Marilyn Buck defied categorization. In fact, she worked hard at that, challenging the assumptions and easy answers that might have defined her life. Rejecting sexism, white supremacy and racism, she broke through boundaries both internal and external – and in so doing, left a rich legacy.
Marilyn was born in Temple, Texas, to Virginia, a nurse, and Louis, an Episcopal minister. She was "Big Sister" to three younger brothers – Louis, Bill and David. During her early years her father was assigned to minister at a Black church in town. Never interested in mythologizing her own story, Marilyn often recounted how she resented having to share her dinner table and parents’ attention with families from that church. As a child, she had little interest in the Civil Rights movement gathering speed around her. Marilyn’s politics of solidarity were created consciously, fought for, built of her spirit, heart, and mind. Years of study and concrete experiences were responsible for her political astuteness and activism. There was nothing spontaneous about them.
|Marilyn and family||Marilyn as a teenager in Austin|
After the Buck family’s move to Austin, Marilyn, as a teenager, began to become involved in antiracist activism. From her experience as a young white woman in segregated Texas she had developed a piercing sense of the role of white supremacy and racism in sustaining injustice.
Marilyn’s developing sense of the need for justice led her to protest the war in Vietnam and join the Students for a Democratic Society, where she famously helped lead the organization’s first workshop on women’s liberation. She later attended college at UC Berkeley and then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin.
Police surveillance photo of Marilyn (right)
In Chicago during the late 1960s, Marilyn co-edited the SDS newspaper New Left Notes and began developing a more sophisticated and activist relationship to national liberation movements inside the U.S. as well as internationally. At a prison celebration of Kwanzaa years later, Marilyn talked at the program honoring Kujichagulia (self-determination). She told of going into the South Side of Chicago to photograph, for New Left Notes, the “Wall of Respect,” a mural painted in the Black community by Black artists. As she snapped away, a young Black man questioned her, asking why she thought she could come into his community and take photographs without explaining her intent or asking the community’s permission. The incident, Marilyn said, confronted her with the right of a community to control its own culture, shook her confidence in her own viewpoint, and opened her eyes to the ways a white perspective was distorted, even harmful. She applied that lesson as she became more involved in the militant struggles for justice that arose in those years.
In 1968, shortly before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Marilyn returned to the Bay Area to work with an alternative newspaper and Third World Newsreel. As the Black liberation struggle grew in power and determination, Marilyn’s political work focused increasingly on solidarity with that movement. In 1973, when Marilyn was 26, she was arrested for procuring firearms for the Black Liberation Army and sentenced to 10 years in prison for buying two boxes of legal ammunition with false ID. At the time, that was the longest sentence ever given for such an offense.
Lolita Lebron with Marilyn in Alderson prison
Marilyn served four years of the sentence at the federal women’s prison in Alderson, West Virginia, where she was initially housed in one of the federal system’s first high security isolation units for women. At Alderson, both in the control unit and later in general population, she met other women political prisoners, including Assata Shakur. Lolita Lebron and Bo Brown.
During those years, Marilyn began to create what would be a lifetime identification and connection with other political prisoners and their supporters outside. Yuri Kochiyama and Rafael Cancel Miranda both trace their long correspondence and friendship with Marilyn to her days in Alderson. Over the many years she would end up spending in prison, Marilyn built a deep comradeship with prisoners from every national grouping in the U.S., especially those from the Puerto Rican Independence Movement.
Despite being a model prisoner, Marilyn was repeatedly denied parole. (In later years numerous political prisoners were repeatedly denied parole despite being model prisoners.) Eventually, she was granted two furloughs from FCI Alderson to New York City. After the second one, instead of returning to prison, she went underground to rejoin the militant radical movement. She was later charged and convicted of escape.
She spent the next eight years—years of intense government repression, particularly against the Black Liberation and Puerto Rican movements—working in clandestinity. In 1979, Assata Shakur was liberated from prison, and Marilyn was identified as a suspect in that action. Assata’s liberation is considered one of the great victories of the Black Liberation struggle. After the unsuccessful expropriation of a Brinks armored truck in 1981, an action claimed by a group of Black revolutionaries and white allies, Marilyn was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list and hunted with a shoot-to-kill order.
In May of 1985, Marilyn was captured in Dobbs Ferry, a northern suburb of New York City. In the following five years she faced four separate trials and moves to three separate jails and prisons. It was a grueling experience.
Marilyn with codefendant Mutulu Shakur
After two trials on lesser offenses (including the Alderson escape), she was tried and convicted, along with co-defendant Mutulu Shakur of a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) conspiracy to liberate Assata and commit several bank robberies, expropriations to fund the Black Liberation struggle. Preparing for their trial, the two created legal arguments in their assertion of a political offense exception that is a model of how to pose the position of U.S. political prisoners in the context of international law.
On the day in 1988 when sentence was pronounced in her RICO case, the government indicted Marilyn, along with Alan Berkman, Linda Evans, Laura Whitehorn, Susan Rosenberg, and Tim Blunk, for what became known as the Resistance Conspiracy Case: “conspiracy to protest, oppose and change policies and practices of the U.S. government in domestic and international matters using violent and illegal means.” The central charge in the case involved the 1983 bombing of the Capitol in response to the U.S. invasion of Grenada and shelling of Lebanon. Marilyn, along with Laura and Linda, pled guilty in exchange for dropping the charges and getting better medical care for Alan Berkman, who was battling life-threatening cancer.
The aggregate sentence from these cases was 80 years. Near the end of 1990 Marilyn began serving her sentence at the high security control unit for women in Marianna, Florida.
Reflecting on this period, Marilyn later wrote:
"The trials, those years of intense repression and US government denunciations of my humanity had beat me up rather badly. Whatever my voice had been, it was left frayed. I could scarcely speak.”
Marilyn with AIDS peer advocates in Marianna prison
In Marianna, finished with trials at last, Marilyn began to heal her voice and her spirit. Adept at math and a voracious reader from an early age (her brother, Bill, remembers her reading in her room for long hours during their childhood), Marilyn loved questions and almost always avoided pat answers. Possessed of a curious mind, when she noticed her own reactions to the confines of prison, she set out to understand the psychology of women prisoners, and later, after her transfer to Dublin, California in 1993, turned her searching into a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the New College of California.
Refusing to succumb to the damage of trials and incarceration, Marilyn wrote.
“For prisoners, writing is a life raft to save one from drowning in a prison swamp. I could not write a diary or a journal; I was a political prisoner. Everything I had was subject to investigation, invasion and confiscation. I was a censored person. In defiance, I turned to poetry, an art of speaking sparely, but flagrantly."
And she continued to write: poems, articles, letters, statements, interviews. She became more and more disciplined about her craft, getting her Master’s of Fine Arts in Poetics and publishing scores of poems in journals and anthologies. She embraced and was embraced by a network of poets, including the two dozen contributors to her poetry CD Wild Poppies. She wrote articles for Critical Resistance and women’s studies texts, among others. She contributed a regular column to Prison Legal News, writing,
Women are subject to censorship in a very distinct way from men prisoners. There is a disapproval of who we are as women and as human beings. We are viewed as having challenged gender definitions and sex roles of passivity and obedience. We have transgressed much more than the written laws. We are judged even before trial as immoral and contemptible, fallen women.
The repression and control over a prisoner’s life is harsh and cruel. Imagination and creativity have led me into a new, clandestine, and still subversive world. I’m unable to do photography, but there is always the word. That cannot be taken away. And there is the earth. The clay that calls my hands, challenges me to be sensual and to create vision, hope, liberation; to scream defiance and vibrance.
While incarcerated, Marilyn witnessed the devastation of the HIV/AIDS crisis and worked with other prisoners to support women affected by it. She participated in activities that strengthened the community of incarcerated women, like Black History month and Kwanzaa. Marilyn was a loyal participant in the Poetry for the People workshops at FCI Dublin, which deeply influenced a new generation of poets.
Marilyn always promoted solidarity with political prisoners around the world. With other U.S. political prisoners, she worked on the “Art Against the Death Penalty” exhibit which toured internationally in support of Mumia Abu Jamal, and she contributed to the book In Defense of Mumia and the political prisoner anthologies Can’t Jail the Spirit, Hauling Up the Morning, and Let Freedom Ring, among others. With her miniscule prisoner’s income she still tithed, sending donations to those with less than she.
She also discovered a talent and love for creating pottery and ceramics, contributing pieces to art shows on the outside, and sending her creations to friends, family and supporters for their homes. And even with the very limited culinary options available in prison, Marilyn—always a wonderful and creative cook—made some memorable meals.
In whatever prison she was sent to, Marilyn taught. Her comrades inside remember seeing her arise at 5:00 a.m. or earlier in order to tutor women who did not want to be seen, during daylight hours, being taught basic math and writing skills. She continually translated for Spanish-speaking women who needed help communicating with the prison authorities or with non-Spanish speaking prisoners. If she ever felt tired of being asked to fill these roles, she did not show it.
Marilyn corresponded with hundreds of people all over the world, a vast network of intellectual and political give-and-take. She wrote countless letters, even though she recognized that with any letter, as she told Franco Sincich, Brigate Rosse prisoner in Italy, “its ashes may lie / inside an incinerator / greedy to gobble up voices.”
Marilyn was an accomplished translator of literature as well as spoken language. In 2008, City Lights published her highly acclaimed translation of Estado de exilio/State of Exile, a volume of poetry by Cristina Peri Rossi, the radical writer who fled the Uruguayan military dictatorship in the 1970s. In her introduction, Marilyn identifies herself as a “translator in exile of a translator of exile” and reminds us that, “either the exile is frustrated and lives with rose-colored longing for what is gone, or she finds a reason and a passion to live in her present condition.”
Marilyn with her mother and grandmother
Marilyn with friend/comrade/attorney Soffiyah Elijah
In 2008 it seemed as if Marilyn’s internal exile was coming to an end when she was granted a parole date in February 2011, then won an advance to August 8, 2010. In the midst of making plans for coming home and with less than twelve months left to serve, Marilyn was diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive uterine cancer. Despite surgery and chemotherapy, treatment came too late to save her life.
Thanks to the determined efforts of her longtime friend and attorney Soffiyah Elijah, Marilyn was granted an early release on July 15th, 2010. She paroled to Brooklyn, New York, where for the next 20 days she savored every moment of her freedom, getting a glimpse of life in the free world and, in her words, struggling to stay alive. Despite the nearly unimaginable irony of being released within days of her death, she said she considered herself one of the most fortunate women alive. During the months before her release from prison, she told friends she was set on throwing a post-release party to thank the many people who had supported her so effectively throughout her incarceration. In her last days, though too weak to visit with very many people, she was able to enjoy visits with her three brothers and sisters-in-law; she passed peacefully at home in the company of loving friends on August 3, 2010.
Marilyn lived most of her adult life in controlled, restrictive spaces: from clandestinity, to prisons, to control units within prisons. Yet within those spaces, she developed a richly imaginative, expansive view of human liberation, and built a bridge to a world we hunger for but have yet to create. Through her writings, her relationships, and by the way she lived her life, Marilyn has left us a rare inheritance. Our greatest gift in return will be to join her in being “militants for life.”
|Marilyn with her aunt and mother in Dublin prison||Marilyn with brother Bill and cousin Grace|
|Marilyn with brother David and family||Marilyn with brother Louis|
Marilyn was one of more than 100 political prisoners in this country. Read more about them at www.thejerichomovement.com.