During Black August, we remember George Jackson, a Black revolutionary, a member of the Black Panther Party, and an inmate in Soledad Prison. George Jackson was charged with a sentence of one year to life for the robbery of $70. With this vague and cruel sentence, he was sent to prison and would spend the rest of his life within the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). However, instead of silencing and disappearing a Black voice, his time spent in jail turned him into a radical abolitionist and communist. The prison organizing Jackson spearheaded, Black-focused but multiracial as a project, turned him into an enemy of the repressive, racist, capitalist state. According to Jackson, “The ultimate expression of law is not order — it’s prison… The law and everything that interlocks with it was constructed for poor desperate people.”
On August 21, 1971, Jackson was assassinated by a member of the system that had held him captive for over a decade, leaving behind a legacy of communist writings and organizing that inspires the Black community and leftists at large to this day.
During Jackson’s youth, he was involved with the petty crimes of a Black teenager forced to live in precarity by a racist capitalist system. By 18, a judge was able to try Jackson as an adult and saw his pattern of small-time crimes as a rationale to send him to jail for life. The one year to life sentence was rationalized as an incentive for “good behavior,” a vague and cruel punitive measure. In a show of how the PIC has not changed, Black people were often given harsher and longer sentences than their white counterparts.
While there, Jackson was never the “model prisoner” the racist prison system expected him to be. In fact, Jackson was so disruptive he spent the majority of the first 7 years of his sentence in solitary confinement. It was while forced to be alone, an aggressively punitive measure that is a violation of human rights, that Jackson was able to focus on Marxist texts and become the revolutionary we know today.
“I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me. 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.”” Jackson would later write to a supporter. He was especially influenced by Black contemporaries of his time, including Huey Newton and Malcolm X. Jackson was quick to become the ruling class’s worst nightmare, a Black man, armed with the knowledge of the oppressive systems weighing down the working class and the Black community at large, willing to fight through the organization and mobilization of these oppressed groups. In 1966, he found a political family in two other comrades behind bars, W. L. Nolen and George Lewis. Together, they cofounded the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) and based their analysis on anti-racist and aspects of a Marxist framework.
Jackson’s description of the PIC was based on his burgeoning Marxist framework:
Well, we’re all familiar with the function of the prison as an institution serving the needs of the totalitarian state. We’ve got to destroy that function; the function has to be no longer viable, in the end. It’s one of the strongest institutions supporting the totalitarian state. We have to destroy its effectiveness, and that’s what the prison movement is all about…. The idea is to isolate, eliminate, liquidate the dynamic sections of the overall movement, the protagonists of the movement. What we’ve got to do is prove this won’t work. We’ve got to organize our resistance once we’re inside, give them no peace, turn the prison into just another front of the struggle, tear it down from the inside. Understand?
Rapidly, Jackson and the BGF at large gained recognition as activists against the constraint of the prison guards and American legal system at large, constantly testing the boundaries of the repressive system through mass actions and political education with the other prisoners. The BGF would lead study groups to educate prisoners on the structural violence and inequality built into capitalism, through the works of Marx and Mao. His strong belief in education came from the freedom and strength he himself received from these texts. On education, Jackson stated:
It‘s critical to teach the people out there how important it is to destroy the function of the prison within society. That, and to show them in concrete terms that the war is on – right now! – and that in that sense we really aren’t any different than the Vietnamese, or the Cubans, or the Algerians, or any of the other revolutionary peoples of the world.
Utilizing these texts and tactics, Jackson and his comrades would organize and participate in mass actions, organizing sit-ins against the segregation of the cafeterias in the prison. Additionally, he would teach martial arts to the prisoners, believing in the self-defense against the racist prisoners and the abusive guards. On the radicalization of his fellow comrades behind bars Jackson said,“There are still some Blacks here who consider themselves criminals — but not many. Believe me, my friend, with the time and incentive that these brothers have to read, study, and think, you will find no class or category more aware, more embittered, desperate or dedicated to the ultimate remedy — revolution. The most dedicated, the best of our kind — you’ll find them in the Folsoms, San Quentins and Soledads. They live like there was no tomorrow. And for most of them there isn’t.”
Jackson and his comrades became noticed by the Black Panther Party, and were given membership to the organization. According to George Jackson, “Huey came to the joint about a year ago because he’d heard stories about the little thing we had going on already. He talked with us, and checked it out, and he decided to absorb us. Afterwards, he sent me a message and told me that. He just told me that I was part of the Party now, and that our little group was part of the Party as well. And he told me that my present job is to build, or help build, the prison movement.” Jackson was given the status of field marshal. The more organized the prisoners became, the more on watch they were from the government at large. By the beginning of 1970, systematic and targeted violence exploded against the radicalization of the Black prison community.
Targeted Suppression of Radical Black Prisoners
On January 13, 1970, Nolen along with two other men were killed by a prison guard. A burst of violence erupted between the Aryan Brotherhood and the BGF, in what has later been claimed to have been a staged fight. A judge later refused to further an investigation of the murders and no staff member was formally charged. However, their deaths were not forgotten and many inside the prison walls began to form a strategy of “selective retaliatory violence” against the prison guards that were allowed to murder indiscriminately by the oppressive state apparatus.
On January 17, three days after the murder of Jackson’s comrades was deemed “justifiable” by a judge, another violent event shocked the prison system. John Mills, a prison guard, was found murdered. Jackson, along with Fleeta Drumgo and John Wesley Clutchetter. Were charged with murder on flimsy evidence. Deemed the Soledad Brothers, they became a symbol of Black Revolutionaries being targeted by the state in an attempt to silence Black leadership.
On August 7, the situation quickly escalated. Jackson’s brother, Jonathan, a young student of 17 years, came armed into the Marin County Courthouse and took hostages, one a prominent judge. Jonathan was demanding the release of the Soledad Brothers and all prisoners at large.The violence escalated quickly and four men died, including Jonathan Jackson and the judge that was taken hostage.
Angela Davis, another radical Black communist, was accused of providing the weapons for the bloodbath since the weapons were registered in her name. Davis was a professor at UCLA until her position was taken away from her due to her membership in the Communist Party and her affiliation with the Black Panther Party, pressure being applied by the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan. The university wasn’t allowed to fire her exclusively for her politics, but found a loophole claiming that a speech she made had “inflammatory language.”
Davis was taken to trial over these murders, the Nixon administration attempting to make an example of her. Another opportunity for the infamously corrupt and racist administration to silence and control another Black Revolutionary leader and destroy the movement from the top down. However, Davis was able to use the court system to her advantage and took the PIC and racist government to task in her trial, eventually being released in a famous victory for the Black Power movement.
In the aftermath of these tragedies and triumphs, Jackson would publish Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. He would dedicate this book to his brother Jonathan, Davis, and his mother. It would become a bestseller, being sold in prisons all over the world and remains a classic of Black Revolutionary and abolitionist thought.
Assassination of a Black Militant
George Jackson was murdered on August 21, 1970, leaving behind a death shrouded in mystery. James Baldwin declared at a rally in Westminster, “No Black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.”
The following events about his planned escape from prison and murder are all based on hearsay, with most news sources showing a bias towards the prison guards, so take all these events in with a grain of salt.
Jackson, after meeting with his lawyer earlier in the day, had supposedly hidden a gun underneath an Afro wig. When a prison guard noticed a shiny object, Jackson allegedly pulled off his wig and pulled a gun on the officer. Then, Jackson and some other prisoners attempted to escape the prison. The ensuing gun fight led to the death of Jackson, two prisoners, and three prison guards. Details are unclear, due to the fact that guards’ stories consistently changed. It is still unknown to this day how Jackson received the gun he used during the escape attempt.
Jackson’s last words were, “The Dragon has come.”
The Legacy Left Behind
Jackson was able to smuggle out his book, Blood in My Eye, only a few days before his murder. It was published the autumn after his death. His book is a political manifesto, relating Black struggle to a larger struggle against imperialism, colonialism and the working class. The Attica prison rebellion in September is often speculated as a direct outcome of his death, the most public revolutionary prison rights activist murdered and silenced by the state apparatus.
Bob Dylan wrote a song about his legacy after his murder,
Prison guards, they cursed him
As they watched him from above
But they were frightened of his power
They were scared of his love.
Jackson’s legacy is one of solidarity and strength. His doctrine was not one of aggression, or Black separatism, but of Black love and unity. He recognized the immense power of solidarity within all marginalized communities. His doctrine was one that allowed for the Black community to display strength through education, unity, and self-defense.
One of the most dangerous components of his doctrine was his use of racial unity. Although focused on Black struggle and strengthening his community, he reached out to all cultural groups, seeing the revolutionary potential in all oppressed people. He was a part of organizing or an inspiration to many Latino prison struggles as well. Additionally, his anti-imperialist framework guided him towards supporting all countries under the United State’s imperialist grip, in favor openly of the revolutions in Venezuela and Cuba. His ability to unite all those around him, oppressed by the predominantly white system that held him in chains, made him a dangerous man to the status quo.
We celebrate Black August with the spirit of George Jackson in our hearts. The revolutionary history of Black militants still brings fear to the racist institutions that allowed Jackson to be placed behind bars for his entire adult life over petty crimes. Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a leader in the Crips, wrote a book denouncing violence called Life in Prison, and dedicated it to George Jackson. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cited this dedication as a clear sign that Williams had not properly reformed and sent him to be executed by the state. Even today, white leaders fear and mistrust the words of Black revolutionaries from 50 years ago. His use of guerrilla tactics and a focus on Maoism were unsuccessful in the end, but as Trotskyists we celebrate his spirit and honor his legacy. Jackson’s legacy of Black power, working class unity, and urging for the armed preparation of the proletariat remains a threat to the late-capitalist world he never got a chance to see.