Jackson, George 1941–1971
George Jackson 1941–1971
Author, political activist
Was George Jackson a political martyr and revolutionary hero, or merely an arrogant criminal caught up in the radical mood of his time? Either way, there is no doubt that Jackson was an eloquent spokesman for the American underclass. Though he spent his entire adult life behind bars, Jackson was able to relay his message of discontent across to a wide audience of black militants, white activists, college students, and others. His call for urban guerrilla warfare as a means for affecting social change gave white mainstream Americans nightmares, and gave desperate; impoverished African Americans hope. Jackson’s revolution has not come to pass, but the passions that he and his comrades aroused frame our collective memory of the stormy times in which he lived and died. In addition, his political analyses, whether one likes them or not, remain as relevant as ever.
George Lester Jackson was born on September 23, 1941, on Chicago’s West Side, the second of five children. His father, Lester, was a postal worker. Georgia Jackson, George’s mother, was overprotective, rarely allowing her son to leave the house. Growing up in a segregated neighborhood, Jackson did not see a white person until he started kindergarten. He was so curious about the strange-looking children in his class that he approached the first white boy he saw and started feeling his straight hair and scratching the pale skin on his cheek. The boy responded by knocking Jackson out with a baseball bat.
After that event, Mrs. Jackson transferred her son into a parochial school, St. Malachy. He soon discovered that St. Malachy was actually two separate schools across the street from each other—a run down one for black kids and a well-equipped one for white kids. During the summers, Jackson was sent downstate to stay with his grandmother and aunt in his mother’s hometown of Harrisburg, Illinois, in order to get him away from the dangers of urban life. Jackson enjoyed the relative freedom he was given in the country, and he especially liked learning to use guns and rifles.
Meanwhile, the Jackson family began to outgrow its Chicago apartment. After two more children were born, they moved into a new apartment that was larger, but
At a Glance …
Born George Lester Jackson, September 23, 1941, in Chicago, IL; son of Lester (a postal worker) and Georgia Jackson. Education : Completed eleventh grade at Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles, CA. Politics : Militant revolutionary.
Began serving one-year-to-life prison sentence for gas station robbery, 1961; Black Panther organizer, 1961-1969; charged with killing prison guard, 1970; published Soledad Brother, a collection of prison letters, 1970; killed while allegedly attempting to escape from prison, 1971; posthumously published Blood in My Eye, a collection of letters and essays, 1972.
Awards: Nonfiction book award from the Black Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1971.
Member: Black Panther Party.
located in a more dangerous neighborhood. Jackson began sneaking out of the house more and more, and his life on the street included petty crimes of all sorts. By about 1950, he was having run-ins with the law on a regular basis. The family soon moved again, this time into the Troop Street housing projects. The projects served as a virtual training ground for criminal behavior. By the time he was a teenager, the quick-learning and increasingly rebellious Jackson had graduated from shoplifting to mugging and other more serious offenses. He would often disappear from home for days at a time.
In an effort to straighten his son up, Lester Jackson obtained a transfer from the post office and moved George across country to Los Angeles in 1956. The move did nothing to alter the young Jackson’s behavior. He quickly became involved in a street gang called the Capones. Jackson’s first California arrest came in January of 1957, when he was taken in for stealing a motorcycle. Several more arrests followed in quick succession, but as a minor he was always released into his father’s custody. Eventually, a department store break-in finally landed him in the Paso Robles youth facility north of Los Angeles. Although he missed the freedom to roam, Jackson’s stay at Paso Robles was not all that bad. He liked the food and, more importantly, he enjoyed the opportunity to read a lot.
Released from the youth camp after seven months, Jackson returned to Los Angeles, where he quickly resumed his career as a robber. He pleaded guilty to a Bakersfield gas station hold-up, then calmly walked out of the county jail by tying up and impersonating another inmate who was scheduled to be released. He was eventually recaptured in Harrisburg, Illinois, where he had spent summers as a boy. He was brought back to California and returned to a California Youth Authority facility, where he remained until his parole in June of 1960.
The next few months were the last that Jackson would ever spend as a free man. Later that year he was arrested in connection with a gas station robbery that netted 71 dollars. Convinced by his public defender that it would result in a lighter sentence, Jackson pleaded guilty. Because of his previous convictions, however, he was given the indefinite sentence of one year to life. At the age of 19, Jackson entered Soledad Prison, where he remained a prisoner for the rest of his life.
Jackson was no more obedient to authority in prison than he had been on the street. In 1962 he was transferred to San Quentin Prison for a series of infractions. There he came under the tutelage of an older inmate, W. L. Nolen. Nolen familiarized Jackson with the writing of many radical political theorists, including Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung, and black-Algerian psychologist Franz Fanon. Jackson was a good student, and he was soon well-versed in leftist political thought. He came to see his crimes and imprisonment in a political context, and he quickly became a leader among the growing faction of politically-charged inmates at San Quentin. The study groups founded by Jackson, Nolen, and other inmates eventually evolved into a revolutionary organization called the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), which still exists and recognizes Jackson as the chief intellectual force behind its creation. His aim was to rechannel the rebellious energies of African Americans away from petty crimes toward political activity.
Jackson was repeatedly denied parole, either because of his disruptive behavior—as claimed by prison officials and members of the parole board—or because of racism and his political activism—as claimed by Jackson and his supporters. In 1968 he was transferred back to Soledad. There he continued in his efforts to help raise the consciousnesses of his fellow African American inmates. Gradually, Jackson’s world view gelled into a cohesive revolutionary philosophy that revolved around the need to overthrow the racist, imperialist United States establishment through armed warfare. He became an important prison organizer for the Black Panthers, an organization that shared his radical outlook.
In 1970 three black Soledad prisoners were shot to death by a white guard during a minor fistfight in the exercise yard. A few days later, a different white guard was found beaten to death. Jackson, along with two other black prisoners, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, was charged with the guard’s murder. The case received nationwide attention, and the trio of suspects became known as the Soledad Brothers. Many people believed that the Soledad Brothers were being framed because of their political activities, and a number of famous liberals and radicals spoke out on their behalf, most notably University of California professor Angela Davis. Davis and Jackson went on to become close friends. While the case was at its height of controversy, a collection of Jackson’s prison letters was published under the title Soledad Brother. The book became a national best-seller, and suddenly George Jackson was being hailed—and condemned—as a leading figure among militant black thinkers.
Among those who were strongly influenced by Jackson’s writing was his younger brother, Jonathan Jackson. On August 7, 1970, Jonathan was shot to death by police during an attempt to take over a California courthouse to free three San Quentin inmates who were on trial. The judge and two of the inmates were also killed during the episode. In the summer of 1971, Jackson was sent back to San Quentin to await trial for his alleged role in the killing of the Soledad guard. While there, he completed another book of essays and letters, Blood in My Eye. In this second book, Jackson predicted and called for civil war in the United States. He also predicted his own murder in prison.
A week after the completion of Blood in My Eye, one of those predictions may have come true. On August 21, 1971, Jackson was shot while allegedly trying to escape from San Quentin. There is still widespread disagreement about what actually took place that day. According to prison officials, Jackson’s lawyer Stephen Bingham smuggled in a gun, which Jackson then concealed under an Afro wig. Jackson then shot a guard, released several other prisoners, and made a break for the prison wall, before being gunned down by tower guards. Three guards and two other prisoners were also killed during the chaos. Supporters of Jackson point to a number of inconsistencies and improbable elements in that story. They believe that Jackson was set up and murdered by prison authorities because he had become too powerful and posed a serious threat to their control. Meanwhile, Bingham disappeared from sight and remained a fugitive until the mid-1980s, when he was tried for and acquitted of smuggling the gun to Jackson.
There may never be general agreement as to what actually took place on the day Jackson was killed. As political moods shift with the passage of time, the idea of a prison conspiracy no longer seems particularly farfetched to the American public. At the same time, the urban guerrilla warfare that Jackson called for does not seem as imminent as it may have been in 1971. Nevertheless, Jackson’s thoughts on racism and class conflict remain relevant, and they have played a large role in the intellectual development of a generation of African Americans who seek to change their society.
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, Coward McCann, 1970.
Blood in My Eye, Random House, 1972.
Jackson, George, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, Coward McCann, 1970.
Liberatore, Paul, The Road to Hell, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.
Mann, Eric, Comrade George, Hovey Street Press, 1972.
Yee, Min S., The Melancholy History of Soledad Prison, Harper’s Magazine Press, 1973.
Metro Times (Detroit), May 3, 1995, pp. 4-5.
New York Times Magazine, August 1, 1971, pp. 11-20.
—Robert R. Jacobson
Jackson, George 1960(?)–
George Jackson 1960(?)–
Record company executive, film producer
After rising through the ranks in Hollywood film studios to become a successful producer, George Jackson has parlayed his media experience into a prominent position in the music industry. Hired as the president and CEO of Motown Records in late 1997, Jackson accepted the challenge of rebuilding the once preeminent pop music label. A Harlem native with a B. A. in Sociology from Harvard, he was chosen for talents that combine creative passion and business acumen. As a film producer, Jackson has made popular films with urban themes, including New Jack City and House Party 2. His films are notable for their soundtracks and for making nearly double the average gross income for films in their budget range.
The man who is known to his friends and associates as “Poppa George,” came to Hollywood in 1982 to work for Paramount Television’s sitcom The New Odd Couple. The next year, he moved to Universal Pictures to become executive assistant to Thom Mount, the president of Worldwide Production. Jackson’s steady climb upwards continued when he spent the next two years as executive vice president of production at Indigo, Richard Pryor’s production company at Columbia Pictures. Next, he headed Grio Entertainment Group, a Warner Bros.-based partnership with Quincy Jones and Clarence Avant.
In 1985 Jackson set up shop to make his own films when he co-founded Jackson-McHenry Entertainment Company with Doug McHenry. The team produced and sometimes directed youth-and music-oriented films that were more notable for their box office returns than for their artistic impact. Their first film was the 1985 rap-oriented Krush Groove. In varying degrees, music would be important in all Jackson-McHenry films, which have generated soundtracks that gained gold and multi-platinum status. Comedies House Party 2 and House Party 3 were an opportunity for the pair to mix Animal House-style humor with more serious commentary about the experiences of black college students. The first of the two films, which both feature the comedy duo Kid ‘N Play, was also Jackson’s and McHenry’s directorial debut. This endeavor was typical of the hands-on approach favored by the team, who are known for being involved in all aspects of a film’s production, including scriptwriting,
At a Glance…
Born in 1960?, in Harlem, NY; married Yuko Sum ida, 1998. Education: Harvard University, B.A. in sociology.
Career: Production assistant, Paramount Television show, The New Odd Couple, 1982-83; executive assistant to president of Worldwide Production, Universal Pictures, 1983-84; executive vice president of production, Indigo, Columbia Pictures, 1984-86; head of Grio Entertainment Group, Warner Bros.; co-founder Jackson-McHenry Entertainment, 1985, Elephant Walk Entertainment, 1996; co-produced Krush Groove, 1985, House Party 2, 1991, New Jack City, 1991 House Party 3, 1994, Jason’s Lyric, 1994, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, 1996, TV movie Body Count, 1998, and television series Malcolm & Eddie; president and CEO, Motown Record Company, 1997-.
Member: Producers Guild, American Film Institute Third Decade Council, Independent Film Project West, Black Filmmaker Foundation, Big Brothers Association of America.
Awards: NAACP Image Award, Black American Cinema Society Award, Communications Excellence to Black Audiences Award.
Addresses: Office —Motown Record Co., L.P. 825 8th Avenue, 29th Floor, New York, NY 10019-1736.
music, and marketing.
Perhaps the most successful—and controversial—Jackson-McHenry film is New Jack City. The story of a community’s battle to bring down a crack-selling drug lord in Harlem, New Jack City grossed some $48 million during its first year and was credited by Los Angeles Times writer Claudia Puig for being “probably what broke the ice for pictures like ‘Boyz N the Hood.’” It also generated considerable criticism, however, when a series of violent events at theaters across the United States were tied to the film. The partnership responded with a New York Times editorial that included the comment: “Those who argue, as many have, that our film encourages viewers to imitate the violence they’ve seen on the screen are wrong. The real cause of violence at the theaters is not cinematic images of drug culture but decades of poverty in our communities.” The producers also noted their cinematic intent of condemning drug culture, and their determination to present an accurate picture of it.
Talking to the Los Angeles Times in 1991, reporter Joe Prichirallo noted, “The interesting thing about Doug and George is they want to be more than just creative people. They want to be the black Samuel Goldwyns. They want to be moguls. They want to run studios.” This idea was confirmed by the 1996 creation of Elephant Walk Entertainment, in which Jackson became partners with McHenry and Rob Lee. The Elephant Walk company umbrella includes Jackson-McHenry Films, talent agency Elephant Walk Management, Elephant Walk Television—which produces United Paramount Network’s Malcolm & Eddie, record label JacMac, music publishers Harlem Boys Music and Oaktown Boys Music, and the SLANG music website. Jackson’s work as a producer since New Jack City includes Jason’s Lyric (1994), A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996), and the TV movie Body Count (1998). In this last film, Jackson also appeared on screen as a ticket agent.
When Jackson became president and CEO of Motown in 1997, it raised the question of whether his hiring was a sound decision. As Jackson acknowledged in USA Today in February of 1998, “I wasn’t a record man. I was a movie guy, and how dare I try to run a record company, and not just any record company—Motown.…For a lot of people, the jury is still out.” Certainly, Jackson had big shoes to fill. Motown Records was a huge hit producer during the 1960s and 1970s under founder Berry Gordy, who signed acts including the Miracles, The Commodores, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, Diana Ross, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. The record label foundered after Gordy sold the company in 1988 to Boston Ventures. Polygram later purchased the company, placing a huge value on the catalog and brand name, but Motown did poorly under the stewardship of Jackson’s predecessor, Andre Harrell.
Describing Jackson’s predicament in Fortune, Roy S. Johnson said, “he is entering a real quagmire—assuming the leadership of the most recognizable brand in the music business at a time when the company is still reeling from years of disappointing results, poor management, public controversy, and intrigue.” Clarence Avant, Motown’s chairman emeritus, saw Jackson’s role in reviving Motown in a larger context when he commented in Fortune, “White people can afford to lose Pan Am, Montgomery Ward, or Woolworth’s.… There are a million other white-run institutions. Blacks cannot afford to lose even one.” And Avant explained why he felt Jackson was up to the task of reviving Motown in Black Enterprise: “I’ve known George for 15 years.…He’s always been ahead of the marketplace in identifying trends, and music has always been a part of his life and his projects. I think George is uniquely suited to lead the company given his understanding of trends, technologies, music and entertainment in general.”
Jackson began rebuilding Motown’s fortunes by making staffing cuts and signing new artists. He presided over Motown’s 40th anniversary in 1998, and the many events and promotions related to its celebration. At the time of his hire, Boyz II Men and Queen Latifah were the biggest names on the Motown roster, which had shrunk considerably in size and prominence since the label’s heyday. In response to this situation, Motown merged with Polygram’s Mercury Records R&B division in February of 1998, and several Mercury acts were transferred to the Motown label including Tony Toni Tone, Brian McKnight, Will Downing, and Raphael Saadiq. According to Billboard’s Anita M. Samuels at the time of the merger, “Although Motown’s specialties are R&B and hip-hop, the company’s immediate plans include making inroads in rap music.” Jackson also hoped to create tour packages resembling the old Motown Revues and supervised the institution of two new television programs, Motown Mondays on VH1 and the syndicated Motown Live.
In addition to his responsibilities at Motown, Jackson’s professional plans include a remake of The Mack, a 1973 blaxploitation film about a pimp named Goldie. Working with McHenry and 20th Century Fox, he has tackled the difficult job of reworking a film that some consider politically incorrect. Jackson, however, remarked in the Los Angeles Times that he saw the remake as an opportunity to “expose society’s hypocrisy, get the roaches out from under the carpet.…Gangster films take an uncompromising view of what has come to be known as the ‘American way.’” As with New Jack City, Jackson seeks to provide his audience with an entertaining film, but one that also expresses the real concerns of the black community.
Black Enterprise, February 1998, p. 25.
Billboard, November 8, 1997, p. 12.
Fortune, November 24, 1997, p. 133.
Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1991, p. F1; June 30, 1997, p. F1.
New York Times, March 26, 1991, p. A23.
USA Today, February 12, 1998, p. 8B.
—Paula Pyzik Scott