Measure of a Man: Mata Musa Johnson
April 26, 1948-November 28, 2019
Within the spiritual realm of African religious belief is the idea of eternal life. Upon making the transition from the physical world to the spiritual world, when we remember, celebrate, and acknowledge the lives of friends, family, and acquaintances who were part of our life journey, we say their names and their spiritual life will never die.
Say his name. Mata Musa Johnson’s Life vocation: freedom fighter. Say his name into quietness of the night, in prayer or meditations. Say it in remembrance of life celebrations. Say his name in spiritual rituals or pouring of libations. Say it so that he will continue to live in our hearts and minds. Say his name in songs of freedom and liberation. Say it in chants of resistance. Say his name as our moral compass and beacon of light, illuminating darkened paths.
November 28th 2019. I was overwhelmed with sadness and tears when first learning about the death of my dearest friend, teacher, and comrade. Dr. Martin Luther King said “A man is not a man if he is not willing to die for his beliefs.” Mata was such a man! A man whose worth is measured by his moral courage to envision and struggle for better selves, better communities, a better humanity.
Mata’s humanity and humility were born inside the cold and desolate landscape of prison. Prison mirrors society in every way. He was unafraid of the challenge, guided by his principles, and beliefs, he was able to survive the rotten flesh-eating chaotic abyss inhabited by mutilated bodies, fractured minds, lost souls, and defeated spirits. He possessed a strong sense of resiliency and perseverance. His spirit remained unbroken. Mata armed his spirit and mind to stand as a man against all of the prison horrors, repression, and violence.
Possibilities are always born out of doing. Our minds are strengthened in the face of the daily challenges we encounter and our own life challenges. He loved all shades of rainbows and human beings. He understood the power of community. He was a special friend and teacher. I say his name. He was a father, son, grandfather, uncle, cousin, brother, nephew, teacher, historian, friend, comrade, legal scholar, journalist, organizer, helper, social activist, prison activist, lover of freedom, and of people. The diversity of people who attended his memorial was indicative of his human spirit and his respect for all people.
Mata armed his spirit to fight against social injustice and prison injustice in so many ways. His initial involvement with the struggle were his contributions to the prison rights movement. As a writer he was co-editor of a prison rights newspaper titled “Armed the Spirit.” He would use the newspaper as a tool for raising the consciousness of prisoners in fighting for their human rights, humane conditions, and against repression, brutality, solitary confinement, and abuses of the parole system. He fought and organized until his final breath. Say his name: Mata Musa Johnson.
After years, decades, of being in prison, with denial after denial of parole; after years of health problems, he was finally released from prison. After spending over five years on dialysis, three times a week, in my first phone call to him he told me that he didn’t know how long he had to live, but that he would be advocating for my release from prison. I have been in prison going on 46 years. 41 of those years were spent in solitary confinement. It was in the bowels of the beast that I met my friend and teacher. While he was out, I was able to talk with him weekly. Each conversation was an inspiration and was soul stirring. He was still organizing a fighting on behalf of prisoners. He had started a project called “Jail Blocks: City Blocks” drawing attention to prisoners who have spent decades in prison. This was his life work. When I would talk to him every week, he was full of life and energy. The week of his spiritual transition, he told me he was going to focus on my parole hearing. He was on his way to a conference that day, so we didn’t talk for long. Before hanging up, I told him about ta new soul in my life, Liz Atkins- Peterson, who works with Standing up for Racial Justice. She was interested in being part of Jail Blocks: City Blocks. She briefly had a chance to talk to him. He promised to call her back, but didn’t call back. Later in the day he passed away in this sleep.
I had hit opportunity to say his name to my friend, Liz. She is a family therapist with community-oriented solutions. She is a community activist. Our communities need healing an she is a healer and an inspiration. She always reminds me to keep fighting. Through my tears, she felt the spirit and measure of the man. His name is Mata Musa Johnson. A man of honor and respect, a trustworthy man. a man guided by purpose, responsibility, honor, an integrity. My friend, comrade, teacher, rest in peace.
As you said at the end of phone calls: One love, can’t’ stop won’t stop. Ifoma
(I want to send my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to my dearest friend and comrade sister, Cynthia Kaufman for making this possible. She has been my inspiration and heartbeat as I continue to move forward)
Ifoma Modibo Kambon is an author and activist who is incarcerated at Folsom State Prison. He has been incarcerated for 48 years and was in solitary confinement for 41 years. He was one of the leaders of a very impactful prisoners’ hunger strike to abolish solitary confinement in California.
Some of Ifoma’s other writings can be found at: