The United States imprisons 2.3 million women and men. This is the highest incarceration rate in the advanced capitalist world. Every day this system continues its deadly assault on working people…
by Eljeer Hawkins (Harlem, New York)
Remembering George Jackson: September 23, 1941 – August 21, 1971
On August 21, 1971, the black freedom and prisoners’ rights movement lost one of its “organic intellectuals,” to use a term made famous by 20th century Italian Marxist and political prisoner Antonio Gramsci. The revolutionary commitment that raged inside of George Jackson was born in the belly of American capitalism’s institution of social control, the prison system. He would be gunned down a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, by San Quentin prison guards during an alleged prison break.
Jackson’s Soledad Brother was published in the fall of 1970. His book Blood in My Eye was published posthumously in the fall of 1971. These two works stand as his political manifesto—an unbounded dedication to freedom for the most oppressed people in the world.
George Jackson stands alongside Malcolm X and countless others who became politically and socially aware of racism and capitalism’s underdevelopment of black America while locked down behind the walls of prison. In a few short years he developed into an activist and revolutionary theorist committed to revolutionary change.
I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me. For the first four years, I studied nothing but economics and military ideas. I met black guerrillas—George “Big Jake” Lewis, and James Carr, W.L. Nolen, Bill Christmas, Torry Gibson.…We attempted to transform the black criminal mentality into a black revolutionary mentality.
—Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
Following the Great Depression of the 1930s and driven by the harsh realities of living in the Jim Crow South, the second Great Migration of African-Americans began. Donna Jean Murch, author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, describes this transformation:
In 1940, 77 percent of the total black population lived in the South, with over 49 percent in rural areas; two out of five worked as farmers, sharecroppers or farm laborers. In the next ten years, over 1.6 million people migrated north and westward, to be followed by another 1.5 million in the subsequent decade.…By 1970, more than half of the African American population settled outside the South, with over 75 percent residing in cities. In less than a quarter century, “urban” became synonymous with “black.” (p.15)
During World War II, well-paying jobs in defense plants attracted many working people to industrial cities on the West Coast. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) from the trade union movement fought for jobs and resources for this expanding black working class. However, by the end of the war, the white working class and middle class began to flee urban centers like Oakland. Racism, discrimination in the trade unions, and deindustrialization after 1945 turned cities like Oakland into wastelands of social decay, economic depression, and political alienation.
The California Youth Authority
Capitalism needs and must have the prison to protect itself from the criminals it has created. It not only impoverishes the masses when they are at work, but it still further reduces them by not allowing millions to work at all. The capitalist’s profit has supreme consideration; the life of the workers is of little consequence.
—Eugene V. Debs, Walls & Bars: Prisons & Prison Life In The “Land Of The Free”
The arrival in California of African-Americans from the rural South was met with outright suspicion by the police authority and the state government. The generation of blacks born outside of the South, during and after World War II, tasted the bitter pill of Jim and Jane Crow, California style.
The California Youth Authority (CYA) became the prototype for social control of young people, particularly urban youth of color. CYA was founded in 1941; the Adult Authority followed in 1944. Professor Murch states:
The infusion of federal defense money and newfound prosperity enabled the state to build five medium-security adult facilities between 1944 and 1950…. In 1953, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a special report to “all law enforcement officials,” warning about the dangerous effects of California’s baby boom: “The first wave in this flood tide of new citizens born between 1940 and 1950 has just this year reached the ‘teen age,’ the period in which some of them will inevitably incline toward juvenile delinquency and, later, a full-fledged criminal career.”(p.58)
Lester and Georgia Jackson moved George and the rest of their family from Chicago to California in 1956. George spent time at the CYA in Paso Robles for assault and burglary as a juvenile. Future Black Panther Party (BPP) leaders like Huey P. Newton and Emory Douglass would also serve time in the CYA system. George Jackson entered the California adult prison system at the tender age of eighteen in 1960, having been accused and convicted of armed robbery. He had stolen $70 from a gas station, and went into court with a record as a petty criminal and inadequate (public) counsel. After pleading guilty, George Jackson received the bizarre and cruel sentence of one year to life. He spent his first nine years in San Quentin State prison—seven of them in solitary confinement.
The Birth of a Revolutionary
In his first years in prison, Jackson was not considered a “model” prisoner. He seemed to have a total disregard for authority and fellow inmates. He spent significant time in solitary—or “the hole,” as prisoners called it. The prison letters he authored between 1964 and 1970 showcase a young man grappling with a society that stunted his growth in the context of the collective African-American struggle to overcome the evils of white supremacy and the vestiges of slavery. Especially in the candid letters to his parents, Georgia and Lester, he attempts to understand and explain the interplay of capitalism’s values and its effects on him and the Jackson family.
The letters give us a glimpse into the mind of the voracious reader that George Jackson was, and show the influence of such authors and revolutionaries as Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Mao Zedong. Jackson was inspired by the powerful events of the Cuban revolution and the struggle of the people of Vietnam, as well as the anti-colonial rebellions going on all over the so-called Third World.
Jackson became one of the foremost prison intellectuals and activists of the time, organizing prisoners and later becoming a Field Marshal of the BPP. In 1966 he co-founded, with W.L. Nolen, the Black Guerrilla Family, which was rooted in the ideas of Marx and Mao. In 1969, Jackson and Nolen were transferred to Soledad Prison. In January 1970, a prison guard would gun down Nolen and two other black inmates during a riot. Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Cluchette were accused of killing prison guard O.G. Miller, who had shot and killed Nolen and two other inmates. If convicted of murdering Miller, Jackson and his comrades would face the death penalty. Their case, popularly known as the Soledad Brothers case, gained national and international news coverage and support.
The case exploded with the Marin County courtroom hostage-taking organized by Jonathan Jackson, George’s younger brother. Three prisoners—James McClain, William A. Christmas, and Ruchell Magee—were in court for a hearing when they took over the courtroom with Jonathan Jackson’s assistance. They took Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and several others hostage at gunpoint. In an act of desperation and love, Jonathan Jackson demanded the release of the Soledad Brothers. Angela Davis, then a professor of philosophy at UCLA and the key organizer of the Soledad Brothers campaign, was also a member of the Communist Party USA and a “fellow traveler” of the Black Panther Party. She was named as an accomplice to the crime because the guns used in the takeover were registered in her name.
Jonathan Jackson, McClain, and Christmas all died in a hail of bullets as the police sought to stop the getaway vehicle. Judge Haley would also die in the gunfire. Angela Davis became a fugitive. After her arrest, her case led to a landmark trial in which she campaigned against state-sponsored violence and the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program (a.k.a., COINTLEPRO). She was acquitted.
You Can Kill a Revolutionary, But You Can’t Kill Revolution
Prison guards, they cursed him
As they watched him from above
But they were frightened of his power
They were scared of his love.
So they cut George Jackson down.
They laid him in the ground…
—Bob Dylan, “George Jackson,” 1971
In 1971, the tension leading up to the Soledad Brothers’ trial for the alleged murder of prison guard O.G. Miller was interrupted by the sudden death of George Jackson. Prison authorities alleged that on August 21, Jackson attempted to break out of San Quentin using a 9mm handgun smuggled in by his lawyer and supposedly hidden in his Afro wig. A gunfight resulted in the death of Jackson, two other prisoners, and three prison guards. The Soledad Brothers would be acquitted of the murder of O.G. Miller years later.
A Critical Assessment: Blood in My Eye
Many people believe the Attica prison rebellion of September 1971 was partially inspired by the death of George Jackson the month before. His book, Blood in My Eye, was published posthumously in the fall of 1971. The book is Jackson’s political testament. It touches on themes of imperialism, internal colonialism, Marxist economics, labor history, political consciousness, state violence, and armed struggle.
Jackson examined Salvador Allende’s Chile with a critical eye: “There is simply no way to compare this society or its historical experience with that of a tiny colonial country like Chile: Allende is not seizing property; his government is ‘buying property.’ Until the Chilean ruling capitalist class is suppressed, the Chilean revolution is as meaningless as the Swedish experiment. Socialist governments which attempt to coexist with capitalist economics completely forget the economic motive of human social history.” (George Jackson, Blood in My Eye, p. 77-78.) What Jackson could not see from behind prison walls was the political development and power of the Chilean working class through factory and community committees taking the Allende electoral victory in 1970 as a starting point from which to construct a socialist society. The Chilean revolution was very meaningful to working people worldwide. That is why world capitalism went on the offensive to destroy it. That attack, plus political mistakes by Allende and his government, led to the revolutionary process eventually drowned in blood. The struggle culminated in Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-sponsored military coup on September 11, 1973.
The influence of Maoism was profound during times of Black Power and the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s. The BPP sold copies of Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” on college campuses as a fundraising tool to establish the party and purchase firearms. The Chinese revolution of 1949 that overthrew the capitalist nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek was viewed by many African American activists as a powerful moment for the anti-colonial struggle. The solidarity messages and visits from African American leaders such as W.E.B Dubois, Shirley Graham Dubois, Paul Robeson, Robert F. Williams, and Huey P. Newton would cement the links between Mao’s victorious Chinese revolution and the struggle of African Americans in the US.
On August 8, 1963, Mao expressed his solidarity with African Americans and the struggle for civil rights: “An American Negro leader now taking refuge in Cuba—Mr. Robert Williams, the former President of the Monroe, North Carolina, Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—has twice asked me for a statement in support of the American Negroes’ struggle against racial discrimination. On behalf of the Chinese people, I wish to take this opportunity to express our resolute support for the American Negroes in their struggle against racial discrimination and for freedom and equal rights.”
Maoism’s appeal stemmed from a rejection of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and third world solidarity with people of color. The BPP was not grounded in genuine Marxism, but their influence on revolutionaries of all country cannot be denied. The BPP commitment to freedom, self-determination, socialism, and the rejection of reformist politics has inspired youth and workers around the world.
The BPP circulated its pamphlet, “What We Want,” as well as the ten-point program for full employment; decent housing; free food, clothing, and medical care. All these ideas are socialist in character, but as independent Marxist and organizer James Boggs states: “…the Black Panther Party has resorted to social service programs, such as the Free Breakfast and Free Health programs. Instead of mobilizing the black community to compel the city, state, or federal government to provide such services under community control, the party has taken over the responsibility for their funding and administration.” (James Boggs, Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, 1970.) The BPP’s orientation of recruiting urban youth, the unemployed, working poor, and the prison population demonstrated the revolutionary potential of this layer of the black community. Their great weakness was the inability to make vital links with the black working class, trade union movement, and the militant white working class.
The Cuban revolution that put an end to the Batista dictatorship’s landlordism and gangster capitalism also heavily influenced the BPP. What the Chinese and Cuban revolutions had in common was the negation of the social power and democratic control of society by the working class in the construction of socialism. There was greater emphasis placed on the needs of the peasant population and guerilla warfare. What the BPP, George Jackson, and the black radical left often ignored was the political character of Mao: “He was, by his own admission, a ‘Stalinist,’ and constructed not a democratic workers’ state along the lines of Russia in 1917–23, but a regime similar to that existing in Stalinist Russia. Landlordism and capitalism were gradually eliminated and the beginnings of a planned economy were put into place, although this was presided over by a one-party, totalitarian regime, with power in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy in the party, the state, the army and the economy.” (Peter Taaffe, www.socialistworld.net, 7/20/2005.)
The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class,
destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the
capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with
the help of democratic machinery.
—Leon Trotsky, Whither France?, 1934
George Jackson’s writings on fascism and class struggle demonstrate his deep understanding of history and Marxism. He carefully examines the rise of the counter-revolutionary phenomenon of fascism in Mussolini’s Italy in 1922 and Hitler’s Germany in 1933. He draws a parallel to the US government’s violent response to the militant and revolutionary character of the black freedom movement, the anti-war movement, the American Indian Movement, the Young Lords movement for Puerto Rican nationalism, and New Left activism generally. Activists in social struggle began to use the term fascist to describe the violent tactics of Hoover’s FBI and other US government agencies that sought the annihilation of these movements for freedom and economic justice.
It is crucial to understand the important differences between the events in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, on the one hand, and those in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, on the other. This history must be placed in the proper political context.
Leon Trotsky was the co-leader of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution of 1917 and a great international revolutionary socialist. One of his theoretical contributions to Marxism and to the international workers movement was his program to combat the rise of fascism in Europe. He described the process he saw taking place in Europe in terms of fascists’ manipulation of the people, made desperate by poverty: “At the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium, the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized Lumpenproletariat —all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy….After fascism is victorious, finance capital directly and immediately gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty…” (Leon Trotsky, What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, 1932.)
The rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and later in Spain was rooted in the deep economic crisis of European capitalism following World War I. The social power of the working class and development of socialist and communist ideas throughout Europe opposed this rise of fascism. Memories of the Russian Revolution were still fresh in the 1920s and ’30s. That example of the tremendous potential of revolutionary power was in the background as workers were taking over factories and whole industries, fermenting the revolutionary process in an effort to establish a socialist society. The failure of social democratic parties and Stalinism to lead the working class to take political, economic, and social power would help usher in the dark days and nights of fascism under Hitler and Mussolini. Equating the fascism of the ’30s and the ’40s with the American fascism of the revolutionary ’60s and ’70s was an overreach.
The US experienced a tremendous economic upswing after World War II. For many years after the war the US was the pre-eminent economic, political, and military superpower in the world. Through social struggle by the working class and trade union movement, transformative gains and benefits were achieved under US capitalism and bourgeois democracy. But not everyone benefited from fruits of the post-war upswing. The black working class had to contend with the apartheid system that existed in the South. There were even vestiges of Jim & Jane Crow in northern cities such as Chicago and New York. The civil rights movement began to break the back of racial and class oppression, and eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The militant Black Power movement challenged the institutions of capitalism and state-sponsored violence. Black Power posed the question of self-determination for black Americans, and eventually led not just to a national perspective but to a broader view that included the ideas of anti-imperialism and internationalism.
The presidential election victory of Richard Nixon in 1968 introduced a law and order doctrine, gaining much support from the white working class and the middle classes, particularly in the South. The traditional divide-and-conquer was adapted for the times to become Nixon’s “southern strategy,” which eventually developed into a basic strategy of the Republican Party still in use right up to the present day. In the 1960s, this counter-revolutionary strategy was part of a clear and decisive response by big business to stomp out all dissent in the streets, on campus, and in penitentiaries all across the country. It dovetailed with imperialism’s blood-thirst to end the communist threat in southeast Asia.
The US ruling elite did not need to employ European-style fascism, with its reliance on street thugs and stormtroopers to terrorize the population. Instead, that elite focused on the US labor movement and targeted socialist and communist trade unionists, ultimately expelling almost all of them from the leadership ranks of most unions. A bureaucratic, conservative, and pro-imperialist leadership came to power in the labor movement. These new leaders kept the militancy of organized labor dormant, in the main.
The tactics were not so subtle in the attempts to crush the militant black freedom movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Black Power faced police state tactics and violence by the “armed bodies of men” that daily violated civil and human rights of militant black activists.
The recent Georgia state prisoners strike, the hunger strike by four prisoners held in Ohio State Penitentiary a supermax prison, and the Pelican Bay prisoners hunger strike are all in the spirit of George Jackson and all prisoners fighting for human dignity. The United States imprisons 2.3 million women and men. This is the highest incarceration rate in the advanced capitalist world. Every day this system continues its deadly assault on working people, the poor, youth, and people of color. Another George Jackson is being born every day. George Jackson lived, struggled, and died to create a better world for the most oppressed people. Only through the revolutionary commitment to democratic socialism can we find peace, freedom, and justice.
Eljeer Hawkins, community and anti-war activist, born and raised in Harlem, New York, member of Socialist Alternative/CWI for 16 years. Eljeer is a former shop steward with Teamsters local 851 and former member of SEIU 1199, currently is a non-union healthcare worker in New York City. He contributes regularly to Justice Newspaper, Socialist Alternative and socialistworld.net. Eljeer lives in Queens, New York with his wife and son.