Jackson, George Lester

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Jackson, George Lester

September 23, 1941
August 21, 1971

Activist George Jackson was born in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was fourteen. One year later he was convicted of attempted robbery and sent to California's Youth Authority Corrections facility in Paso Robles. After his release Jackson was again arrested and convicted for attempted robbery, and at age sixteen he was incarcerated in a California county jail. In 1960 Jackson was accused of stealing $71 from a gas station and received an indeterminate sentence of one year to life. After he served the statutory minimum of one year, his case was reconsidered yearly. Jackson was never granted parole, and he spent the rest of his life in prison.

Jackson was incarcerated in Soledad State Prison in Salinas, California. He was politicized by his experiences in prison and began to study the theories of third-world communists Mao Zedong, Frantz Fanon, and Fidel Castro. He became a strong supporter of communist ideas, viewing capitalism as the source of the oppression of people of color. Jackson soon became a leader in the politicization of black and Chicano prisoners in Soledad Prison. In part as the result of his prison activities, he was placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time.

On January 16, 1970, in response to the death of three black inmates in Soledad Prison, a white guardJohn Millswas killed. George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo were accused of the murder. All three were regarded as black militants by prison authorities. The extent of their involvement in the murder has never been clarified.

The fate of the "Soledad Brothers" became an international cause célèbre that focused investigative attention and publicity on the treatment of black inmates. Jackson's eloquence and dignity made him a symbol of militant pride and defiance. Massive grassroots rallies and protests popularized the plight of the Soledad Brothers.

The publication in 1970 of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson greatly contributed to Jackson's visibility. The book traced his personal and political evolution and articulated the fundamental relation he saw between the condition of black people inside prison walls and those outside. Jackson believed that the building of a revolutionary consciousness among imprisoned people was the first step in the overall development of an anti-capitalist revolutionary cadre in the United States.

For many of Jackson's supporters in the Black Power movement and the New Left, the guilt or innocence of the Soledad Brothers was not the issue. They perceived the Soledad Brothers as political prisoners who were victims of a conspiracy by prison authorities. Angela Davis, spokesperson for the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, argued that the Soledad Brothers were being persecuted solely because they had helped create an anti-establishment consciousness among black and Chicano inmates.

On August 7, 1970, Jackson's teenage brother, Jonathan, entered the Marin County Courthouse in San Rafael, held the courtroom at gunpoint, distributed weapons to three prisoners present, and attempted to take the judge, assistant district attorney, and three jurors as hostages to bargain for his brother's freedom. In the ensuing struggle, Jonathan Jackson was killed, along with two of the prisoners and the judge. Angela Davis was accused of providing him with the four weapons and was arrested on October 13, 1971. Davis's trial gained international attention, and after spending sixteen months in jail, she was acquitted in 1972.

During 1970 the Soledad Brothers had been transferred to San Quentin Prison. Jackson was killed by prison guards on August 21, 1971, three days before his case was due to go to trial, The official report said that Jackson was armed; that he had participated in a prison revolt earlier in the day, which had left two white prisoners and three guards dead; and that he was killed in an apparent escape attempt. However, accounts of this incident are conflicting, and many argue that Jackson was set up for assassination and had nothing to do with the earlier melee.

Jackson was eulogized by many in the Black Power movement and the New Left as a martyr and a hero. After his death, Soledad Brother was published in England, France, Germany, and Sweden. In March 1972 the remaining two Soledad Brothers were acquitted of the original charges.

See also Black Power Movement; Davis, Angela


Durden-Smith, Jo. Who Killed George Jackson? Fantasies, Paranoia, and the Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Szulc, Tad. "George Jackson Radicalizes the Brothers in Soledad and San Quentin." New York Times Magazine, August 1, 1971.

robyn spencer (1996)

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