'Life After Life' Author Evans Hopkins

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Allison Keyes tells the story of Evans Hopkins, a former civil rights activist serving a life sentence in prison. Hopkins has just released his memoir, Life after Life: A Story of Rage and Redemption.

ED GORDON, host:

Evans Hopkins has led a more eclectic life than most. He was born in the Jim Crow South and became a civil rights activist. But a crime spree led to a life sentence in prison. That's where he honed his writing skills that led to national acclaim. Now Hopkins has just released his memoir. It's called "Life After Life: A Story of Rage and Redemption." NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Hopkins was born in 1954. It was a year of McCarthyism. It was also the year the US Supreme Court issued the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, sparking protests and violence in some Southern schools when black students attempted to register. He says the realities of race were bewildering, especially for a child growing up in a place where respectable colored folk had what Hopkins calls `an attitude of acquiescence to our oppression.'

Mr. EVANS HOPKINS (Author): I came from a sort of a genteel colored family, so we would try to go along, to get along, and then things would sort of change gradually. It was just taught to you, inculcated in your mind that the white man is superior.

KEYES: By the time Hopkins had become one of the first 11 African-Americans at his high school under court-ordered desegregation in the late 1960s, he had learned that blacks were not inferior, but his anger over the miseducation he says he received remained. In 1968, around the time that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Hopkins says he became increasingly disillusioned with the black middle class.

Mr. HOPKINS: Many of them actually seemed to believe that we could make it, that we would be accepted, by white society if we just more or less toed the line.

KEYES: Like many other young African-Americans, Hopkins began to believe there was no non-violent way to achieve racial justice. He joined the Black Panther Party's Winston-Salem chapter while still in high school. The party introduced Hopkins to writing, a skill he says has made it possible for him to survive.

Mr. HOPKINS: We were beginning feeling some of the power that was coming from working within the system, utilizing the votes, utilizing our number, more or less putting away some of the violent rhetoric of the past of the party.

KEYES: But Hopkins later became disillusioned with the Black Panthers and left the party. By 1975, he was on a downward spiral. Hopkins robbed a bank and was sentenced to two concurrent 10-year sentences. After his parole in 1979, Hopkins turned to alcohol and marijuana and began stealing from jewelry and gun stores to support his habits. Two years later, he robbed a gas station with an accomplice and was sentenced to life in prison plus one year. Hopkins says he thought he might die if he didn't escape.

Mr. HOPKINS: Writing--as long as I had that voice, I knew that I could reach out into the world and that I could still have some effect in the world.

KEYES: At the state penitentiary in Richmond, Hopkins' cell was almost directly above the chamber which housed the electric chair. In 1982, an ex-cop named Frank Coppola(ph) was sentenced to die, and Hopkins began writing about the mood in the prison. Hopkins sent his account to The Washington Post, which published it, along with several subsequent articles.

Mr. HOPKINS: And I wanted them to understand the way the prisoners who were inside the building felt and have some understanding of what a man who was going through that experience might feel.

KEYES: Hopkins was paroled in 1997. He says he's no longer the quintessential angry young black male who went to prison. From this book, Hopkins says, he wants people to learn about the redemption of man.

Mr. HOPKINS: I wanted to show that one man could rise up and that many others do rise up, and that if we work at it, we can reclaim a lot of the men and women that we have in prison and keep a lot of our youth from going to prison.

KEYES: Hopkins' book is called "Life After Life: A Story of Rage and Redemption." He is currently working on a novel. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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