Fifty Years of a Black Panther Friendship

Issue 260

Former Baltimore Black Panther Eddie Conway did 44 years for a crime he likely did not commit. During that time, he struck up a close friendship with Paul Coates that continues to this day despite their differences.

Eleanor J. Bader Nov 20, 2020

Fifty years ago, when Eddie Conway was the Lieutenant of Security for the Baltimore Chapter of the Black Panther Party, he was accused and later convicted of killing police officer Donald Sager and attempting to kill two other law enforcers. His sentence? Life plus 30 years.

At the time, Paul Coates was also a member of the Panthers, and like many activists, believed that Conway had been railroaded, a victim of the false—if stunningly detailed—testimony of a known informant who claimed that Conway had confessed to the shootings. 

Coates had not known Conway well before the trial, and actually thought him pompous and arrogant, but his comrade’s mistreatment during the proceedings—including the court’s refusal to allow movement attorneys Charles Garry and William Kunstler to provide pro bono representation to Conway—rankled. In response, Coates vowed that he would do whatever he could, for as long as he could, to free Conway from prison.

Coates vowed that he would do whatever he could, for as long as he could, to free Conway from prison.

Forty-four years later, in 2014, he got his wish and joyfully organized a community celebration in honor of Conway’s unexpected release.

The Brother You Choose is a detailed chronicle of the men’s evolving friendship, a testament to platonic love and an unparalleled explication of what it means to spend one’s life promoting social justice and racial equity. But the book is also more than this: It’s an account of an ongoing conversation that began five decades ago, a merger of the personal and political into a seamless narrative.

In her Preface to the book, Day writes that she first met Conway in 2012, when he was in the 42nd year of his sentence. “With my partner, Laura Whitehorn, I visited him in the Jessup Correctional Institution, just outside Baltimore. The Jessup visiting room was bleak and fluorescently lit, with the usual din of conversation from other visits going on. Yet even amid all the standardized grimness, it was actually fun to talk to Eddie.”

Day describes Conway as “hearty and personable, with a keen sense of humor.” Coates, on the other hand, is presented as less laid back, more rule-bound and rigid. Nonetheless, the men’s decades-long relationship has given both of them a solid foundation and the book provides readers with an edited transcript of their conversations. As the subtitle of the book indicates, topics include love, loss, child-rearing (Coates has seven children; Conway one), education, professional advancement, the state of American politics, strategies for achieving progressive social change, racism, and of course, prison conditions. Their dialogue is honest, often revelatory, as they debate, discuss, laugh, and argue. In addition, while the pair don’t always see eye-to-eye, their banter is always lively and forthright.

The Brother You Choose is a detailed chronicle of the men’s evolving friendship, a testament to platonic love.

Anger and violence are frequent topics. “Every year 600,000 prisoners are released,” from jail, Conway reports. “In almost every state, those people who are released are angry.” After years of abuse at the hands of prison personnel, he explains, once they are released “they explode.”

That is, unless positive channels are afforded them.

For Coates, attaining an education is key, and he sees formal and informal educational channels as equally beneficial, whether one is inside or outside of the prison system. This has been Coates’ life’s work. As founder of Black Classic Press—now in its 42nd year—he publishes books and articles about a variety of political issues, including racial justice.  His commitment to this work, he told Day, was initially stoked by his desire to keep Conway and other inmates well-stocked with reading materials; since the Press’ 1978 creation, BCP has published hundreds of texts—many of them reissues of out of print pamphlets, books, and broadsheets, about African American life, culture, and struggle.  

On top of this, over the years Coates worked with numerous prisoners’ rights groups to demand the release of political prisoners, including Conway, and traveled to see his friend at least once a week.

Nonetheless, he admits that he was blindsided by Conway’s unexpected release from prison.

“Too often, home for someone coming out of prison is effectively nowhere,” Day writes. Not so for Conway. For the past five years he’s lived in Baltimore, in a home Coates owns but does not live in. What’s more, he’s found work as an executive producer at The Real News Network, a daily online news show. Today, at age 74, Conway continues to fight white supremacy and advocate for the more than two million human beings currently locked up in US prisons and jails. Coates, for his part, continues to run BCP.

Eddie Conway (left) and Paul Coates (right).

In his Afterword to The Brother You Choose, Paul Coates’ son, Ta-Nehisi, writes that, “Even if Black people listen and do exactly what we’re supposed to do, it doesn’t work…We endure so many losses. There are those folks who go on, no matter what, but a lot of folks get despondent and sink into despair … But here’s what’s important, no matter the result: If you stand up, in some profound way, you’re already achieving something.”

Both Paul Coates and Eddie Conway have stood up for decades and their example showcases the power of friendship, commitment, and loyalty. What’s more, no matter how much work is left undone–no matter how much of a mess the world continues to be in—their friendship remains beautiful, important, and inspiring.

The Brother You Choose: Paul Coates and Eddie Conway Talk About Life, Politics, and the Revolution
By Susie Day, Afterword by Ta-Nehisi Coates,
Haymarket Books, August 2020

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