On May 2, 2016, police and paramedics responded to a report of possible cardiac arrest at Shakur’s home in Sausalito, California. She was transported to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
A former Black Panther activist and reformed drug addict, Afeni Shakur is best known as the mother of Tupac Shakur, a successful rap artist whose murder in 1996 elevated him to cult icon status. Since the death of her son, Afeni Shakur transformed his legacy into a multimillion dollar industry by issuing her son’s catalog of unreleased material. She used the proceeds from the sale of these recordings and associated merchandise to establish a charitable foundation that promotes arts education.
Afeni Shakur was born Alice Faye Williams on January 10, 1947, in Lumberton, North Carolina, a prominent station in the timber industry along the Lumber River. The daughter of Rosa Belle, a homemaker, and Walter Williams, Jr., a trucker, Shakur and her sister, Gloria Jean, had a troubled childhood. “My momma left my dad because he was kickin’ her
a**,” Shakur said in a 1997 interview in People magazine. In 1958 Shakur, her mother, and sister moved to New York City, where Shakur attended the Bronx High School of Science. A troubled child, Shakur reported later that she began using cocaine when she was about fifteen years old, and she struggled with drug addiction for most of her life.
Shakur joined the emerging Black Panther movement in 1964, after meeting an associate of Malcolm X who was recruiting among youth in the Bronx. Shakur told biographer Jasmine Guy, the Black Panthers “took my rage and channeled it. They educated my mind and gave me direction.” Shakur began writing articles for the party’s newsletter, the Panther Post, and was largely successful in crafting a misdirection campaign that led FBI agents to believe that the Panther Party was fading. In 1968 Shakur moved in with fellow Panther Lumumba Abdul Shakur and changed her name to Afeni Shakur.
Shakur and twenty fellow-Panthers were arrested on April 2, 1969, and charged with several counts of conspiracy to bomb police stations, department stores, and other public places in New York City. Shakur was released on bail in the fall of 1970 and became pregnant by New Jersey truck driver William Garland. Shortly thereafter, Shakur’s bail was revoked, and she was returned to jail to await trial.
Shakur and the other defendants went to trial in 1971, in what came to be known as the Panther 21 trial. Shakur defended herself, despite objections from her codefendants. The case lasted for more than five months, and Shakur was largely responsible for defeating the prosecution’s case, according to an account of the trial in the book The Briar Patch, by former lawyer Murray Kempton. In her cross-examination of undercover detective Ralph White, Shakur performed like a seasoned attorney and won her freedom in May of 1971. On June 16, 1971, Shakur gave birth to her son, whom she reportedly named Lesane Parish Crooks, but who she later dubbed Tupac Amaru Shakur, a name derived from the Inca words for “shining serpent.”
Though Shakur never returned to the Black Panther movement, she remained proud of that period in her life, saying in a 2004 interview with Tavis Smiley that the Black Panthers taught her “to always believe in yourself, and as a woman who was in the Black Panther Party, to believe that my opinion is worth more or as much as anybody else.”
Shakur took a job as a paralegal working for Richard Fischbein in the Bronx and married Mutulu Shakur, who acted as stepfather to her son and became the father of Shakur’s daughter, Sekyiwa. Mutulu Shakur supported Tupac as his son even after his relationship with Shakur ended in 1982. Mutulu Shakur was an activist in the New Afrika independence movement of the 1960s and later became a prominent drug-detoxification and acupuncture specialist in New York City.
Shakur later described herself as a poor mother, though she was always proud of her son, Tupac, who showed an early promise as a performer and exhibited his mother’s independence. In 1984 Shakur moved her family to Baltimore, Maryland, where her son attended the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts, studying dance and music.
Shakur became addicted to crack cocaine in the early 1980s and was unable to hold a job, using welfare payments to care for her children. She said of this period to Smiley, “When I was on drugs my spirit was dead.” Shakur moved her family to Marin County, California, in 1988 in an attempt to leave her drug use behind. Shakur’s son left in 1989 because of her drug use and had no contact with his family for a couple of years. He started performing as a dancer and “hype man” with the alternative rap group Digital Underground, and in 1991 released the album 2Pacalypse Now, which became a major hit and launched the young rapper into stardom. Afeni Shakur returned to New York City in early 1991 and began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She managed to overcome her addiction that spring, “through the grace of God,” as she told Smiley. Soon afterward she reconciled with her son.
Tupac Shakur rapidly became a multimillion-dollar recording star, and he brought his mother to the public eye through such tribute songs as “Dear Mama,” in which he explored his feelings about his mother’s drug addiction and the difficulties of his youth. Though successful, Tupac Shakur lived an unstable life and was involved in serious legal issues, including 1993 charges of sexual abuse, for which he was later convicted and sentenced to over a year in prison. He also was convicted in 1994 of attacking a former employer and served fifteen days in jail for that offense. In 1994 Tupac Shakur was shot five times and recovered, blaming a feud within the recording industry for the attempt on his life. His life ended in September of 1996 when he was shot four times and pronounced dead at University Medical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Before his death, Tupac Shakur made arrangements for his mother to receive a $16,000 monthly salary from his estate and purchased a home for her in Stone Mountain, Georgia. After her son’s death, Afeni Shakur and her former employer Richard Fischbein became coexecutors of Tupac Shakur’s estate, which was estimated at between $8 and $10 million in 1997 and included a library of unreleased material estimated at a value of more than $100 million.
God bless her family and friends. •