Reference Entry

Jackson, George

Stacy Braukman

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Jackson, George

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radical black nationalist and anti-prison activist, was born George Lester Jackson in Chicago, Illinois, the second of the four children of Robert Lester Jackson and Georgia (maiden name unknown). George Jackson attended St. Malachy, a Catholic school located in what he later described as the “heart of the ghetto,” from kindergarten through ninth grade (Jackson, Soledad Brother, 5). In 1956 Robert Jackson transferred his postal job to southern California, and he took young George with him—in large part to remove him from his increasing involvement in local gangs and from his minor scuffles with police. The two drove from Chicago to Watts, California, and were soon joined by the rest of the family.In Watts, George Jackson engaged in an escalating series of petty thefts and acts of rebellion against local police officers, and he was arrested three times over the next two years. He spent several months in a correctional facility, the Paso Robles School for Boys, after attempting to break into a department store. Finally, in September 1960 Jackson was arrested for robbing a gas station with two other men. Upon the advice of his lawyer he pleaded guilty and, under new sentencing guidelines, received an indeterminate sentence of one year to life.In February 1961 Jackson entered the Soledad Correctional Training Facility, where he spent fourteen months before being transferred to the infamous San Quentin State Prison, allegedly for frequent violations of prison rules and for what one official called his “surly and intractable” attitude (New York Times, 20 Sept. 1971). Jackson remained at San Quentin until early 1969; he spent much of this time in solitary confinement. As he put it wryly, “Just because I want to be my black self, mentally healthy, and because I look anyone who addresses me in the eye, they feel I may start a riot anytime” (Soledad Brother, 184–185). His prison record at San Quentin contained a long line of serious charges, including stabbing a fellow inmate and assaulting a guard, but Jackson insisted that these and other infractions were invented by malicious white prison officials who feared and resented his revolutionary politics and his refusal to bend to the system.In fact, the endless months and years alone in his cell allowed Jackson ample time to read and study, which he did obsessively. He devoured the writings of-Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, as well as books on Pan-Africanism, history, economics, and political theory, and he studied several languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Swahili, and Arabic. Jackson also joined the Black Panther Party, and whenever he was not in “the hole,” he spent hours in conversation with fellow black prisoners in an effort to radicalize them and teach them to see themselves as political prisoners within a corrupt racist and capitalist system. Jackson fostered increasing consciousness and outspokenness about the links among the mass imprisonment of African Americans, the abuses and excesses of capitalism that worked against African Americans, and white European and American imperialism and colonialism in the so-called Third World.In early 1969 Jackson was transferred from San Quentin back to Soledad. That summer a white corrections officer was beaten to death by prisoners, seemingly in retaliation for the shooting deaths of three African American inmates. Officials immediately accused Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette of killing the guard and sent them to the maximum-security block of San Quentin to await trial. There the so-called Soledad Brothers became the center of an international movement to free them and also to raise awareness about racism in the U.S. prison system. The African American activist and communist Angela Davis, already embroiled in controversy over the rights of avowed communists to teach in California's public universities, achieved even greater notoriety when she became a vocal defender of the Soledad Brothers.In August 1970 George Jackson's younger brother, seventeen-year-old Jonathan, rushed into a Marin County courthouse and demanded, at gunpoint, the release of the Soledad Brothers and all “black political prisoners.” With the help of two coconspirators he took hostage a judge, a district attorney, and two jurors. In their attempt to escape Jonathan Jackson and three others were shot to death.The episode brought greater attention to the plight of George Jackson, as did the publication in October 1970 of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Indeed, he briefly became a household name; the New York Times ran several profiles of him, and the New York Review of Books excerpted two of his letters. Soledad Brother was a powerful testament to Jackson's will to survive and to his sense of resigned outrage not only at the prison system but also at what he called capitalist, white “Amerika.” As he wrote: “Big Brother. He is rather transparent. I have his number. I-know he's a punk, he can't stop me” (Soledad Brother, 302).The book was an eloquent if incomplete and scattered record of his treatment behind bars; it revealed the development over time of an increasingly sophisticated and blistering critique of American capitalism and imperialism. Jackson's letters to his family, to his lawyers, and to comrades like Angela Davis exposed the inhumane treatment of African Americans and the often horrifying conditions in prison, as well as the intransigent parole board in California that kept him imprisoned longer than his crime merited. He recalled: “I had been accused of being a Muslim, Communist, agitator, nationalist, loan shark, thief, assassin, and saboteur. Nothing was ever settled, nothing was really exchanged except hostility” (Soledad Brother, 317). With the publication of his letters Jackson's status as a Black Power icon and as a hero to radicals was indelibly etched into the American political landscape.On 21 August 1971 George Jackson was shot to death in prison. The assistant warden of San Quentin claimed that he was killed during an escape attempt, but many, including Jackson's mother, believed that he had been assassinated. His funeral was held at the St. Augustine Episcopal Church in West Oakland, California. A crowd of nearly five thousand attended, and the Black Panther leader Huey Newton gave the eulogy, vowing, “[W]e will raise our children to be like him” and “slit every throat that threatens our freedom” (New York Times, 29 Aug. 1971).Reaction to Jackson's shooting and rumors surrounding the manner of his death reached beyond the confines of California and even the United States. The writer James Baldwin commented from Europe that he did not believe the official account of Jackson's death. In London a group of fifteen hundred marchers appeared at the U.S. Embassy, demanding an investigation into the incident. Some speculate that the September 1971 inmate uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York was set in motion when Attica's African American prisoners held a day of silence and fasting and wore black armbands in George Jackson's memory.Just before his death Jackson had completed a second book, Blood in My Eye, containing letters as well as essays on revolution, white imperialism at home and abroad, the war in Vietnam, and the importance of creating a new, international black consciousness. The book was published posthumously in 1972. His writings have endured as an influential example of black revolutionary thought in the United States. George Jackson is buried in Mount Vernon, Illinois.

Reference Entry.  1233 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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