One of the longest captive political prisoners of war in the United States’ recent history joined the ancestors March 29 while still incarcerated at a California prison. Original Black Panther Party activist Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald-71 perished in a California prison after being incarcerated for more than 51 years, making him the longest-imprisoned Black Panther Party member in U.S. history.
Fitzgerald was born April 11, 1949, in Los Angeles and grew up in Compton, South Central and Watts. He joined the Black Panther’s Southern California chapter as a teen in 1969, shortly after his release from California Youth Authority.
“We were brought together in this movement by the four little girls who were blown up in the 16th Street Baptist Church [a 1963 anti-Black terrorist attack in Birmingham, Alabama],” Fitzgerald’s friend Harry Carey recalled. “We got a chance to redeem ourselves by protecting them from those who killed him. We got a chance to stand up to that violence that is a part of American reality.”
Chip was incarcerated later that year. He received two life sentences for the attempted murder of a California Highway Patrol officer and murder of a security guard.
While driving their Volkswagen in South Central on Sept. 7, 1969, Fitzgerald and two BPP comrades, Robert Williams and Luxey Irvin, were stopped by the California Highway Patrol for an alleged faulty taillight. A shootout ensued, causing Fitzgerald and an officer to be wounded.
The three Panthers initially escaped the scene, yet were apprehended weeks later. Prosecutors claimed that while Chip was on the run that he also killed a security guard.
Chip was convicted and initially sentenced to death, however, in 1972 the California Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, but he has been denied parole over a dozen times throughout the past couple decades, despite suffering a stroke which caused him to be wheelchair-bound.
Even as an elderly man who no longer poses a threat to society, plus having expressed remorse for his actions, he still was denied parole. Many of his supporters contend it’s due to his Panther affiliation.
Romaine has one son, eight grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and 15 nephews and nieces. No cause of death for Fitzgerald has been released.