In 1960, a skinny 18-year-old African-American named George Jackson walked into a Los Angeles courtroom and pleaded guilty to stealing $70 from a gas station. Though there existed exculpatory evidence, Jackson had already racked up two convictions for petty larceny, and his court-appointed attorney thought it best if he plead guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence in the country jail.
The judge would have none of it, sentencing Jackson to an indeterminate sentence of one-year-to-life, and setting in motion an improbable chain of events that would culminate in Black August, an annual celebration of the African revolutionary struggle in the Americas.
The pivotal figure is Jackson, the unremarkable teenager who went on to become one of the most celebrated political prisoners in history, and an internationally-renowned author whose prison writings have been compared to Gramsci’s and were once described by the Marxist intellectual C.L.R. James as “the most remarkable political documents that have appeared inside or outside the United States since the death of (Vladimir) Lenin.”
Jackson spent the next decade in California's Soledad Prison – seven and a half of them in solitary confinement – before he was fatally shot in what authorities describe as an escape attempt. His prose, revolutionary theories, and martyrdom inspired elegies from Bob Dylan and Ja Rule, Archie Shepp and Steel Pulse, and a prison reform movement that triggered the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York as well as a 2011 hunger strike at California's Pelican Bay State Prison.
In January of 1969, Jackson and two other Black inmates, Fleeta Drumgo and John Cluchette, were falsely accused of the fatal beating of a white prison guard, which occurred three days after another white guard fatally shot three black inmates from a courtyard watchtower. When the accused were brought in chains and shackles to two secret hearings in Salinas County, Cluchette managed to smuggle a note to his mother, which read: "Help, I'm in trouble."
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That message prompted a bitter legal struggle which pitted California Governor Ronald Reagan against the Black Power movement, and introduced the world to the Soledad Brothers, a young African-American defense attorney named Angela Davis and George Jackson’s 17-year-old brother Jonathan, who was killed in August of 1970 during a botched effort to break the Soledad Brothers free from prison.
August is also the month in which Haitian slaves rebelled and launched the Haitian Revolution, the month of Nat Turner’s famous slave revolt in Virginia, the month of Marcus Garvey’s birth, and most recently the month when unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by a suburban St. Louis police officer.
In August 1979, Black political prisoners in California’s infamous San Quentin State Prison sought to highlight the central role that prison protests have played in Black resistance movements. As co-founder Shuuja Graham told historian Dan Berger, “We figured that the people we wanted to remember wouldn’t be remembered during Black history month, so we started Black August.”
A collection of Jackson’s prison writings, Soledad Brother, was released just a month after Jonathan Jackson’s death. With an introduction by the renowned French dramatist Jean Genet, the book received widespread critical acclaim in France and the United States and went on to become a classic of Black literature and political philosophy, selling more than 400,000 copies in its first printing alone.
Jackson dedicated the book to his brother.
"He was free for a while. I guess that's more than most of us can expect."
He joined the Black Panther Party after meeting the party’s co-founder, Huey Newton, while both were in jail. Said Jackson of his education:"I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me."
His second collection of writings, Blood in My Eye, was published shortly after his death. Jackson’s Marxist revolutionary theories continue to be read to this day.
Supporters have always maintained that the Soledad Brothers were not responsible for the slaying of the white prison guard, but were instead singled out for their militant political organizing while in prison.
James Baldwin once wrote that no African-American "will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did."