His Spirit Lives On: George E. Marshall, 1940-2001
My friend George E. Marshall has made his final transition to the ancestors. He is at peace with Allah, with himself and with all those who loved him. That’s the best anyone can do at the end.
He was able to transcend prison walls because his spirit refused to be contained. I think of him as this cool cat, an elder brother who everyone locks up to. He always had wisdom to impart, a kind word to say, a warm smile to give. It was an honor for me, even under sentence of death, to meet him and build a relationship in which we affirmed our humanity and brotherhood.
He was born in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi, in 1940, the same year Marcus Garvey died. It was a time when Jim Crow laws were in full bloom and black communities throughout the South were being terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan. George was the eldest of 13 children. When he was 8 years old, the Marshall family packed up and left Mississippi. He lost his Southern drawl in the tough streets of Dos Palos, California, but retained his Southern charm. He was affectionately called “Professor” for his vast knowledge.
I met him on the yard at San Quentin in 1983, back when the death row population numbered fewer than 200. (It has since more then tripled to over 600). I clearly remember the spacey look in his eyes when he first appeared at the prison, a sign of someone who’s just arrived on new turf.
George was in his early 40’s then. At 6″ 2” he was slender but well-built. He had deep mahogany skin and warm brown eyes that immediately made you feel welcome, and an affable smile that would put a gunslinger at ease. His vibrant gait bristled with confidence. He wore his hair in a neatly cropped Afro and spoke in a gentle and confident manner.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew he was different, not the typical convict whose life has been spent going through the revolving doors of prison.
We began to exchange greetings, and whenever he caught my eye from across the yard he’d acknowledge me with his warm smile. He would watch me and the other young Turks as we roamed the yard like an ant colony looking for something to get into–and usually finding it. It wasn’t long after we met that I went to the hole for fighting.
I saw him again briefly around the fall of 1989 when I was transferred to C-section. He was a block worker there, and he gave me food items, paper, and cleaning supplies for my cell under the watchful eyes of prison guards who were looking for any excuse to fire him. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk, as I was being bounced from one lockup unit to the next. Professor was eventually transferred to another section of the prison. Nine years would elapse before we met again.
In the summer of 1995, after doing eleven years in the hole, I finally got out and was sent to East Block. The first day I came to the yard, Professor greeted me like a friend who had just returned from combat. He was truly glad to see me and could not stop grinning. Now in his mid-50s, he looked remarkably different from the man I”d met 18 years earlier. Prison had taken a toll on him. His once-full Afro was thin and grey. His vibrant and active body looked tired and fragile. His movements were of a person much older then his actual age.
Diabetes had reduced the blood circulation in his feet, so he walked with a slow shuffle. Eventually he had to use a cane to support himself. He also had high blood pressure and had to take nitroglycerin for his heart. And he’d suffered a mild stroke, which affected his memory. Still, his face was clear and his eyes lit up when he smiled.
During my years In the hole I had studied many of the same subjects he had, which enriched our conversations immensely. We would discuss, debate and probe into everything from history and metaphysics to environmental pollution. He had a lot to offer. I felt it was my duty to engage him, protect him, and absorb his wealth of knowledge.
He told me that as teenager he had joined the Merchant Marine. This gave him the opportunity to see the world. “Traveling around the world showed me how other people actually lived,” he said. “It helped shaped my world view.” While in France in the 1950s, he had conversed with Chinese students who told him China would become a world power. But at the time he did not believe it.
I enjoyed asking this older brother questions and listening to tales about his adventures because he possessed the rare gift of an ancient griot who has the ability to breathe life into every story, taking you there like a passenger on an airplane. Professor made me see what he had seen and feel what he had felt when he visited those places. These were places I had only seen on maps and read about in books, but the opportunity to discuss them with him was like being able to question Isaac Newton about the laws of physics. Sharing his stories seemed to be therapeutic for him, reminding him of a time when he was young and things were very good in his life.
In the 1960s, the revolutionary chants for freedom reverberated like a drumbeat around the world. African nations rose up to declare their independence; Malcolm X crisscrossed the urban slums of America exposing its hypocrisy; black people In the South battled segregation and demanded civil rights.
It was against this explosive backdrop that George Marshall joined the Nation of Islam, which was a cultural and spiritual awakening for him. For the first time in his life, “I was proud to call myself a black man,” he told me. The Nation of Islam radically transformed him. Now, when he traveled abroad, he wasn’t just partying end having a good time. “I began to develop a political analysis and applied critical thinking to situations to see how they affected black people,” he said. George interacted with Muslims in Egypt and Malaysia who had photographs of Malcolm X end spoke of him with high regard.
Despite this growing awareness, George still considered himself a ladies’ man. He was young, smart and handsome. He was more well-traveled than most men twice his age, and he was making a decent wage. But his fondness for women eventually led to his suspension from the Nation of Islam. He told me it was the one thing he regretted; he blamed no one but himself.
He never returned to the Nation of Islam, but continued to support and laud its achievements for the rest of his life. To stay well- informed on world events, his favorite source of alternative news was The Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper. Whenever his paper didn’t arrive on time he raised hell, demanding an explanation for the delay. Not getting his paper was like missing a meal: he was hungry for it.
Many times he pulled me to a corner on the yard and we’d talk about politics and religion for hours. If he couldn’t answer my questions he would say, “Let me take this back to my cell and meditate on it.” Although Islam was the religion that governed his morals and ethics, his political philosophy was Pan-Africanism. I questioned whether the Nation of Islam was the best hope for unifying African people.
“Why the Nation of Islam?” I asked him.
“Because I lived through the ’50s and ’60s and saw black organizations come end go, but the Nation of Islam is still standing,” he said.
Professor wasn’t the kind of person to strangle or spoil a debate, and though some of our conversations were heated, if it was going to be a dead end he would back off and smile. I learned this was his way of saying we would resume this at a later date. And we usually did.
What I admired most about Professor were his strong work ethic and business acumen. He had acquired these traits from his father, who had owned and operated a nightclub in Japan, which was no small feat for a black man. Years later, George would follow his father’s blueprint by opening his own club in Modesto, California. He also hosted his own radio show, The G.E. Marshall Show. He founded the USS Acting Company and Cultural Center, Inc. in 1970 while attending Merritt College. He owned stocks, bonds and a couple of homes, and even did some acting, portraying a reporter on the hit series “The Streets of San Francisco.” He had gotten his Screen Actors Guild card because he seriously thought about pursuing acting as a career.
He was one of the few men I met in prison who didn’t boast about his accomplishments. He had legitimate business investments and enterprises, not from selling drugs or other illicit activities, but from old-fashioned hard work. I’ve heard other inmates talk about places they have been and all the money they had, but sitting in prison they have squat to show for it. You can ask the average guy in prison about income taxes, zoning laws, setting up a business account or keeping business records and he will stare at you blankly. But Professor knew exactly what he was talking about. He was the Real McCoy.
Professor wasn’t like the other cats his age. He did not walk around with a chip on his shoulder as if life had dealt him a bad hand. He was a fighter and believed that giving up meant spiritual death. So he looked for ways to stay active. He studied Arabic up until the time of his death because as a Muslim he wanted to better understand the Koran. He took courses in law to understand how the legal system worked. He also studied mathematics to enhance his understanding or science.
He had a charitable heart and upbeat personality that made it easy for people, to approach him. I remember how younger guys used to bring their writings to him and he always made time to listen to them. Professor was honest, but discreet in his criticisms because he didn’t want to discourage them, yet he inspired them to produce the best work possible.
One of the most remarkable things about him was his love and concern for his children. He had been married a couple of times and had eight children, one spiritually adopted child and several grandchildren. I had the pleasure of meeting his youngest daughters, Star and Jamila. He asked me to correspond with Star, and I did out of respect for him. He thought my experiences would benefit her. Professor had a hard time denying his children anything, no matter how upset he got with them. “When it comes to my children I have a soft spot,” he told me. I saw how it tore at him not to be with them because he knew they needed strong guidance. It was a pain that cut deeply in him and festered like a wound that never healed.
One of the highlights of his life was his niece Stephanie. Professor adored her and saw her as a paragon of black womanhood. Stephanie stood by his side until the very end, carrying out his last wishes like the dutiful daughter she had become to him. For this, I know he was extremely grateful.
Because I knew Processor had diabetes and was taklng medication I made it a point to check up on him and make sure he was OK. Whenever I saw him, I would ask how he was doing. His classic response was “Oh, I’m hanging in there.” His health yo-yoed up and down. One day we were talking and I noticed a downcast expression come over his face. The pain in his feet had become so excruciating that he told me he wished they would amputate them. Another time he confided, “I wouldn’t mind going to sleep and not waking up.”
There was nothing I could possibly do for him and the quacks at San Quentin did very little to alleviate his suffering. Their attitude was: Since he’s on death row and going to be executed anyway, why waste time, money and energy trying to treat him. Call it gross negligence or callous indifference, in the end it was Professor who paid the ultimate
In the entire 18 years he spent on Death Row he didn’t receive a single infraction. That’s remarkable, considering that guards will write inmates up for the most petty thing. Professor was respected because he carried himself with the utmost dignity. If guards misbehaved, he was quick to criticize them or use the legal means at his disposal to discipline them. He was efficient with the law and protested against things he felt were wrong in his own way but without fanfare or hype. Once I noticed that he was letting his beard grow, which was uncharacteristic off him.
“When are you going to shave?” I asked him.
“When they let Ajani out of the hole,” he said. Ajani was a mutual friend who had wrongly been put in the hole. The last time I saw Professor, his beard was still growing and Ajani was in his 11th month in the hole.
Professor’s unique way of seeing the humanity in people made him far less judgmental than the rest of us. I didn’t know if it was naivete or wisdom, but I have come to believe it was wisdom because he always gave people the benefit of the doubt, even when the doubts appeared to outweigh the benefit. He would tell me I was too hard on people, that I was too unforgiving, that if I could change so can others. “There’s always room for growth,” he would tell me. “Give ’em time.”
Every time I looked at Processor I couldn’t stop wondering how a person like him could end up on Death Row. He simply didn’t fit the profile. After his first trial, many of the jurors doubted his guilt and most of them could not find him guilty. He said he never should have been charged in the first place because he was innocent and the evidence against him was so flimsy. “They needed a fall guy,” he told me. It was only after a second trial that he was found guilty. A mendacious jail-house rat, who was also a known racist, manufactured testimony against him. There was good reason for Professor to be angry for the rest of his life, but he wasn’t a bitter man, and always taught me that hatred would kill the soul.
One of the things that concerned him was what he would do if he got out of prison. He wasn’t a young man anymore. All of his adult life he had been independent. The prospect of having to rely on people didn’t sit well with him. “When you have to depend on people, you’ll come up short a lot of times,” he would say. Professor didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. He told me if he got out he was going to Ghana to live. Living in Africa had been his lifelonq dream.
Around the latter part of 2000, Professor began to experience a sharp decline in his health. I noticed he was losing weight and his short-term memory was affected. There were times we’d be talking and I would excuse myself. When I would return we would pick up where we left off and he would repeat the things we had already discussed, as if we’d never said them. I could see his eyes squint as if he was trying to search his memory for a clue to remind him what we had talked about. Professor was deeply bothered by how badly his memory was failing him. I learned how to steer the conversation on to places he was familiar with. Since I knew he loved Ghana and wanted to live there, I would start talking about this. This was always helpful and kept him on track.
I know Professor would have made an excellent teacher. He had a sharp eye for detail and possessed the uncanny ability to listen and inspire those around him. I felt He was yearning to be a part of something where his experience could contribute to the struggle of black people. Nothing excited him more then being engaged in dialogue concerning the problems black people faced. It made him feel alive. He wrote scholarly papers on many subjects but never made an effort to publish his work. And right before he became ill he was ruminating on the idea that maybe he should have. Time was running out.
I didn’t see or speak to Professor for several weeks, as he started staying inside. I figured we could still meet at the Islamic service on Mondays, as we always had. I had no way of knowing that Monday would be the last service we attended together. I saw him hobbling through the gate to enter the service. He was moving more slowly than usual and the cane didn’t provide enough support. He looked gaunt and drained, as if he hadn’t slept in weeks.
Everyone present, including the imam, knew something was wrong. Professor told us that he was in pain, urinating blood and having uncontrolled bowel movements. We were all very concerned. His legal team had to exert pressure on San Quentin to get him sent to an outside Hospital. I knew his condition was serious. It didn’t look good for my friend.
I will never forget the morning of February 4, 2001. The sun’s rays gleamed through the dingy window of East Block like ribbons of lights giving the building a deceptive appearance of beauty. It was Sunday. I was going to stay inside to do some reading, but something told me I should go outside, something strong and visceral. When I got out there I saw Professor and upon seeing me he cut short his conversation and walked over to greet me.
“I got liver cancer,” he said nonchalantly. There would be no surgery.
The smile left my face. I knew that meant terminal. Before I could say anything, he said, “I got six months to live.” There was no note of sadness in his voice. No fear or regret. In fact, he sounded relieved, as if a heavy load had been finally lifted off his shoulders. He was smiling the entire time we spoke and his face was alight with a contentment that’s indescribable.
Strangely, I didn’t feel what he was telling me was bad news. It was like a good friend telling you he is about to embark on a wonderful journey. We had discussed death before, concluding that it was nothing more then the transition of life to eternal consciousness. I gripped his shoulder firmly, looked him in his eyes, and asked if there was anything I could do for him. He shook his heed and smiled.
We spent many hours over the next few weeks huddled in a corner of the yard, talking extensively. The outside doctors told him the cancer had probably been there for a year, and if the medical staff at San Quentin had acted expeditiously when he’d first complained he could have been saved.
He tried to reassure me: “The type of cancer I have isn’t going to be painful.” He explained the whole process with the detachment and candor an automobile mechanic might use in explaining what was wrong with a motor. “I’ll have a loss of appetite that will cause me to lose weight and then I’ll slip into a coma and die,” he said. He seemed to have reconciled himself to his fate. I could only try to do the same.
Professor wanted me to have some personal items that had held meaning for him in the confined world of prison. He was waiting to be transferred to a medical prison better equipped to handle terminal patients. San Quentin had not lifted a finger to help him live but was now jumping through hoops to accommodate him in death.
In the weeks before he left, I could see the deterioration of his movements and speech. Sometimes he didn’t even have enough energy to get out of bed. We had to cut short many of our talks because he didn’t have enough energy to finish them. But the last time he came to the yard he was vintage Professor and In the most vivacious mood.
“What’s up Adisa,” he said, enthusiastically. “I need to talk to you.”
We sat at one of the metal tables that was in the direct sunlight, and we watched as guys on the basketball court moved in stylized motion. I was wondering what he wanted to talk about and that’s when he leaned over to me and said, “Thank you, my brother.”
“Thanks for what?” I said.
“For the time we spent over the years,” he said. “You kept me stimulated.”
We sat there for a moment in silence. Suddenly, Professor put his hand on my shoulder and stared at my face as if trying to commit every line and groove to memory so that he wouldn’t forget what I looked like.
“I hope you get out,” he said. “You could make a great contribution to our people.” I nodded my head, waiting for him to continue. He smiled and went on. “Stay humble. You and the other brothers stay humble.” That’s when I realized he was telling me goodbye. For the first time in my life I was speechless.
Before Professor was transferred, he was placed in San Quentin’s hospital. I got a chance to see him a few times as he was being escorted in a wheelchair. He had become too weak to walk. The guard escorting him let us talk for a few minutes and I noted the whites of his eyes had turned a yellowish color because of his liver damage. Yet, he was quite cognizant and understood everything I said. Though he talked slowly, he looked at ease sitting in the wheelchair and wearing tinted glasses and his Kofi. A certain serenity had settled over him. As I watched the guard push him away, I knew it would be the last time saw each other.
Around mid-April, Professor was sent to the prison hospital at Vacaville. I hear they later brought him back to San Quentin, and finally sent him to Corcoran State Prison. I wrote to him a few times, thanking him for everything. I knew he would be unable to respond. We had the same investigator, who kept me informed on his condition. I wasn’t looking for a miracle; I just wanted him to be comfortable. On October 14, 2001, Professor died at Corcoran.
I can honestly say that I am a better human being for having known him. He had a great sense of humor with an affectionate laugh that made others around him laugh. His encyclopedic knowledge and insatiable curiosity will be sorely missed by me and many others.
Now that Professor is gone, I take comfort in the fact that I never took his company for granted. I appreciated every moment we shared. Before he left, I told him that I loved him. My only regret is that I wish I’d said more.