“I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me. For the first four years, I studied nothing but economics and military ideas. I met black guerrillas – George “Big Jake” Lewis, and James Carr, W.L. Nolen, Bill Christmas, Torry Gibson… We attempted to transform the black criminal mentality into a black revolutionary mentality.”
–Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
On August 21, 1971, the black freedom and prisoners’ rights movement lost one of its “organic intellectuals,” to use a term made famous by 20th century Italian Marxist and political prisoner Antonio Gramsci. The revolutionary commitment that raged inside of George Jackson was born in the belly of American capitalism’s institution of social control, the prison system. He would be gunned down a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, by San Quentin prison guards during an alleged prison break.
Jackson’s Soledad Brother was published in the fall of 1970. His book Blood in My Eye was published posthumously in the fall of 1971. These two works stand as his political manifesto – an unbounded dedication to freedom for the most oppressed people in the world.
George Jackson stands alongside Malcolm X and countless others who became politically and socially aware of racism and capitalism’s underdevelopment of black America while locked down behind the walls of prison. In a few short years he developed into an activist and revolutionary committed to revolutionary change.
Following the Great Depression of the 1930s and driven by the harsh realities of living in the Jim Crow South, the second Great Migration of African-Americans began. Donna Jean Murch, author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, describes this transformation:
In 1940, 77 percent of the total black population lived in the South, with over 49 percent in rural areas; two out of five worked as farmers, sharecroppers or farm laborers. In the next ten years, over 1.6 million people migrated north and westward, to be followed by another 1.5 million in the subsequent decade… By 1970, more than half of the African American population settled outside the South, with over 75 percent residing in cities. In less than a quarter century, “urban” became synonymous with “black.” (pg. 15)
During World War II, well-paying jobs in defense plants attracted many working people to industrial cities on the West Coast. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) from the trade union movement fought for jobs and resources for this expanding black working class. However, by the end of the war, the white working class and middle class began to flee urban centers like Oakland. Racism, discrimination in the trade unions, and deindustrialization after 1945 turned cities like Oakland into wastelands of social decay, economic depression, and political alienation.
The California Youth Authority
“Capitalism needs and must have the prison to protect itself from the criminals it has created. It not only impoverishes the masses when they are at work, but it still further reduces them by not allowing millions to work at all. The capitalist’s profit has supreme consideration; the life of the workers is of little consequence.”
–Eugene V. Debs, Walls and Bars: Prisons and Prison Life in The “Land of the Free”
The arrival in California of African-Americans from the rural South was met with outright suspicion by the police authority and the state government. The generation of blacks born outside of the South, during and after World War II, tasted the bitter pill of Jim and Jane Crow, California style.
The California Youth Authority (CYA) became the prototype for social control of young people, particularly urban youth of color. CYA was founded in 1941; the Adult Authority followed in 1944. Professor Murch states:
The infusion of federal defense money and newfound prosperity enabled the state to build five medium-security adult facilities between 1944 and 1950… In 1953, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a special report to “all law enforcement officials,” warning about the dangerous effects of California’s baby boom: “The first wave in this flood tide of new citizens born between 1940 and 1950 has just this year reached the ‘teen age,’ the period in which some of them will inevitably incline toward juvenile delinquency and, later, a full-fledged criminal career.” (pg. 58)
Lester and Georgia Jackson moved George and the rest of their family from Chicago to California in 1956. George spent time at the CYA in Paso Robles for assault and burglary as a juvenile. Future
Black Panther Party (BPP) leaders like Huey P. Newton and Emory Douglass would also serve time in the CYA system. George Jackson entered the California adult prison system at the tender age of eighteen in 1960, having been accused and convicted of armed robbery. He had stolen $70 from a gas station, and went into court with a record as a petty criminal and inadequate (public) counsel. After pleading guilty, George Jackson received the bizarre and cruel sentence of one year to life. He spent his first nine years in San Quentin State prison–seven of them in solitary confinement.
The Birth of a Revolutionary
In his first years in prison, Jackson was not considered a “model” prisoner. He seemed to have a total disregard for authority and fellow inmates. He spent significant time in solitary – or “the hole,” as prisoners called it. The prison letters he authored between 1964 and 1970 showcase a young man grappling with a society that stunted his growth in the context of the collective African-American struggle to overcome the evils of white supremacy and the vestiges of slavery. Especially in the candid letters to his parents, Georgia and Lester, he attempts to understand and explain the interplay of capitalism’s values and its effects on him and the Jackson family.
The letters give us a glimpse into the mind of the voracious reader that George Jackson was, and show the influence of such authors and revolutionaries as Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Mao Zedong. Jackson was inspired by the powerful events of the Cuban revolution and the struggle of the people of Vietnam, as well as the anti-colonial rebellions going on all over the so-called Third World.
Jackson became one of the foremost prison intellectuals and activists of the time, organizing prisoners and later becoming a Field Marshal of the BPP. In 1966 he co-founded, with W.L. Nolen, the Black Guerrilla Family, which was rooted in the ideas of Marx and Mao. In 1969, Jackson and Nolen were transferred to Soledad Prison. In January 1970, a prison guard would gun down Nolen and two other black inmates during a riot. Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Cluchette were accused of killing prison guard O.G. Miller, who had shot and killed Nolen and two other inmates. If convicted of murdering Miller, Jackson and his comrades would face the death penalty. Their case, popularly known as the Soledad Brothers case, gained national and international news coverage and support.
The case exploded with the Marin County courtroom hostagetaking organized by Jonathan Jackson, George’s younger brother.
Three prisoners – James McClain, William A. Christmas, and Ruchell Magee – were in court for a hearing when they took over the courtroom with Jonathan Jackson’s assistance. They took Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and several others hostage at gunpoint. In an act of desperation and love, Jonathan Jackson demanded the release of the Soledad Brothers. Angela Davis, then a professor of philosophy at UCLA and the key organizer of the Soledad Brothers campaign, was also a member of the Communist Party USA and a “fellow traveler” of the Black Panther Party. She was named as an accomplice to the crime because the guns used in the takeover were registered in her name.
Jonathan Jackson, McClain, and Christmas all died in a hail of bullets as the police sought to stop the getaway vehicle. Judge Haley would also die in the gunfire. Angela Davis became a fugitive. After her arrest, her case led to a landmark trial in which she campaigned against state-sponsored violence and the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program (a.k.a., COINTLEPRO). She was acquitted.
You Can Kill a Revolutionary, But You Can’t Kill Revolution
Prisonguards, they cursed him
As they watched him from above
But they were frightened of his power
They were scared of his love.
So they cut George Jackson down.
They laid him in the ground…
–Bob Dylan, “George Jackson,” 1971
In 1971, the tension leading up to the Soledad Brothers’ trial for the alleged murder of prison guard O.G. Miller was interrupted by the sudden death of George Jackson. Prison authorities alleged that on August 21, Jackson attempted to break out of San Quentin using a 9mm handgun smuggled in by his lawyer and supposedly hidden in his Afro wig. A gunfight resulted in the death of Jackson, two other prisoners, and three prison guards. The Soledad Brothers would be acquitted of the murder of O.G. Miller years later.
Blood in My Eye
Many people believe the Attica prison rebellion of September 1971 was partially inspired by the death of George Jackson the month before. His book, Blood in My Eye, was published posthumously in the fall of 1971. The book is Jackson’s political testament. It touches on themes of imperialism, internal colonialism, Marxist economics, labor history, political consciousness, state violence, and armed struggle.
The recent Georgia state prisoners strike, the hunger strike by four prisoners held in Ohio State Penitentiary a supermax prison, and the Pelican Bay prisoners hunger strike are all in the spirit of George Jackson and all prisoners fighting for human dignity. The United States imprisons 2.3 million women and men. This is the highest incarceration rate in the advanced capitalist world. Every day this system continues its deadly assault on working people, the poor, youth, and people of color. Another George Jackson is being born every day. George Jackson lived, struggled, and died to create a better world for the most oppressed people. Only through the revolutionary commitment to democratic socialism can we find peace, freedom, and justice.