Born JoAnne Deborah Byron on July 16, 1947, she was the first woman ever to be named a domestic terrorist by the FBI. Americans may recognize her face or known her by her married name, JoAnne Chesimard, but the world would remember her as Assata Shakur.
Native to Jamaica, Queens, New York, Shakur lived with her parents, her aunt, and grandparents until she was three years old. In 1950, her parents divorced, so she followed her grandparents, Frank and Lulu Hill, to Wilmington, North Carolina. Although African-Americans were forbidden from utilizing the public beaches at the time, Mr. and Mrs. Hill owned property and operated an ocean-side restaurant complete with changing rooms and lockers for the beach-goers; it was an ideal place for tourists.
Naturally, JoAnne equally played at the property. She also enjoyed reading books her grandfather got from the colored-only library.
Elementary School Experience
Mr. and Mrs. Hill felt the racially segregated schools in North Carolina were providing an inferior education to JoAnne. When she was eight years old, she moved back to New York to live with her mother and stepfather.
She went from going to an all-black, southern public school to a nearly all-white, heavily Jewish, middle-class community. In third and fourth grade she was the only African-American student in her school. By fifth grade, there was one other black student. The teachers ignorantly thought she needed special education based on her race.
While in New York, she also attested that history was taught slightly different; it was sugar-coated to undermine the oppression of African-Americans in the South and throughout history in general.
Sadly, she dropped out of high school and ran away from home. JoAnne’s aunt, Evelyn Williams, found her on the streets. Ms. Williams would later become part of her defense group. She took her niece to museums, theaters, and other cultural events; her aunt encouraged her to earn her GED when she turned 16 years old.
It was the late 1960s when JoAnne attended Borough of Manhattan Community College with the intent to study business administration; however, she became immersed in the student activities and black studies programs. As the civil rights movements were on the rise, she educated herself by reading about politics, black history, and different ideologies. JoAnne passionately took part in meetings, discussions, protests, and sit-ins.
The Society of the Golden Drums was the first black students’ group she joined while in college. Louis Chesimard also belonged to the organization. The two wed in 1967 but divorced just four years later. JoAnne Chesimard went by a Muslim name, changed her hair style, and dressed to reflect her African heritage. She was determined to fight for the liberation of black people and dedicated her life to it.
She was first arrested in 1967 for trespassing. She and 100 other students from the Borough of Manhattan Community College protested the lack of black faculty and black studies by locking the entrance to one of the buildings.
The Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army
In 1970, at the age of 23, Shakur graduated from City College of New York and joined the Black Panther Party (BPP). She proudly led the Harlem branch and was in charge of organizing a school breakfast program. JoAnne Chesimard was in charge of the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party. She organized a breakfast program.
Despite the positive influence, she left the BPP for a couple of different reasons. She did express some concern with male chauvinism, but mostly criticized the party’s lack of black history education. Shakur felt the BPP lacked a unified philosophy, which made the group ineffective and weak. She joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA). It was more organized, and the members were more informed. However, it was also more radical; they believed they could create change through a revolutionary movement.
Over the next couple years, the BLA would be held responsible for bank robberies and sniper shootings across New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Missouri. For those that tuned into local news, the media outlets were still referring to her as JoAnne Chesimard, and she was painted as the driving force of the organized chaos.
The New Jersey Turnpike Shootout
On May 2, 1973, at 12:45 a.m., Shakur was a passenger to Zayd Mailk Shakur, born James F. Costan. Sundiata Acoli, born Clark Edward Squire, was in the backseat directly behind Shakur when the two-door vehicle was pulled over in East Brunswick on the New Jersey Turnpike. State Trooper James Harper was in the first patrol car and Trooper Werner Foerster drove a backup vehicle. The initial stop was because of a broken tail light and slight excessive speed.
After a discrepancy in receiving identification from the driver, Trooper Harper asked him to step out of the vehicle and questioned him at the rear of the car. The accounts of what happens next differ regarding witness testimony, medical evidence, and other factors. Nevertheless, Trooper Foerster and Zayd Shakur were killed. Trooper Harper and Assata Shakur were both wounded during the shootout. Uninjured, Acoli attempted to escape with the injured Assata Shakur and the dying or already dead Zayd Shakur by fleeing in their white Pontiac.
A police chase ensued, and the toll booths along the turnpike were notified of the pursuit. Three patrol cars finally halted the young revolutionaries about five miles away. Trooper Robert Palentchar was the first officer on the scene. He unloaded his gun toward Acoli as he chased him into the woods.
Assata Shakur raised her arms in surrender according to Trooper Palentchar, which were apparently bloody from her own wounds. Zayd Shakur’s body was recovered from a gully along the roadside. It took 36 hours and 400 people including state police helicopters and bloodhounds to capture Acoli.
With gunshot wounds in both arms and one of her shoulders, Shakur was transported to Middlesex General Hospital. Likewise, Trooper Harper was shot in the left shoulder.
The New York Times reported the very next day that the FBI wanted JoAnne Chesimard on charges related to murdering police officers, bank robberies, and a hand-grenade attack.