. Woodfox wrote to a friend, “I would go insane if I for a second allowed an emotional connection to take place with what is my reality!”
When the psychologist Craig Haney visited the two men at their new prisons, he was shocked to see how much they had aged. “The separation was devastating,” Haney told me. “They had a powerful connection to each other that had sustained them.” Woodfox told Haney that he had “lost interest in everything.” He was again subject to strip searches up to six times a day. The men in the cells on either side of him were mentally ill and screamed for much of the day. He felt overwhelmed by the sour smell of their breath.
At Angola, Woodfox and Wallace had seen themselves as “village elders,” but at the new prisons the other inmates treated them like ordinary criminals. Wallace told Haney that he felt as if he were reaching his “end point.” His voice cracked, and he seemed hesitant and slow. He thought that there was something wrong with his heart. Crying, he said, “I can’t stand up to it.”
Wallace lost fifty pounds. He complained of stomach pain, which the prison doctors diagnosed as a fungus. “No palpable masses—exam limited by prison room chair,” one doctor wrote in June, 2013. Five days later, a doctor hired by Wallace’s lawyers found an eight-centimetre bulge in his abdomen. He received a diagnosis of liver cancer. Wallace told Haney, “The majority of my life I have been treated like an animal, so I guess I will die like an animal.”
The cancer swiftly spread to his bones and his brain. In letters, Wallace referred to himself as a “soldier” and drew ornate pictures of panthers. He liked to use the term “W.W.T.P.D.”—What would the Panthers do? A friend, Angela Allen-Bell, didn’t understand his devotion. “You have given your whole life to the Party,” she told him. “Why aren’t they here for you now when you are sick and need help?” She said that he told her, “I didn’t join the people—I joined the Party. The Party transformed my mind, and that’s all it owes to me.” Another friend, Jackie Sumell, said that Wallace’s and Woodfox’s commitment to the Party reminded her of the “Japanese fighter pilots that they found on some of the Philippine Islands thirty years after the war, still fighting.”
In September, 2013, Wallace gave a deposition in his civil suit from a bed in the prison’s infirmary. He hadn’t eaten for several days, and was being given heavy doses of the opiate fentanyl. The state’s lawyer requested that the deposition be adjourned, because Wallace was vomiting, but Wallace told him, “Come on. Come on with your questions.” He was capable of saying only a few words at a time. He said that being in solitary confinement for forty-one years had reduced him to a “state of being where I can barely collect my own thoughts.” He pursed his lips and appeared to be holding back tears. “It’s like a killing machine,” he said.
“You’re on your deathbed, is that your understanding?” one of his lawyers asked him.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Are you able to say with a clean conscience, as you prepare to meet your maker, that you did not murder Brent Miller?”
Five days later, a federal judge responded to Wallace’s habeas petition, which had been lingering in the courts for years. The judge overturned his conviction, ordering that he be released.
At dusk, Wallace was loaded into an ambulance and taken to New Orleans, to stay with a friend who lived half a block from where he’d been raised. Family and friends, some of whom he hadn’t seen for forty years, gathered around his bed. One friend read him the last chapter of Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.” Another held flowers to his nose.
On Wallace’s second day of freedom, the state impanelled a grand jury, which reindicted him for Miller’s murder. Wallace was never told. He died the next day. He asked that his funeral program begin with a quote by Frantz Fanon: “If death is the realm of freedom, then through death I escape to freedom.”
Woodfox couldn’t accept that Wallace, whom he described as “the other part of my heart,” had become an “ancestor,” the term Panthers used to describe the dead. “We always believed that we would survive anything,” he said. He could no longer avoid the thought that a similar fate awaited him. He said, “All these years and years of study and discipline and carrying myself a certain way, in order to die in prison.”
A year after Wallace’s death, Woodfox’s conviction was overturned again, because of racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury. The state issued a new arrest warrant and, in February, 2015, convened a grand jury to indict Woodfox for the third time. Deidre Howard, a sixty-one-year-old dental hygienist from St. Francisville, was the forewoman. She said that the prosecutor explained that the case had to be “run back through” because of a technicality. “They told us we just needed to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s,” she said.
The coroner in the case had been Howard’s doctor; the district attorney worked down the street from her and had lent her a tent for her outdoor Bible meetings. Warden Henderson had been her neighbor. Howard felt that she owed it to the Miller family, who owned a restaurant where she sometimes ate, to keep Woodfox locked up. According to Howard, the prosecutor emphasized to the jury that the Black Panther Party was devoted to “raping and robbing.” She signed the indictment. “There really wasn’t anything to deliberate,” she told me.
As she lay in bed that night, Howard realized that she had determined a man’s life with less consideration than she devoted to buying a new refrigerator. She could barely remember his name. The day after the indictment, Woodfox was transferred to West Feliciana Parish Detention Center, which is three blocks from Howard’s house. One evening, as she was getting ready for bed, she heard the siren of an ambulance. From her bedroom window, she saw the ambulance heading toward the jail. She had read in the newspaper that Woodfox had renal problems, diabetes, hepatitis C, and cardiovascular disease. Still wearing her pajamas, she got into her car and followed the ambulance to the hospital. She tried to see if the man being unloaded from the gurney was Woodfox, but she couldn’t get a view of his face.
Three months later, she sent a letter to a judge who had presided over previous hearings. “I have made a terrible mistake,” she wrote. She also wrote to the judge who had overseen her grand jury, telling him that after researching the case she understood that crucial facts had been withheld from her. “I feel violated and taken advantage of,” she said. In another letter, she begged Buddy Caldwell to stop the prosecution. When she received no replies, she mailed a letter to the governor, Bobby Jindal, whom she had voted for. “This is the worst human tragedy I have ever seen,” she wrote.
In April, 2015, she and her twin sister, Donna, drove to a prayer vigil for Woodfox at a church in Baton Rouge, to mark his fortieth year in solitary confinement. They remained in their car, and, as Woodfox’s brother and other supporters arrived, they leaned down, so that no one would see their faces.
In late 2015, Buddy Caldwell was voted out of office, and Deidre Howard sent the new attorney general, Jeff Landry, more than a hundred pages of letters that she had written to attorneys and judges involved in the case. “Jury service has been a devastating experience,” she wrote. Although people had been protesting the case for years, it was the first time that anyone from St. Francisville had seemed bothered.
Landry offered to end the prosecution if Woodfox pleaded no-contest to manslaughter. For years, Woodfox had fantasized about walking out of court after being acquitted by a jury, but his lawyers urged him to avoid a trial. Despite requests that the location be changed, the case would be heard in West Feliciana, a parish in which the Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, during a Senate bid in 1990, had received seventy-five per cent of the white vote.
As Woodfox was contemplating the offer, Woodfox’s fifty-two-year-old daughter, Brenda, ran into one of Woodfox’s childhood friends in New Orleans. Woodfox hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years. The friend took a photograph of Brenda and sent it to Woodfox, to confirm that the woman was his daughter. Then Brenda visited him at the jail, bringing her son and her two grandchildren. “Up until that point, there was this constant internal battle going on,” Woodfox told me. “I’ve always preached to other men, ‘You have to be willing to sacrifice everything, even your life.’ If I took the plea deal, would I be a hypocrite?”
Woodfox’s brother Michael told him about a conversation he’d had with Brenda. “She was crying and said she didn’t have a daddy,” Woodfox said. “I can’t tell you the depths of pain I experienced from hearing that.” He decided that a plea deal could be justified.
Woodfox had a week to prepare for his release. For years he had created imaginary budgets, determining how much he could pay for food, given the rent and his monthly utilities. He had spent four decades, he said, living “in the abstract.” He told himself, “I can handle this—I just need to see it coming.” He revisited lists that he’d made, edited over the course of decades, of what to do when he was free: visit his mother’s and his sister’s gravesites, learn how to drive again, go to Yosemite National Park, “be patient.”
On February 19, 2016, his sixty-ninth birthday, Woodfox packed his belongings into garbage bags and put about a hundred letters in a cardboard box. He put on black slacks and a black bomber jacket that a freed Angola prisoner had sent him.
Not until he was outside did he believe that he was actually going to be freed. It was a warm, clear, sunny day. He squinted and held the hem of his jacket. When he reached the front gate, he raised his fist and gave a closed-lip smile to a small crowd of supporters.
Michael led him to his car, a blue Corvette. Woodfox shuffled when he walked, as if shackles still connected his feet. Biting his lip and crying, Michael helped his brother into the passenger seat and showed him how to fasten the seat belt.
That night, Woodfox and Robert King went to a party in Woodfox’s honor at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, in New Orleans. People kept tapping Woodfox’s shoulder, an experience he found frightening. He was used to guarding the front of his cell without having to worry about “the damage someone can do from behind,” he said. King sensed Woodfox’s discomfort and moved closer to him, guiding him through the room. Woodfox kept his eyes on the floor. His expression seemed frozen in an apologetic smile.
At the party were people he hadn’t seen for forty years. He thought that they would still see him as a “petty criminal who victimized my own neighborhood,” he said. Most of his supporters in recent years had been white, and he worried that the black community would find him inauthentic. Toward the end of the evening, an old friend invited him onto a stage and handed him a microphone. Woodfox pulled up his pants, which were too loose, and held the zipper of his jacket. “I’m kind of new at this,” he said. “I hope you understand that I have been through a terrible ordeal. I need a little time to get my footing so I won’t make a fool of myself.”
The friend handed the microphone to Robert King, who shrugged. He has a leisurely, meandering way of speaking. “Anyway,” he said. “What can I say?” He pointed to Woodfox. “This is your night, bro.”
“Whatever is my night is your night,” Woodfox said quietly, looking at his sneakers.
The d.j. played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” for Woodfox, who nodded and gave the black-power salute.
Woodfox had intended to spend a month camping in the woods, gazing at the sky—a cleansing ritual. After years of being forced to listen to men talking to themselves, he was desperate to be alone on his own terms. Once he was released, though, he felt that this would be an indulgence. He spent his first month at the house of a friend in New Orleans, hosting visitors. Most nights, he sat in a pink armchair wearing his prison-issue gray sweatpants and a pair of Crocs that his brother had bought for him. He found it a “strain to stay within the social dialogue,” he said. He often warned new acquaintances, “I’m not good at, as they say, ‘chitchat.’ ”
He worried that his family would feel that he had abandoned them, but his daughter, Brenda, became a regular visitor. She exuded an aura of patient competence, seeming content to sit silently on the couch, observing her father with others. She often brought her boisterous grandchildren. Her ten-year-old granddaughter, Michaela, liked to dance to pop songs on Woodfox’s new iPhone, a gift from a detective who worked on his case. Woodfox nodded to the beat and occasionally said, “Hehe.” “Your great-grandpa is a quiet soul,” Brenda told Michaela. “Quiet but deadly. Don’t mistake his quietness for weakness.”
Woodfox discovered that a typical day in the house—moving from the kitchen to the bathroom to the living room—entailed more steps than his entire exercise regimen in prison. He felt overwhelmed by options. “I have to submit to the process of developing a new technique to fill the hours,” he told me, three weeks after he was released. “I’m trying to strike the right balance with being free.”
He walked slowly, with such intense concentration that he didn’t notice when someone called his name. His footing was unsure. “He seemed very nervous, very insecure,” his friend Allen-Bell told me. “I’d never seen that Albert before.” Theresa Shoatz, the daughter of Russell (Maroon) Shoatz, a Black Panther who was in solitary confinement for twenty-eight years in Pennsylvania, said that Woodfox appeared “docile and withdrawn. He didn’t look you in the eye. He just held his head down and said, ‘Thanks for your support.’ I didn’t see much happiness on his face.”
Years before, Woodfox had said that if he was ever released he would “unleash the little man inside of me and let it jump up and down.” But he didn’t feel that sense of abandon. He felt ashamed that he’d pleaded guilty to anything. “I’ve learned to live with it, but I still haven’t come to terms with it,” he told me. “I still regret it. I don’t care how you look at it: I was not standing for what I believed in. I truly feel that.”
After a month in New Orleans, Woodfox moved into a spare bedroom in Michael’s home, in Houston. Above his bed, he taped a picture of Wallace and him at Angola, and placed a few Panther buttons on the dresser. “I don’t like an over-cluttered room,” he said.
Michael said that sometimes he’d pass Woodfox’s bedroom and see him lying in bed awake, his arms folded across his chest. Michael urged Woodfox, “You have to tell your mind, ‘I am free. I don’t have to just sit there.’ ”
Woodfox discovered that he felt more comfortable in social settings if King was by his side. At a family reunion in a suburb of New Orleans, his relatives congregated in his cousin’s kitchen while he and King sat at a card table in the garage. Woodfox kept his back against the garage door and picked at a small bowl of egg salad. He almost never finished a meal. He sometimes went all day without eating before realizing that there was a reason he felt so depleted.
King assured Woodfox that he was also a sensitive eater. “I gotta eat in increments,” he said. “If I eat a whole plate, I lose my appetite.”
“Yeah, I’m a nibbler,” Woodfox said.
Woodfox’s cousin had invited several supporters—Woodfox and King called them their “Angola 3 family”—including Deidre Howard. She and her twin sister, Donna, sat in the garage with him and King. They were dressed identically: black platform sandals, ruffled collared shirts, gold pendant earrings, and their hair in a French ponytail with the same type of barrette.
Woodfox asked Deidre if people in St. Francisville still thought that he was guilty. She swiftly changed the subject. “I did not have the heart to tell him that our community still sees him as a murderer,” she said later.
Two months after Woodfox’s release, he and King settled their civil suit with the state. The agreement requires that Louisiana’s Department of Corrections review its system for placing inmates in solitary confinement, and consider the status of segregated prisoners in a more meaningful way.
With a modest sum from the settlement, Woodfox and King, who had moved to Austin after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, decided to buy houses in New Orleans. Woodfox looked at ten houses before choosing one in East New Orleans, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, for less than seventy thousand dollars. He wasn’t entirely sure why he liked the house—the interior was dark, and he wished it had a larger back yard.
Allen-Bell researched the frequency of 911 calls in the neighborhood and tried to dissuade him. “It’s not a place where you are going to feel comfortable walking on the street,” she told him on the phone.
“I don’t care if there are nine hundred 911 calls,” he said. “I’m buying the house.”
“Why?” she asked him.
“Why?” he said. “Because I want it, that’s why.”
She told him that the 911 calls were for serious matters: armed robbery, kidnapping, rape.
“So?” Woodfox said.
A few days after the phone call, Woodfox finalized the purchase. Brenda drove him to the real-estate agent’s office, in a high-rise, to sign the paperwork. She had begun taking him to all his appointments. He liked to tell people, “I’m a dad now.”
They were two hours late for their appointment with the agent, a chirpy blond woman. “We got caught up in traffic,” Woodfox told her casually. The process required two witnesses, and the agent asked me to be the first one. Although Brenda was sitting beside me, the agent asked another white woman who was working behind the desk to be the second. Woodfox signed the papers, and then we did, too.
Later, I asked Woodfox if he thought it was strange that the agent had ignored Brenda. He said that he figured it was a mistake, and not worth dwelling on. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking for racism,” he told me. “Look, if it really manifests, then I will give the person a tongue-lashing. I think I’ve developed a pretty good vocabulary to do that, a pretty good philosophy.”
A few weeks earlier, a cabdriver had demanded that he and King pay for their ride before they reached their destination. Insulted, Woodfox said that his first instinct was to get out of the car; instead, he and King handed over the cash and at the end of the ride gave the driver a large tip—“guilt money,” they called it.
Woodfox didn’t have the keys to his house yet, but he wanted to show it to Brenda. We parked in front of the house, a brick ranch with bars on the front windows, a screened-in patio, and a lawn with six squat palm trees and some spindly shrubs. A chain-link fence surrounded the property. Woodfox mentioned a few things that he appreciated about the neighborhood—most of the lawns were mowed—but he admitted that none of that really mattered. “To be honest,” he said, “I just wanted a house close to my family.”
Brenda realized that chocolate had melted over her car’s center console. She and Woodfox spent the next ten minutes wiping it up with tissues, at which point they were ready to leave.
“Bye-bye house,” Woodfox said.
By summer, Woodfox felt that he was getting his “street legs,” as he called them. A sly sense of humor surfaced. But he was also increasingly exhausted. He spoke at panels about prisoners’ rights in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Baton Rouge. “I feel an obligation, because when I was in the position of the guys in prison I used to wonder why nobody spoke for us,” he told me. His friend Kenny Whitmore, who is still at Angola, told me that when Woodfox was freed “he took a part of me with him.” Whitmore said, “That old man is going full speed ahead.”
In early August, Woodfox flew to New York City to receive an award from the National Lawyers Guild, an association of progressive lawyers and activists, at the organization’s annual conference. He wore a gray blazer over a T-shirt that said “I Am Herman Wallace.” At the podium, he announced that he wanted to honor “my comrade and good friend.” He extended his palm toward King, who was in the third row of the auditorium, but became too choked up to say his name. Woodfox pressed his lips together and paused, regaining his composure. “I hope that my being here tonight is a testament to the strength and determination of the human spirit,” he said.
After the speech, Woodfox and King headed to a lounge on the second floor of the law school, where people were selling buttons, T-shirts, and posters that said “Free All the Angola 3.” Woodfox signed a dozen posters, writing in steady, capital letters, “I AM FREE! ALBERT WOODFOX.” People kept approaching him to ask if they could take selfies. “It’s amazing to be in the room with you,” one person told him. “Talk about moving and inspiring!” another said. “O.K.,” Woodfox said in response to most compliments.
A woman who had recently been released from prison tried to commiserate. “It’s scary getting out,” she told Woodfox. She wore anti-embolism stockings and carried a plastic bag containing dozens of tubes of toothpaste. “I just bought a house in New Orleans,” he told her. Then he seemed to feel guilty for making it sound too easy. “I’m trying not to get too frustrated,” he added. He pointed to King: “Fortunately, I have him as an example.”
Although he’d been too nervous to sleep the night before, Woodfox stayed out until 2 A.M., going to bars with lawyers and activists. He had a workmanlike approach to socializing. He didn’t drink, and he never seemed to judge people. The most skeptical thing I’d ever heard him say was that someone was “quirky.” He had a hard time saying no to anyone. Although he hoped to eventually have a romantic relationship, he didn’t feel that he could devote time to it. “I mean, I’m open to a relationship,” he told me, “but right now that’s not my primary thing. I know the interest in me and what I went through is going to die, so I’m trying to get as much done while people are still interested enough.”
Two days after the speech, Woodfox, King, and I had breakfast at their hotel, in Greenwich Village. At the conference, Woodfox had felt himself being turned into a mythological figure, a process that he found uncomfortable. “All these people who have been involved in social struggle for so long want to shake my hand,” he told me. “I don’t have an emotional connection as to what the big deal is. Sometimes I just don’t think that, you know, surviving solitary confinement for forty-one years is a big deal.” I asked if that was a coping mechanism, and he said, “Pretty much everything I did for the last forty-four years was some sort of coping mechanism.”
He said that, in the early two-thousands, inmates at Angola began telling him, “Thanks for not letting them break you.” It was the first time he grasped that, by staying sane, he had done something unusual.
King, who was eating a piece of toast with jelly, recalled one of the first protests in C.C.R., when the Panthers persuaded inmates to refuse the strip search. After a few days, King had realized that inmates were being beaten so badly that they could die, and he wrote a letter to Woodfox recommending that they end the protest. “It is the man who creates the principles,” he wrote. “The principles shouldn’t kill the man.”
King took a bite of his toast. He seemed to be contemplating the decision for the first time in many years. “In the final analysis, I think we made the right decision,” he said.
“It was the right decision,” Woodfox said.
“I mean, I could have given my life and been beaten to death,” King said. “The legacy I would have left is that no one would know why I was killed.” He leaned back in his chair, smiling. “I’m so glad that decision was made. I’m so glad that decision was made.”
In October, eight months after his release, Woodfox passed the Louisiana driver’s test, scoring ninety per cent. He bought a Dodge Charger and drove for the first time in forty-seven years. “I just whipped out the old phone, gave the G.P.S. system my brother’s address, and ten minutes later I was pulling up to his house,” he told me.
A few days after getting his license, Woodfox flew to Oakland for the fiftieth reunion of the Black Panther Party. The Panther Post, a newspaper printed by the Panther alumni association, announced on its front page, “With much joy we welcome our comrade, Albert Woodfox, back to the community that he was ripped away from.”
Some two hundred original Party members had gathered at the Oakland Museum of California for panels and discussions. At night, many of them went to a jazz club called Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, in downtown Oakland. Tins of macaroni and cheese, fried fish, and collard greens drew a long line of men and women that stretched across the dance floor. Their bellies had become soft, and their pants rose a little high. They wore Velcro shoes or Tevas with socks. A few used walkers or canes. “I’m not trying to sound conceited,” Woodfox told me, “but I seem to be more animated than some of these guys.” He ordered orange juice from the bar and sat in a booth, watching the crowd. Eventually, he and King migrated to the dance floor. Woodfox had danced only a few times since he’d been released: his style was slow, deliberate, and somehow gentle. There was no excess movement.
Conversations drifted toward police shootings. “The more things remain the same, the more things remain the same,” Woodfox said after someone described a shooting. When a young reporter from a black-news Web site asked him for a five-minute interview, Woodfox quickly got to his point. “We have to protect Black Lives Matter like we didn’t protect the Black Panther Party,” he said. Later, he told me, “I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.” The greatest disappointment of freedom, he said, was realizing how little had changed. “It’s the same old America.”
People often introduced themselves to Woodfox by claiming a central role in the Party. “Oakland, born and raised, 1967, four months after the Party started,” one man announced. “I’m the only original Panther besides Huey Newton named Huey,” he said, though later he acknowledged that Huey was his middle name. A former Panther who sells historical artifacts—slave shackles, Ku Klux Klan robes, abolitionist newspapers—told Woodfox that he had been one of the founders of the Party, which he said originated in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Woodfox listened silently and looked at him slightly askance. Then he excused himself.
“I’ll tell you—that’s the fifteenth story I’ve heard that the Party started in some other city,” he told me.
For years Woodfox had imagined that the Panthers existed on an otherworldly plane, free of fears and flaws, and he was surprised to see that they could pass as ordinary human beings. “I’m realizing how normal they are,” he said. “Made extraordinary by circumstances.” His friend B. J. Jennings, one of Huey Newton’s former aides, told me that Woodfox had been able to survive because “you stand on the principles of the Black Panther Party, and, baby, you are empowered. It’s like how people read the Bible, take that word for word, and stand on that mentality to get free.”
When Woodfox was released, he told me that he wanted to write a book that would ask the question “Why the Party?” By the time of the reunion, he had given up on formulating a complex theory. “From the Party I learned that I had worth as a human being,” he said. “How do you explain something that’s in your heart and your mind and your soul?”
Woodfox and King had been talking about “the fiftieth,” as they called it, for months, but when I asked Woodfox if he enjoyed events of this kind he shook his head and grunted. “I enjoy being alone,” he said. Nevertheless, he kept inviting people to stay at his new house in New Orleans, telling them about the things he had purchased: a washer and dryer; a refrigerator with an ice dispenser and an electric stove; a leather sectional sofa; two bedroom sets with dressers and mirrors. His daughter was furnishing his house, and he was delighted by her ability to take charge and find a good bargain. “I’m just kind of holding on by the fingernails,” he told me.
He planned to move into the house shortly after his seventieth birthday, in February, and then he hoped to cut back on travelling. “I have to,” he told me. “I can’t keep doing this. I mean, I can—but I choose not to.” He was sleeping only a few hours a night. He sometimes jolted awake, overcome by the sensation that the atmosphere was pressing down on him. All four walls appeared to be inches from his face. He felt so constricted that he removed all his clothes. He calmed himself by pacing—four steps forward, four steps back—a technique he’d been using for decades. After four or five minutes, the walls of the room would snap back into place. “The only thing I can do is walk it off,” he said. “It happens. And I move on.” ♦