The Prisoners Rights Movement in America was greatly spearheaded by Black Muslims who initiated a variety of litigation in order to have the freedom to practice their faith while incarcerated. In the landmark case of Fullwood v Clemmer, the court sought to examine whether the Muslim faith, as practiced by black prisoners, was a legitimate religion and if so, what First Amendment religious rights, Muslims had. This was the first time court ruled, that Muslims are to be recognized by the federal courts as a religious group and should be allowed to hold religious services in prison.
Since then incarcerated Black Muslims have brought forth a variety of legal cases to advance the human rights of prisoners. However, there is one case brought forth by a Black revolutionary woman, which has not received much attention or acknowledgment in discourse about Black Muslim contributions to Prisoners Right Litigation
In the case of New Jersey vs. Chesimard, judge Ruggero J. Aldisert wrote that “Joanne D. Chesimard, the appellant in this court and the defendant in the state criminal proceedings, is a Sunni or Orthodox Muslim who observes Jumah[ or Jumuah (Friday) as her weekly holy day.”
Does the name Joanne Chesimard seem familiar?
Joanne D Chessimard is the “slave name” for Black revolutionary Assata Shakur. Assata Shakur desired to attend Jummah prayer but was unable to do so because court proceedings for her trial were scheduled for that time. Assata Shakur moved to have her trial rescheduled in order for her to be able to attend Jummah Prayer.
Assata Shakur’s autobiography provides more insights on this lawsuit In her autobiography, Assata Shakur, “ I had always said if I had any religion, it was Islam.”
Shakur expresses interest in learning about Islam but had difficulties reconciling the belief of an all-powerful creator and a world in which Black people are so miserably oppressed. Nonetheless, she says “Muslim services were held regularly on Rikers Island, and Simba and I began to attend.” Assata Shakur’s desire to attend the Friday Prayer service would result in the case of New Jersey vs. Chesimard.
During her initial trial, Assata Shakur’s counsel stated that they were willing to have court hours extend to other days and participate in the trial on Saturday. Ultimately, the state court ruled the trial would proceed on Friday and she would have the option of not participating in her trial on Friday. However, Assata Shakur was not satisfied with this option as she would give up the opportunity to be heard as guaranteed by the sixth and fourteenth amendments. As a result, Shakur appealed this decision in the New Jersey’s Court of Appeals. The New Jersey Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that Assata Shakur had not fully exhausted remedies that were available to her at a state level.
Assata Shakur, as a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, made numerous contributions to the freedom struggle of Black people. Her willingness to bring forth a lawsuit to attend Jummah Prayer shows a profound level of devotion to the cause. The fact that Assata Shakur fought for her right to attend Jummah Prayer during her court proceedings should inspire Muslims today to overcome all trials and obstacles when it comes to the observance of their faith.