Many relatives, childhood friends and fellow activists jammed into Abyssinian Baptist Church last Thursday evening to display their love and bid farewell to one of Harlem’s unsung progressive heroes. Much mention was made of the lifelong commitment of Eddie Benjamin Ellis Jr., who joined the ancestors July 24 at 72 years of age. His efforts to bring about social change within the penal system, as well as the community at large, were highlighted.
Several of his close comrades choked back tears as they reminisced over their fallen friend, who succumbed to cancer.
“Many of you know Eddie as a result of the remarkable work that he has done with prisons and incarcerated people,” said WBAI radio host Bob Law, as he commented on the former political prisoner of war’s lifelong commitment after his 1994 release from New York’s prison industry. He then laid out some of Ellis’ local, self-determining efforts that are not commonly known.
“Eddie Ellis’ career, his story, didn’t begin when he went to prison … Even before prison, Eddie Ellis was one of the burning bright lights in the liberation struggle in this country, he was one of the original Harlem Black Panthers,” said Law.
Supporters contend that Ellis was a victim of the U.S. government’s confusion-causing COINTELPRO program, which resulted in his 1969 murder arrest and subsequent conviction, 25-year sentence and incarceration.
They spoke about how he spent time during his two and a half decades behind bars and how he committed his life to helping others.
Fellow Black Panther Party alumni Al Pertilla reflected on his more than five-decade-long friendship with Ellis, as well as their camaraderie with other activists in the past and the divisive tactics they were up against. “Those who were there and involved knew Eddie, and so did the FBI.”
George Prendez spoke about how Ellis inspired him to endure his bid while both men were in the belly of the beast and how Ellis positively utilized his past experiences to help others cope in similar situations. “He became the voice for the people that were formally incarcerated,” said Prendez, before asking those in attendance to stand and deliver the Black power salute.
“Eddie did 25 years in prison, incarcerated, all the time thinking, strategizing, about what he would do [once he got out],” recalled friend Dr. Divine Pryor. “But Eddie didn’t even do time … he used time very creatively, very scholarly.”
David White, founding member of the original BPP and who also came of age in Harlem River Houses with Ellis, reflected on his friend. “He was the information director of the original BPP, a prolific writer and a revolutionary all-around good brother who will be missed. It will take some time before someone will fill that gap … his contributions, his struggle for liberation.”
State Sen. Bill Perkins added: “Eddie was an exceptional thinker, he was a profound planner. He was one of a kind. As a human rights activist, Eddie was developing, educating and encouraging the next generation of leaders.”
Ellis was executive producer and host of WBAI FM’s “On the Count: The Prison and Criminal Justice Report.” Annually, on or during and New Year’s Day week, he hosted the “Reporters’ Year in Review Roundtable” with writer and author Herb Boyd, investigative journalist Curtis Stephen and Amsterdam News Editor Nayaba Arinde.
Arinde both appeared as a guest and a host in March 2014 on “On the Count.” Striving to the last to improve the lot and the perception on those he staunchly and only called “the formerly incarcerated,” last month Ellis wrote to Arinde, stating, “One by one the ants ate the elephant. We are winning. Slowly but surely, we are changing the language use[d] to describe our population. We have made a significant change with our Language Campaign and our Language Letter. Thanks to all of you for your contributions towards making this progress. Please spread this good news to your personal and business contacts, put it in your newsletters, blogs and on other social media. Encourage further progress. We will prevail. Changing the language is just the beginning of ultimately changing the dominant narrative. Join the struggle.”
“Here is a man who came out of prison and hit the ground running to help those still behind the wall, and those who had come home and needed help re-adjusting to life on the outside. That’s why he formed and was the president of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solution,” said Arinde, as she addressed the fourth annual Symposium on Faith Communities, Incarceration and Re-Entry Friday, July 25 at Riverside Church.
Meanwhile, the Healing Communities NY and FACES NY Symposium was set to present Ellis with the Rev. Dr. Lonnie McLeod Jr Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity. “It was with great pain, heavy hearts—but much love—we had to pay reminiscent tribute to Eddie instead as he made his transition the day before he was to be honored” Arinde said.
“Once a year, sometimes twice, including Kwanzaa, Eddie had me as a guest on his radio shows with other journalists for a roundtable discussion,” said Boyd. “His ‘On the Count’ program was always rewarding because more than the information I dispensed was the information I acquired. Many folks are not aware that Eddie, while a brilliant on-the-air communicator, was also a superb writer. On both ‘Counts,’ he will be missed.”
Stephen told the AmNews, “On a Saturday morning in 2003, I was with my brother Mervyn in his DEP-issued car. He was listening to something that I hadn’t heard before—the WBAI radio broadcast ‘On the Count.’ Produced and hosted by Eddie Ellis, the program examines criminal justice issues.
“Notable for his raspy voice—think Harry Belafonte—Ellis’ perspective was fueled by his own 25-year stint in the prison system. By 2005, I was working on a series about wrongful convictions when a producer for ‘On the Count’ extended an invite. It was my first time on radio, and it was an experience that I planned to chalk up to being just that, even as Eddie said afterward, ‘We need to do this again, brother.’”
“And so it’s been every year since, joining the likes of Nayaba Arinde and journalist Herb Boyd for the ‘On The Count’ reporter’s roundtable. Needless to say, the memories are plentiful. Ever aware that a key portion of his audience was distinct—men and women in prison, including those convicted of crimes they never committed—Eddie’s legacy will resonate well beyond the here and now.”
Abyssinian Baptist Church was packed last Thursday, exactly a week after his passing. Sitting in the audience were members of the “On the Count” production staff, including Rob “Big Rob” Sims, senior producer and audio engineer; Andre Imani Ward, associate producer; and Robin McGinty, editorial producer and web master.
The church’s pastor, Calvin Butts, concluded by paying his respects to Ellis’ family before speaking about his importance to the community and the value of education, which his family emphasized. “One thing that Brother Ellis knew that they think they got to him is, knowledge is power.”
For more on Ellis’ life, the following is a brief biography from his organization’s website: http://centerfornuleadership.org/2014/07/edwin-eddie-ellis-passes.