Morehouse, community work to free Womack: Phi Beta Kappa Nominee Accused of Plotting to Overthrow Government

ATLANTA — The chairman of the Morehouse College History Department is spearheading an effort to disentangle a former honor student of his from legal problems that have kept him behind bars since his arrest last December.

 

Atlanta prosecutors contend Hajj Womack was not just a brilliant student, but a willing participant in a series of crimes intended, ultimately, to overthrow the government.

 

Dr. Alton Hornsby Jr., chairman of the Morehouse History Department and editor of the Journal of Negro History, leads a group — comprised of college faculty, students and alumni; as well as community residents — that contends what is happening to Womack is nothing more than a political persecution.

 

Hornsby, who taught and mentored Womack at Morehouse College, called the case, which has attracted national attention, “one of the most disgusting travesties of justice I have ever seen…. I believe in Hajj. I have no doubt he did not commit these crimes. This is incongruous with what a scholar would do.”

 

Womack was a young history scholar with a bright future. A Phi Beta Kappa nominee who graduated from Morehouse in 1995, he was in a doctoral program at the University of Michigan on a Rackham Fellowship when Ann Arbor police arrived at his apartment on December 8, 1995, with a warrant for his arrest.

 

Extradited to Atlanta, Womack was charged with ninety-two counts of armed robbery, aggravated assault, kidnapping and firearms violations. He and four other men, an indictment said, were part of a “criminal street gang” that committed a string of fast-food restaurant robberies to support the group’s political agenda.

 

On October 21, three days after Womack’s twenty-third birthday, a Fulton County jury acquitted him of eighty-nine of the charges brought against him. But because the jury deadlocked on three charges, Womack remained locked in the maximum security section of the Fulton County fail where he had been since his arrest.

 

Prosecutors say they will try him on those charges. Consistent with an earlier posture, the prosecuting attorney said she opposed the idea of Womack posting bond, contending he would be a threat to commit additional crimes or flee.

 

Prior to Womack’s trial, Hornsby was among dozens of community residents, faculty and others who testified at bond hearings. They sought to assure the court that, with their assistance, Womack would live in Atlanta, hold a job, and attend graduate school at Clark Atlanta University, if he were granted bail. The court denied those petitions for bail.

 

“It would lead you to believe,” Hornsby said, “that something is going on here other than the pursuit of justice.”

 

Guilt by Association

 

Womack, his supporters say, is a victim of guilt by association. Hornsby and three other Morehouse faculty members, along with two former fellow students, testified for the defense at Womack’s trial.

 

“If they had not been there to testify for him and to support him, Hajj Womack would be in jail for life right now,” said George Lawson, Womack’s defense attorney. “I cannot put a value on what they have meant to this case.”

 

As Womack’s trial got underway in Fulton County Superior Court, contributions totaling nearly $20,000 had been deposited in the Hajj M. Womack Defense Fund. “We have had hundreds of people to contribute, including faculty, students from Morehouse and other institutions and the general public interested in fair play,” said Morehouse history professor Dr. Marcellus Barksdale, secretary-treasurer of the support group.

 

“I’m very pleased,” Barksdale said, “that the largest body of contributors is Hajj’s peers. Some have given small amounts, some have donated their work checks; one student liquidated her checking account.”

 

Students from Emory University, Georgia State University, and other Atlanta University Center schools attended Womack’s trial in large numbers. They heard the prosecution attack Womack as something other than a political activist and would-be college professor who was riveted by the history of U.S. political and social movements.

 

Police and prosecutors contended that as a member of the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, Womack and his co-defendants planned and committed robberies to fund nefarious activities of the group, including stockpiling weapons to be used against the government.

 

Nothing to Hide

 

Womack admitted that he was a member of, and well-acquainted with, members of the Five Percent Nation, a loosely organized cultural group that broke away from the Nation of Islam at least two decades ago. In fact, Womack and others testified that Womack had openly discussed his membership in the Five Percent Nation. He even wrote scholarly papers about the group, whose mission, Womack testified, was to improve the Black community, including ridding it of drug dealers. The defense portrayed Womack’s association as a sort of earnest but innocent flirtation with the non-traditional group, which seemed to appeal to college students.

 

Womack and a co-defendant, Grady McCray, were implicated in the crimes by Roy Norwood, an adherent of the Five Percent Nation who testified that some members of the group were training for guerrilla warfare. Norwood! identified an assault weapon found in Womack’s apartment when he was arrested as one Womack used in the robbery. Two other men indicted in the case are at large.

 

Norwood agreed to plead guilty and to testify in exchange for a lenient sentence. He testified that Womack knew about the robberies — carried out from December 1994 through May 1995 — and that he took part in many of them.

 

Womack’s lawyer, George Lawson, attacked Norwood’s credibility, accused him of lying to save his own skin. On one of the dates that Norwood said Womack helped commit a robbery, Womack was part of a Morehouse faculty-student contingent attending a history conference in Louisiana. Another robbery that Norwood testified Womack participated in occurred on the day Womack graduated from Morehouse and celebrated with friends and family at a party in his honor.

 

The defense also argued that another indication of Womack’s innocence was that he made no effort to “run and hide” even after he learned that other defendants had been arrested.

 

Although Womack’s defense was strong enough to persuade the jury of five Blacks and seven whites to acquit him of most of the charges, his fate remains in doubt. As a result, the Womack Defense Committee will press ahead with its efforts to bring about publicity, money, and, ultimately, Womack’s freedom. For Emory University graduate student and Womack Defense Committee member Winston Grady-Willis, Womack’s case is an incident many people have trouble grasping “The bottom line for me personally,” said Grady-Willis, “is that, especially given the make-up of this jury and the verdict, it is clear that the only reason Hajj remains incarcerated is because of the political nature of the trial.” He added that too many people consider the idea of political prisoners something that happened in the 1960s and 1970s, “not something that can happen in the ’90s.”

 

Hornsby and Barksdale dismiss the notion that their involvement might damage their professional reputations. “If so, then let it come,” said Hornsby. Said Barksdale: “I would hope that whatever reputation I have would persuade people to take a look at the case and attract contributions.”

 

Hornsby said that among the things Womack hopes to do when he is freed is talk to young people about the judicial system and about the importance of choosing well your associates. Grady-Willis agrees. “One thing students, especially undergraduate students, should take from this,” he said, “is that even in 1996, if you are going to be engaged in political activism, not only should you be careful of your associates, but be aware that what you are doing may be considered a threat to the status quo: And be aware that the state apparatus is very sophisticated.”

 

Womack’s mother, Mrs. Francine Womack, said the outpouring of support for her son, especially from higher education, has helped keep his spirits up. “Students who don’t even know Hajj have given money and come (to the trial) after their classes to show support. “He ,got a little depressed one day and asked, “Why me?”‘ she continued. “‘Why not you?’ I asked him.

 

`You’re not the first Black man to be treated this way. At least you have the support of your professors and your school, other students, and the community.”

 

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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