Knowledge Session: Who Was George Jackson?

In 1960, at the age of eight­een, George Jack­son was accused of steal­ing $70 from a gas sta­tion in Los Ange­les. Though there was evid­ence of his inno­cence, his court-appoin­ted law­yer main­tained that because Jack­son had a record (two pre­vi­ous instances of petty crime), he should plead guilty in exchange for a light sen­tence in the county jail. He did, and received an inde­term­in­ate sen­tence of one year to life. Jack­son spent the next ten years in Soledad Pris­on, sev­en and a half of them in sol­it­ary con­fine­ment. Instead of suc­cumb­ing to the dehu­man­iz­a­tion of pris­on exist­ence, he trans­formed him­self into the lead­ing the­or­eti­cian of the pris­on move­ment and a bril­liant writer. Soledad Brother, which con­tains the let­ters that he wro­te from 1964 to 1970, is his test­a­ment.

In his twenty-eighth year, Jack­son and two oth­er black inmates — Fleeta Drumgo and John Cluchette — were falsely accused of mur­der­ing a white pris­on guard. The guard was beaten to death on Janu­ary 16, 1969, a few days after another white guard shot and killed three black inmates by fir­ing from a tower into the court­yard. The accused men were brought in chains and shackles to two secret hear­ings in Salinas County. A third hear­ing was about to take place when John Cluchette man­aged to smuggle a note to his mother: “Help, I’m in trouble.” With the aid of a state sen­at­or, his mother con­tac­ted a law­yer, and so com­menced one of the most extens­ive leg­al defenses in U.S. his­tory. Accord­ing to their attor­neys, Jack­son, Drumgo, and Clutch­ette were charged with murder not because there was any sub­stan­tial evid­ence of their guilt, but because they had been pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied as black mil­it­ants by the pris­on author­it­ies. If con­victed, they would face a man­dat­ory death pen­alty under the Cali­for­nia pen­al code. With­in weeks, the case of the Soledad Broth­ers emerged as a polit­ic­al cause célèbre for all sorts of people demand­ing change at a time when every Amer­ic­an insti­tu­tion was shaken by Black rebel­lions in more than one hun­dred cit­ies and the mass move­ment again­st the Viet­nam War.

August 7, 1970, just a few days after George Jack­son was trans­ferred to San Quentin, the case was cata­pul­ted to the fore­front of nation­al news when his brother, Jonath­an, a sev­en­teen-year-old high school stu­dent in Pas­ade­na, staged a raid on the Mar­in County court­house with a satchel­ful of hand­guns, an assault rifle, and a shot­gun hid­den under his coat. Edu­cated into a polit­ic­al revolu­tion­ary by George, Jonath­an invaded the court dur­ing a hear­ing for three black San Quentin inmates, not includ­ing his brother, and handed them weapons. As he left with the inmates and five host­ages, includ­ing the judge, Jonath­an deman­ded that the Soledad Broth­ers be released with­in thirty minutes. In the shootout that ensued, Jonath­an was gunned down. Of Jonath­an, George wro­te, “He was free for a while. I guess that’s more than most of us can expect.”

Soledad Brother, which is ded­ic­ated to Jonath­an Jack­son, was released to crit­ic­al acclaim in France and the United States, with an intro­duc­tion by the renowned French dram­at­ist Jean Genet, in the fall of 1970. Less than a year later and just two days before the open­ing of his tri­al, George Jack­son was shot to death by a tower guard inside San Quentin Pris­on in a pur­por­ted escape attempt. “No Black per­son,” wro­te James Bald­win, “will ever believe that George Jack­son died the way they tell us he did.”

Soledad Brother went on to become a clas­sic of Black lit­er­at­ure and polit­ic­al philo­sophy, selling more than 400,000 cop­ies before it went out of print twenty years ago. Lawrence Hill Books is pleased to reis­sue this book and to add to it a Fore­word by the author’s neph­ew, Jonath­an Jack­son, Jr., who is a writer liv­ing in Cali­for­nia.

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Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rish­ma Dhali­wal has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rish­ma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal
Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

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