services salute Shaka Sankofa, the fight against the death penalty
by Stacey Muhammad
"My father was a strong, educated Black man
that I admired very much. Not for the man he used to be but for the
man he was when he departed this earth."
Deidra Hawkins, Shaka Sankofa’s daughter
HOUSTON—Memorial and funeral services for Shaka
Sankofa, formerly known as Gary Graham, were more of a celebration of
his life than a sad event. And while mourners remembered his execution
by lethal injection a week earlier, they also vowed to honor his dying
request that they continue to work to end capital punishment.
More than 2,000 people attended the June 28 wake and
his June 29 funeral attracted another 2,200 people. Mr. Sankofa was
buried in a gold-colored casket, adorned in a turquoise and gold African
Sixty yellow roses covered the casket, the Fruit of
Islam of Muhammad Mosque No. 45 stood as an honor guard over his body. A
slow drum beat echoed through the building, as mourners streamed by to
get a final glimpse of the 23rd person put to death by Texas authorities
this year. Ironically the same night of Mr. Sankofa’s funeral, as
activists, religious leaders and his family members denounced the death
penalty, another inmate was killed by lethal injection at Huntsville
State Prison, the site of Mr. Sankofa’s death.
Questions about his innocence, charges of poor legal
representation, admitted flaws in the death penalty, Texas Governor
George W. Bush’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination, and
the state’s large number of executions made Mr. Sankofa’s
controversial June 22 execution front-page news. Mr. Bush said Mr.
Graham had received due process and access to the courts.
Anti-death penalty forces pointed out that new
evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Sankofa was never heard by
appeals courts, and even some pro-death penalty advocates conceded that
with just a single eyewitness and other questions, there was enough
concern to not put him to death. In the end, the execution went forward
amid condemnation from local, national and international groups and
leaders. He was put to death for the 1981 murder of Bobby Lambert
outside of a Houston supermarket. In his final statement, Mr. Graham
apologized for a crime spree that landed him in jail at age 17, but said
he did not kill Mr. Lambert.
Several ministers and community activists paid
tribute to Mr. Sankofa’s life during memorial services. State
Representative Al Edwards (D), activist Ada Edwards, Communist Party
leader Travis Morales, Quannell X of the New Black Muslim Movement,
Howard Jefferson of the local NAACP chapter, Gloria Rubic and Joann
Gavin of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement and Tonya McClary of
the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty were among the
speakers. Richard Burr and Jack Zimmerman, Mr. Sankofa’s attorney and
others also spoke.
Written tributes came from actors Danny Glover, Ossie
Davis, Ed Asner and Susan Sarandon, South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond
Tutu and former death row inmate Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
Letters of tribute were also sent by German, Italian and Australian
coalitions to abolish the death penalty.
A three-minute video presentation highlighting Mr.
Sankofa’s life and protests calling for halting his execution were
shown to thunderous applause.
During June 29 funeral services, Kofi Taharka, of the
National Black United Front poured an African libation before an Islamic
prayer by Min. Eric Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and a Christian
prayer by Pastor Kirby John Caldwell at Northwest Community Church. A
nun, Sister Jean Amore, and a priest who represented the Catholic
Diocese for the Houston-Galveston area also offered prayers.
With Mr. Sankofa’s mother Elnora Graham, sister
Brenda Lee Graham Davis, daughter Deidra, brothers Kenneth Stokes,
Jonathan and Michael Graham and step sister Dorothy Hawkins listening,
speakers talked about Mr. Graham.
Rev. Herbert Daughtry of New York spoke on the
"meaning in a name," explaining how Gary Graham chose the name
Shaka Sankofa. He chose "Shaka" in honor of the great South
African warrior Shaka Zulu and "Sankofa" means to go back to
the past and bring to the present, Rev. Daughtry explained. The name
represented linking the current struggle against capital punishment with
the historical struggle Blacks have waged for freedom, justice and
equality, Rev. Daughtry said.
Activist and attorney Ashanti Chimurenga reflected on
the life of Shaka Sankofa by reading letters he had written her about
his children and parents.
There were emotional and tense moments at both
services, when Atty. Chimurenga and others questioned why some pastors
and leaders, who did not speak out during the campaign to save Mr.
Sankofa, were seated on the dais, or spoke.
In his letters, Mr. Sankofa expressed hope that his
children would not have to endure the same struggle that he endured,
said Atty. Chimurenga. He had children Deidra and Gary Hawkins before he
was incarcerated. His son, 20, currently faces murder charges and a
possible death sentence in connection with a shooting. His 19-year-old
daughter never touched her father physically until his body was taken to
a funeral home, where she kissed him goodbye and closed his casket.
"My father was a hero, he will be missed very
much by Debra, Gary, Brenda, Elnora and me. But this is not a time for
sorrow, but a time to keep the fight going. Because I know that is what
my father wants. They took Shaka’s life, but his spirit lives
on," wrote Deidra Hawkins of her father in the funeral program.
"I promise you we will continue to work to clear
his name," said Min. Robert Muhammad, southwest regional minister
of the Nation of Islam, and Mr. Sankofa’s spiritual advisor for the
last seven years. Min. Robert’s theme was "the struggle
Disunity and the inability to galvanize more support
contributed to Mr. Sankofa’s death, said Min. Robert, who argued more
activism and participation from the Black community might have kept him
Mr. Sankofa’s final statement asked for a united
effort to end the death penalty and that wish must be honored, Min.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., gave the eulogy, asking
the crowd to support a House bill that calls for a national seven-year
moratorium on the death penalty, introduced by Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.,
his son, and other lawmakers.
The enemy can’t lock up faith, the struggle to end
capital punishment must go forward, Rev. Jackson said.
The funeral service closed with a song. Then with
uniformed members of the Fruit of Islam on one side and the New Black
Panther Party, led by Dr. Khallid Muhammad, on the other, the casket was
The honor guard carried the casket to a waiting
hearse, then on to a nearby gravesite at Paradise North Cemetery. The
day ended with brief prayers, as the casket was lowered into the ground.
In prison, Mr. Sankofa learned to read and write,
earning his GED and paralegal certification. He also co founded a prison
organization and newspaper, The Endeavor Project, which were
devoted to abolishing the death penalty, exposing penal system
injustices and advocating for the liberation of Black people. By the end
of his life, he had also written a soon-to-be-published book, "The
Evolution of Shaka Sankofa."
Minister Robert Muhammad addresses
overflow crowd at Rev. James Dixon's N.W. Community Baptist Church in