'Rage, Redemption' for Tookie Williams

Stanley "Tookie" Williams — a co-founder of the notorious Crips street gang — was executed in December 2005. It reignited a debate about the death penalty and treatment for inmates who, as Williams did, atone for their crimes while behind bars. Barbara Becnel talks about her friendship with Williams and his new memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

It's been nearly two years since the state of California executed Stanley "Tookie" Williams by lethal injection. Williams co-founded the notorious Crips gang. He'd been on death row since the early 1980s for four murders, he says, he did not commit. And that was just part of the controversy over whether Williams was unrepentant or uniquely valuable in the fight against gang violence.

By time he died, he had committed himself to nonviolence and gang prevention. He wrote children's books. He was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Two years after his death, Williams' new autobiography has hit stores. It's called "Blue Rage, Black Redemption." Author Barbara Becnel, a close friend of Williams, edited the memoir and wrote the epilogue. I asked her why Williams focused so much of the book on his childhood in South Central Los Angeles.

Ms. BARBARA BECNEL (Editor, "Blue Rage, Black Redemption"): It's just simply no doubt that the public school system failed Stanley "Tookie" Williams because it turns out, these many years later, he's tested for an IQ test and it turns out he's borderline genius, that the public school system in South Central Los Angeles in the late - mid-1960s and it did fail Stanley "Tookie" Williams. So - I mean, that's just the truth of it. But I guess he was just a symbol.

CHIDEYA: This book really details how he went from someone who helped found the Crips, and then to move on once he went to prison to write children's books. I want to walk us through a couple of the different phases of his life. First of all, why don't you tell us why you think the Crips got started based on what Stanley "Tookie" Williams told you?

Ms. BECNEL: Well, what he said to me was that South Central in 1971 was not protected by the Los Angeles Police Department. And so - but it was overrun with gangs even prior to the Crips being formed. So what happened was both he and Raymond Lee Washington decided to get together and form a gang that would protect them and their friends and their family members from the gangs that were ruling the streets of both the Eastside of L.A. and the Westside of L.A. in the black community.

So in that sense then, they started off as a self-policing entity. But albeit, they - what he conceded is that it didn't take long before the Crips then became the very thing that - and behaving in the very same way as the gangs that the Crips formed - to protect themselves from.

CHIDEYA: From that, he was convicted. What were the crimes that he was convicted for? He always maintained that he did not commit those crimes. Explain them.

Ms. BECNEL: Okay. He was convicted in 1981 of committing four murders during two robberies that occurred in 1979. And so he said right up until the, literally the day and the hour that he died - an hour before he died, I was talking to him on the phone - and he said, he did not commit these crimes. But - so that is what he said. And he - in his book, he talks about how the people who are oppositional to him say that he didn't deserve clemency or that he couldn't possibly be redeemed because he did not acknowledged and apologized for those crimes. And he says, in the book, it would be cowardly for him to confess to something he didn't do.

CHIDEYA: So Barbara, you were also left with some of his words that he left for the world before he died. Let's take a listen to one of them.

(Soundbite of Stanley "Tookie" Williams's interview)

Mr. STANLEY "TOOKIE" WILLIAMS (Co-founder, Crips): My apology firmly goes out to all of the grieving mothers who have lost a loved one through street violence. For many years, I have shouldered the heavy encumber of this madness that perpetuates your sorrow. Your suffering has not gone unnoticed. I acknowledged it. I feel it. With humility, I express my deepest remorse for each of you for having help to create this bloody and violent legacy.

Ms. BECNEL: Well, that message, Stan wanted the prisoners of San Quentin to hear, and the prison authorities would not allow it to be played, so I appreciate this opportunity because of those prisoners do listen to NPR. And though it's two and a half years after the fact, they can still benefit from his message.

CHIDEYA: Towards the end of his book, the very end, he talks about being free in spirit, if not in body. And he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times. What do you think his legacy is?

Ms. BECNEL: I think his legacy is several fold. One, he did end up being an anti-gang activist and a peacemaker over the last 13 or 14 years of his life. And it's really made a difference. For example, the day after his memorial service, a handful of Crips said the following - the governor wouldn't give my homey a clemency, but we have the power to give each other clemency by stopping the killing of each other.

They formed a cease-fire committee. And now, two years later, it's about 250 Crip leaders strong and they have - those 250 Crip factions or sets have quit killing each other and the goal is to expand it to Bloods, and the goal is to ultimately expand it to Latino gangs in South Central and throughout the nation.

His other legacy is a legacy of promoting literacy, because, for him, in terms of his own redemption or process of redemption, it really began in earnest when one of the prison chaplains brought him a dictionary. And with that dictionary, he learned the words that he needed to understand in order to read books and history books and black history books and that really changed his life. Because what he learned was that the black heroes were ordinary people who have prepared themselves and committed themselves to do extraordinary things. And that - it occurred to him, okay, I'm ordinary and I can work hard and I could reach out and do some extraordinary things.

He also left me to edit about five or six more books, which I will edit and release in - over the next three to five years.

And then lastly, his legacy is one of an activist legacy. The fact that the state of California largely, because of what happened to him, there's a de facto moratorium on executions here and now the Supreme Court has picked it up. You know, he may have succeeded ultimately in unraveling the death penalty in this country. At least, that's my hope and that certainly would have been his.

CHIDEYA: Barbara, thank you so much.

Ms. BECNEL: Thank you for allowing me to share what I experienced and what I've learned. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Barbara Becnel edited and wrote the epilogue for "Blue Rage, Black Redemption." That's the newly published memoir by Stanley "Tookie" Williams.

And one quick note. A research shows that California currently does have a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. The state of California is currently looking into the constitutionality of current lethal injection procedures.

That's our show for today. And thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. That's no spaces. Just nprnewsandnores.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog, nprnewsandviews.org.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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