A Moral Compass That Was Unbreakable

Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox in the early 70’s (PC: In The Land of the Free)

An excerpt from Albert Woodfox’s recent autobiographical article in The Guardian. He was a Black Panther who spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement.

I made my bed every morning. I cleaned the cell. I had my own cleanup rag I used to wipe down the walls. When they passed out a broom and mop I swept and mopped the floor of my cell. I worked out at least an hour every morning in my cell.

By the time I was 40 I saw how I had transformed my cell, which was supposed to be a confined space of destruction and punishment, into something positive. I used that space to educate myself, I used that space to build strong moral character, I used that space to develop principles and a code of conduct, I used that space for everything other than what my captors intended it to be.

In my forties, I saw how I’d developed a moral compass that was unbreakable, a strong sense of what was right or wrong, even when other people didn’t feel it. I saw it. I felt it. I tasted it. If something didn’t feel right, then no threat, no amount of pressure could make me do it. I knew that my life was the result of a conscious choice I made every minute of the day. A choice to make myself better. A choice to make things better for others. I made a choice not to break. I made a choice to change my environment. I knew I had not only survived 15 years of solitary confinement, I’d honored my commitment to the Black Panther party. I helped other prisoners understand they had value as human beings, that they were worth something.

Malcolm X wrote, “Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” Malcolm gave me direction. He gave me vision. The civil rights leader Whitney Young said of being black: “Look at me, I’m here. I have dignity. I have pride. I have roots. I insist, I demand that I participate in those decisions that affect my life and the lives of my children. It means that I am somebody.” There wasn’t one saying that carried me for all my years in solitary confinement, there were one thousand, ten thousand. I pored over the books that spoke to me. They comforted me.

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