[bientôt en français]
During his visit to Montréal on late February, I had the pleasure of having Robert Hillary King over for breakfast. He was in town with director, Ron Harpelle for the screening of the documentary, Hard Time about King’s 31-year detention at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, 29 of which were in solitary confinement. King is the only freed member of the Angola 3, a trio of wrongfully accused members of the Black Panther Party. King was released in 2001 after accepting a plea bargain, which automatically set him free, while his inmates, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox remained in solitary confinement. Wallace was released last fall due to a severe illness and died three days later. Now King tours the world to talk about his experience, to denounce the practice of solitary confinement, to get Woodfox freed and to fight against prisons in general.
His autobiography, From the bottom of the Heap: the autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King was published by PM Press in 2008 and, according to the stories he shared over breakfast, is well worth the read (I’ve just started). The back cover copy reads:
“In 1970, a jury convicted Robert Hillary King of a crime he did not commit and sentenced him to 35 years in prison. He became a member of the Black Panther Party while in Angola State Penitentiary, successfully organizing prisoners to improve conditions. In return, prison authorities beat him, starved him, and gave him life without parole after framing him for a second crime. He was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained in a six by nine foot cell for 29 years as one of the Angola 3. In 2001, the state grudgingly acknowledged his innocence and set him free. This is his story.
It begins at the beginning: born black, born poor, born in Louisiana in1942, King journeyed to Chicago as a hobo at the age of 15. He married and had a child, and briefly pursued a semi-pro boxing career to help provide for his family. Just a teenager when he entered the Louisiana penal system for the first time, King tells of his attempts to break out of this system, and his persistent pursuit of justice where there is none.
Yet this remains a story of inspiration and courage, and the triumph of the human spirit. The conditions in Angola almost defy description, yet King never gave up his humanity, or the work towards justice for all prisoners that he continues to do today. From the Bottom of the Heap, so simply and humbly told, strips bare the economic and social injustices inherent in our society, while continuing to be a powerful literary testimony to our own strength and capacity to overcome.”
Since he left, I have ordered King’s ‘freelines”. King writes on his website
“I have been making my praline candy for over 30 years, which we loved in my home town of New Orleans. I had plenty of time to perfect the recipe from my cell in Angola Penitentiary. I created a make shift kitchen from a stove made out of coke cans and burnt toilet paper rolls to get heat. My friend ‘Cap Pistol,’ who was worked in the prison kitchen, taught me how to make sugar candy and I gave them away, especially to the guys on death row. Since my freedom I set up a candy company and have been making and selling praline candies which I called “Freelines”. They not only taste great but also enable me to tell the story of the Angola 3.”
Next time I’m in Austin, Texas, I will certainly look him up.