13th Social Change Colloquium

Fighting Legal Lynching in the South –
The Alabama Case of Johnny ‘Imani’ Harris

The Libraries celebrated the donation of the personal archive of Tom Gardner MPA, ’05PhD, containing material related to the case of Johnny ‘Imani’ Harris to the Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center (SCUA) with a talk and moderated discussion on the history of the case. The discussion began with comments from Robert W. Widell, Jr., PhD, professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, who spoke about his research on the case. Gardner followed with first-person accounts of his involvement in the case. Amilcar Shabazz PhD, professor of African American Studies at UMass Amherst, then took questions from the audience.

Harris was a Black inmate sentenced to five life terms for four small robberies and an alleged rape in 1970 in Alabama. He was sentenced to the brutal Atmore Prison, where he experienced extreme racism, poor medical care, overcrowding, and slave wages. In 1972, the inmates organized a group called Inmates for Action (IFA) and led a work stoppage of over 1,200 prisoners. The prisoners were beaten by guards and the strike leaders were placed in isolation. Two years later, in 1974, an IFA member was beaten to death by guards. The prisoners reacted by capturing a cellblock and taking two guards hostage. In the ensuing take-back by the prison, a guard and IFA leader were killed. Harris and others were charged with the guard’s death; Harris was subsequently convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. In the wake of this incident, the Atmore-Holman Brothers Defense Committee and the Committee to Defend Johnny Imani Harris and Stop the Death Penalty were formed to support Harris and his fellow prisoners. Tom Gardner, a seasoned Southern civil rights activist, was recruited to become the lead organizer of the Committee to Defend Johnny Imani Harris and Stop the Death Penalty and worked to bring international attention to the Harris case, as well as other incidents of racist political and judicial repression.

The event was generously presented in partnership with the Departments of Afro-American Studies, Communication, and Journalism.