Ralph Poynter – A revolutionary life

Ralph Poynter speaking at a rally for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

The English Poet William Wordsworth once said, “The child is the father of the man.” Rarely has such an anecdote been so true as in the wild, rebel life of Ralph Poynter.

Poynter, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, is perhaps best known, at least in recent days, as the man who fought hardest for the freedom of his imprisoned radical wife, lawyer Lynne Stewart. He stood alone in the sweltering Washington, D.C., summer sun for hours with a sign in front of the White House demanding her freedom.

But a reflection on his youth shows an unusual child, one of six children of the Poynter family in a small steel town in western Pennsylvania called Vandergrift, a few miles from Pittsburgh. His father George Poynter was a union organizer there, and little Ralph would actually accompany him when he was just six years old.

At 12 years old he took pleasure at playing in the snow, making snowballs and throwing them as far as he could. One day, another union organizer saw the boy throwing snowballs and said to Ralph, “You’re pretty good with that snowball, aren’t you.” Ralph replied, “Of course. I can hit anything I aim for no matter how far.”

The union organizer asked him to climb a hill overlooking the steel mill and explained to the boy that the union was on strike against the mill, and the guys being driven there were scabs or men trying to take union jobs. He then asked Ralph to pack his snowballs with big rocks. Ralph did so. When he asked Ralph if he could throw these rock-snowballs at the trucks that stood in front of the mill and hit their front windows, you could almost guess young Ralph’s response. “Of course.” Ralph threw for most of the day and hit exactly what he aimed for.

That night, the union organizer went to Ralph’s home and told his father that Ralph was very instrumental to the union’s success at striking against the mill. Ralph Poynter helped the union before he even became a teenager.

When he went to the local elementary school’s third grade, he learned what his older brothers had learned years before: that “colored boys” — well that’s what they called them back then — couldn’t go to school without encountering violence, as there were so few “colored people” in the town.

Ralph was beaten, and his new hat and jacket made by his mother got messed up. When he saw how sad his mother was at seeing his state, he resolved to end it the next time it occurred.

The next day, when his attackers came at him, he didn’t run. Instead, he stood his ground and fought back vigorously. Before long, his attackers began to flee. He learned a life lesson about self-defense that would years later inform his political outlook.

Now the words of Ralph Poynter: “Black lives have never mattered except during slavery and other circumstances where money is being made by our labors for others. The modern death penalty — 80% Black — moved lynching indoors. The police, as the army of occupation, have taken lynching outdoors again.”

Ralph Poynter — steelworker, elementary school teacher, investigator for his lawyer wife, union brother, revolutionary — returns to his ancestors after 89 winters in America. With love, not fear, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Commentary recorded by Prison Radio.

 

Mumia Abu-Jamal (guest author)

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Mumia Abu-Jamal (guest author)

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