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Assata Shakur wrote to the pope 25 years ago. Her letter still resonates.

Efran Menny resurfaces an oft-forgotten letter from a famed Black activist (and lapsed Catholic) to John Paul II, urging him to act for Black liberation.

Assata Shakur in Cuba in 1998. (SHOBHA/Contrasto/Redux)

The longer I remain Catholic, the more I discover the marvelous cloud of Black Catholics—devout and former—in American history. Particularly, when we examine some of the most prolific 20th-century leaders and thinkers for Black liberation, figures like Marcus Garvey, Geronimo Pratt, and Assata Shakur stand out as bold examples.

It was perhaps toward the end of last year when I rediscovered that Shakur was once a Catholic. Since then, I have appreciated even more her life, activism, and experience as a political prisoner, and I see her witness for justice in a new light. She is, after all, the first woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. 

Shakur, born JoAnne Byron, was involved with the 1970s radical group Black Liberation Army and was implicated in the killing of a New Jersey cop in 1973. After being sentenced to life, Shakur escaped in 1979 and found refuge in Cuba five years later. The debate surrounding her requested extradition to the U.S. has been a point of periodic political theater waged by presidential candidates and politicians, usually to stake a claim on the hot-button issue of Cuba-U.S. relations or to defend American policing.

Treated by her birth country like a modern-day fugitive enslaved person, Shakur has seen unwavering solidarity from the government of Cuba in their granting of asylum for some four decades. Never has the Communist-led nation entertained the prospect of her extradition as an escaped threat to the public. The island nation’s leadership views her status as a “legitimate right” for a persecuted prisoner. 

Though she converted to Catholicism in her adolescent years in New York City, Shakur’s involvement with the Catholic Church was only briefly rekindled in the late 90s due to U.S. political pressure. During diplomatic discussions in 1997, Pope St. John Paul II communicated with Cuba’s president Fidel Castro in view of a historic papal visit. Alongside these high-profile negotiations between two global leaders, the New Jersey State Police wrote to the pope to see if he could influence Castro to return Shakur to the U.S.

To combat the undisclosed allegations and charges levied against her by the state of New Jersey, Shakur decided to pen her own letter to the pope in 1998. It was a much-needed sociopolitical counterclaim concerning her legal situation and the need for awareness of the hostile environment and treatment facing Black Americans.

Though we don't know the contents of the letter issued to John Paul II by the New Jersey State Police, I would presume that it contained much in the way of character assassination, labeling Shakur a murderer and as “violent and dangerous.” Moreover, I wouldn't put it past the writer(s) to assert that she and her fellow BLA members were part of a militant armed struggle dedicated to a revolution against America and its police force. Like the language and attacks of the infamous COINTELPRO counterintelligence FBI program that undermined (and often led to the assassination of) civil rights and Black militant activists, the intent of such characterizations would be clear: to discredit her international campaign for justice as a political prisoner. 

Shakur notes the predatory nature of the U.S. government’s surveillance program in targeting her and other Black activists:

“As a result of being targeted by COINTELPRO, I, like many other young people, was faced with the threat of prison, underground, exile or death.”

If John Paul indeed became aware of these types of aspersions by way of Shakur’s letter, I wonder if he would’ve seen Christ’s life through hers. The Lord, too, was slandered, maligned, and ultimately subjected to unfair sentencing and trial. But whatever the details were with Assata, the truly historic move to influence the Cuban state prompted her to respond in a way that put the American values of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on trial.

Assata Shakur leaves the Middlesex County courthouse in New Brunswick, N.J., in April 1977. (AP Photo)

For Shakur, John Paul was a global leader in international relations and a promoter of the common good. Within her letter, she expressed admiration for his works and deeds as a champion for the marginalized, showing she had a good reason to see him as a potential aid for her cause. 

“I applaud you for taking up the cause of the poor, the homeless, the unemployed. The fact that you are addressing the issues of today, unemployment, hopelessness, child abuse, and the drug problem, is important to people all over the world.”

She knew of his role in helping to end the Cold War. She surely took his condemnation of the Soviet-era oppression in his native Poland, and his fight for political prisoners, as a sign that he was a peacemaker. Further, she would have been well-acquainted with his social gospel, rooted in Catholic social teaching, and his classic encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” on the sacredness of human life. On these points, she could see the good he advocated for that matched her own agenda for defending the powerless. 

It’s telling that Shakur didn't go to President Bill Clinton, but rather the Vicar of Christ as an advocate to address racism, abolition of exploitative systems, state-sanctioned violence, and the mass incarceration of Black people. She, like any Black militant of the 1960s and 1970s, would have seen the U.S. as an unwilling partner in the long-term struggle to combat oppression. As she stated in her letter, justice in her cause would not occur until it was administered for all of her people, so there was no need to appeal to a leader, in Clinton, who had created so many of the conditions then suffocating the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Instead, she appealed to the global leader of morality: the head of the Catholic Church. Shakur saw in his holy office an ally to help render judgment on the structural elements of racism and discrimination embedded in America. To have John Paul address these inequities would have been momentum for tangible solutions and direct impact on our communities. 

In her letter, Shakur also invoked another serious goal of Black activists: to raise global awareness of the condition of Black Americans. This was a goal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his use of nonviolent direct action in the South. Malcolm X, her direct predecessor in the revolutionary struggle, took the people’s case as far as the United Nations. Both men knew that if America received condemnation from other countries on this issue, it would have to rectify discrimination and long-standing policies that disproportionately affected its Black people.

Similarly, we can interpret Shakur’s message to the pope as a sort of moral court. John Paul as the judge, Assata as the plaintiff, and America—with its brutal history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration—as the defendant. Within her detailed but brief letter, she describes the startling evidence of the Black plight. With each statistic, she indicts America’s counterfeit ideals again and again.

“There are currently 3,365 people now on death row, and more than 50 percent of those awaiting death are people of color. Black people make up only 13 percent of the population, but we make up 41 percent of persons who have received the death penalty.”

Though she states that she isn’t a Christian, Shakur notably employs a sure amount of biblical theology in her message to the pope, including stunning parallels to Jesus Christ and his ministry. For example, she seems to fully embrace the suffering-servant, other-oriented mission of Christ. She states:

“I am not writing to ask you to intercede on my behalf. I ask nothing for myself. I only ask you to examine the social reality of the United States and to speak out against the human rights violations that are taking place.” 

Preferring not to center herself and the disgraceful chain of events that led to her abuse, she informs the pope that her goal was for him to use the details of the conditions to fight for the rest of the oppressed. In keeping with the work of Christ, she urged the pope to not focus on her status but advocate for the others crippled by centuries of degradation. By positioning herself as a mediator, Shakur modeled Christ, seeking to enrich her fellow Black brothers and sisters through a transformative and life-giving love offering of herself. 

Shakur also connects her identity as a political prisoner to that of Christ.  

“I believe that Jesus was a political prisoner who was executed because he fought against the evils of the Roman Empire, because he fought the greed of the money changers in the temple, because he fought against the sins and injustices of his time.”

By speaking up for those on the margins, being a threat to authority, and fighting against the established norms of the day, Jesus made himself a target for false charges, an unfair case, and suppression of his earthly ministry. Assata posits that the persecution and ultimate crucifixion of Jesus made him the archetype of those in her situation. 

Assata Shakur leaves court in 1977 after being sentenced in connection with the 1973 murder of a New Jersey State trooper. She later escaped prison and now resides in Cuba. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Sadly, when I survey the relationship between Black Americans and the Catholic Church, I'm reminded of how the institution continually drops the ball. Whether at the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866 or even John Paul’s well-received but actionless address to Black Catholics in New Orleans, the policy of silence has been the norm.

The Catholic clergy as a whole see us and our struggle, but won’t move the pendulum of progress. Again and again, we see clergy address our abject condition in speeches and pastoral documents while failing to meaningfully endorse our full participation in society and in the Church. 

Shakur herself might ask: Where is the push for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021? Where is the support for reparations? Where is the mindset of an anti-carceral state mindset or at least a major overhaul of jails, prisons, and all types of correctional facilities?

This was the heart of Shakur’s message to the pope. She understood that for freedom and authentic flourishing to come, we must eradicate barriers and promote institutions that improve the state of Black Americans. She maintained:

“I have advocated and still advocate revolutionary changes in the structure and in the principles that govern the U.S. I advocate an end to capitalist exploitation, the abolition of racist policies, the eradication of sexism, and the elimination of political repression.”

Sadly, we have no known reply from John Paul II, nor do we know if he even acknowledged receipt of Shakur’s letter. If he thought to abstain from a long-standing political battle between two rival nations, he demonstrated how uncaring he was to the facts presented. 

The pope was a larger-than-life international humanitarian. In his willingness to step out and be a global powerhouse for those suffering persecution elsewhere, he gave an example of what the modern papacy can be. Geopolitical strategy was something he knew well and could have navigated, so certainly this endeavor was within his skill set.

His apparent lack of a reply would be consistent with so many things we’ve come to discover about his pontificate—including his colossal neglect of the sexual abuse crisis and of the key players involved. So many innocent voices were ignored! Unfortunately, by sidestepping crucial issues of importance, John Paul II showed indifference to God’s people and the biblical prescription to seek justice and love mercy.

Though Shakur’s letter was written over 25 years ago, the social and economic situation she described still remains. The privilege we have is that we can look back on the utter neglect and see how the social problems plaguing Black Americans have become even more of a scourge.

But in a way, John Paul’s seeming apathy forces Black Catholics and Black Americans to collectively form effective solutions that address systemic and social concerns. Not that we asked him or any other to be the chief ambassador for our social, political, and economic needs; nevertheless, solidarity encourages us to be our brother’s keeper.

Near the close of her letter, Shakur states: “What we call God is unimportant, as long as we do God's work.” This important interreligious statement should help us focus all of our energy on creating a society in which the least of these don't suffer under overwhelming subjugation. 

With her plea to the pope, Shakur reminded me that working for freedom and harmony means that we all have a responsibility to not only be guardians but advocates for our neighbor. 

Efran Menny is a husband, father, and regular contributor for BCM. His work is informed by his experience as an educator and his studies in social work. He has a passion for elevating topics on justice and theology for Black Catholics.

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