At the age of 18, George Jackson was condemned to a prison sentence of one year to life for the alleged robbery of $70 from a Los Angeles gas station. Jackson spent the remainder of his short life behind bars, but it was from the confines of prison that he became one of the most powerful revolutionary voices and one of greatest living threats to the American capitalist system. Jackson’s autobiographical book of prison letters, titled Soledad Brother, would become a touchstone of Black revolutionary thought for generations of radicals within and outside the prison-industrial complex. As Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party and one of the organization’s principal thinkers, Jackson’s philosophy and strategy for revolution lit the path to armed struggle taken by the Black Liberation Army and other organizations. On the 52nd anniversary of his killing by prison authorities, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez joins Rattling the Bars to speak with host Mansa Musa about Jackson’s towering life and example, and about the impact Jackson’s work had on Mansa, on our departed mentor and fellow political prisoner Marshall “Eddie” Conway, and on their incarcerated comrades.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I’m Maximilian Alvarez, editor-in-chief here at The Real News Network. This is a special edition of Rattling the Bars, which The Real News is going to be publishing on August 21 on the 52nd anniversary of the Death of Black political revolutionary, George Jackson. Born in 1941, Jackson grew up in poverty in Chicago. As a Black boy in a deeply segregated America, Jackson, like so many others, was marked from birth.
At best, he was not seen at all. A non-entity. A second or third-class person in a society made by and for white people. At worst, he was seen only as a criminal in waiting, condemned to prison or death for the crime of his Blackness. Jackson did in fact spend much of his life plagued by the law and the carceral system and he did in fact die in prison. But through his writing, particularly his collection of letters from prison published under the title Soledad Brother, Jackson would become one of the most prominent and revolutionary Black voices speaking from the underworld.
Now of course, as the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, I have had the great honor to work with Mansa Musa and our dearly departed mentor and comrade Eddie Conway. Mansa has spent 48 years locked up, Eddie 44 years, as political prisoners in the United States of America. I have frankly lost count of the times that George Jackson’s name has come up in conversations with Mansa and Eddie over the past few years.
So to commemorate the anniversary of Jackson’s death and to celebrate his life and work, we wanted to devote a full Rattling the Bars conversation to Jackson himself and to take a moment to hear more from Mansa about what Jackson has meant to him, to Eddie, and to all those in the struggle for Black liberation and the struggle to dismantle the prison-industrial complex. But I know that for a lot of us, this is history that we may not be familiar with. And it’s not exactly actively taught in schools.
And so, if you all will permit me, I wanted to read a chunk quote from the 1994 edition of Soledad Brother, published by Lawrence Hill Books, which contains a tight two-page historical summary of Jackson, his life, and his death. I promise I will shut up after I read this lengthy passage but it’s important to give you all as much context upfront. Especially, for those who were not taught about George Jackson in school.
In the edition of Soledad Brother that I referenced, the introduction states, “In 1960, at the age of 18, 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, i.e., 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 10 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 28th year, Jackson and two other Black inmates, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette 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 Clutchette 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 US 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 100 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 17-year-old high school student in Pasadena, staged a raid on the Marin County courthouse with a satchel full 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 30 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 US 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.’ “
Again, apologies for that lengthy introduction, but as I said before, we wanted to try to squeeze in as much historical context for you all before we really dig into George Jackson, his book Soledad Brother, and the effect that it had on folks in and outside of prison. But Mansa, I wanted to turn things over to you. Before we dig into Jackson himself and Soledad Brother, let’s take viewers and listeners back to that moment in history.
1970. This is right before you yourself entered the prison system. You and I have talked about this in other episodes, about the state of the country and what was going on around you at that time. Before we talk about George Jackson, take us back to that moment. What do you think people today need to remember about what was going on in the country at that time and what was going on in the prisons at that time?
Mansa Musa: That’s a good observation, Max because what was going on was, we’re talking about during that period, the war in Vietnam was at its height. So the biggest thing that was going on in this country was the protests against the war in Vietnam. That in and of itself gave a lot of attention to social upheaval.
Radicals on the left, militants Black and white, were protesting the war in Vietnam, but more importantly, the social conditions that were existing in the Black community. The Civil Rights Movement was peaking and you had the Black Panther party that came into existence. In society, in general, you had an all-out war by the government, the fascists, against any social discontentment, and social upheaval. This is what was going on at that time.
You had the war in Vietnam, you had the Civil Rights Movement, and in the South, you had Jim Crow running amok. In the North, you had Jim Crow running amok in the form of a different color. The Sentencing Project, NLADA, is 50 years in the wake of the utilization of the prison-industrial complex to control social upheaval. Now in the ’70s, that’s when you had mass incarceration started to take shape.
Maximillian Alvarez: It was Eddie on a previous Rattling The Bars episode or an interview that he did where he said something that really stuck with me, where he was like, from the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s, the Black Power Movement, the moment that Black people started rising up and demanding accountability for what white society had done to them for 400 years, that’s when the prisons started swelling with Black bodies. Thus, we get the era of mass incarceration. The expansion of the prison-industrial complex, famously termed, “The New Jim Crow.” But I wanted to also ask what it was like inside the prisons at that time because that was not a pretty picture either.
Mansa Musa: Right. Now, you have the Attica Rebellion but during that time in the ’70s, you had every major institution, and prison in the US had some type of rebellion, which they dubbed riots. But this was rebelling against inhumane and oppressive prison conditions. This is what you had coming in. This is what you had in the prison.
When you read about George Jackson and you read about the prison guards killing three unarmed individuals in the courtyard, that was common practice in the US. The condition was so bad in Texas prison that a prisoner filed a lawsuit. He wrote it on toilet paper to get the lawsuit out into the court system in order for them to reverse the inhumane living conditions. Inhumanity and inhumane living conditions in prison. This was common practice.
In prison, it was right for prisoners to come together around changing the conditions that they found themselves in. It didn’t necessarily come around a particular ideology. They came around the ideology, we want to be treated better than we are being treated. It wasn’t that in Attica they came together around an ideology that, this is our ideology. No. They came together around, we’re being oppressed and dehumanized and we can’t continue to live like this because we’re dying off. We might as well die fighting, staying on our feet dying, as opposed to laying down and kowtowing. Because we’re going to die.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, I got chills even thinking about being in that position. But as you said, that was basically the choice at that point. You get explosions like the Attica Uprising, because it’s like, well, we’re going to die here anyway and we’re being picked off and malnourished. What else do we have to lose at this point?
But then, as you said before, and as we’ve talked about off camera many times, then, you had this political awakening and George Jackson played a huge role in that. I wanted to ask if you could remember the first time that you read Soledad Brother. What impression did it leave on you? How did it change your thinking? What was it about Jackson’s story and his writing that struck so many people, including yourself, on the inside?
Mansa Musa: That’s a good point. I remembered I was in the county jail and I knew the circumstances I was locked up for. The probability of me getting out anytime soon was slim to none. A friend of mine, a young lady, had sent me a copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. When I read Soledad Brother, what resonated with me was I could understand George, where he came from, and the conditions that he lived under.
When he talked about living in wires, he talked about the relationship between being poor and living in a poor environment and the conditions that they lived under. How those things created a certain mindset in his family, his father, and the way his father went to work. All these things resonated with me because I lived in that same environment. For me, reading his letters started opening my eyes up to realize that I was that individual that he talked about when he spoke about the goal and objective of the prisoners in the California prison system.
William Nolen was a change in the criminal mentality into a revolutionary mentality because that’s what George had been transformed from: a criminal mentality to a revolutionary mentality. I understood that. And the impact it had on me, it made me want to learn more. It made me want to understand more about what exactly was this that he was talking about. That opened the door for me to do more reading and more studying, and ultimately led me into a position where I started identifying with certain revolutionary struggles and revolutionary politics.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, to hook this back to the first question. What was going on in the country around 1970? You entered the prison system in ’71?
Mansa Musa: Yep. ’72.
Maximillian Alvarez: ’72. That’s right. I remember you and I, in a past conversation, we had talked about what it was like for you growing up in and around DC in the ’60s. So much of what you told me then was resonating when I was reading George Jackson’s Prison Letters. The way he describes white society and being Black in white society, like Richard Wright, it’s like an occupation. I think he calls it, “A crisis existence.”
Mansa Musa: Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: You’re constantly living in a state of emergency and every aspect of your existence feels like life under an occupying force. You’re trying to evade as best you can but eventually, it comes for everyone. And it feels like – I don’t want to put words in your mouth – But did it feel that way for you before going into the prison system? What chance do I have in this society when there are even parts of DC I can’t go in? I can’t get certain types of jobs. I’m not going to get certain benefits to build a dignified middle-class life as a Black man in America.
Mansa Musa: Malcolm said it best. He said that the oppression that existed within the Black community created a sense of inadequacy in Black men in particular because we’re talking about a period where you had the Civil Rights Movement. Then, you assassinate Dr. King. When Dr. King gets assassinated, every town everywhere in the US goes up in smoke. Not because people identify with Dr. King and his non-violent philosophy but because they realize at that juncture that here goes a man that was advocating peaceful coexistence and you killed them all.
We’re living in the most horrible and decadent living conditions. Which chance do we stand if you killed them off for speaking nonviolence? That’s how I felt. I felt that, eventually, I don’t have no way out of this lifestyle that was imposed upon me in these oppressive conditions. Ultimately, I’m going to wind up either dead or in prison. And so, when I got in prison, and then I come in contact with George Jackson, he’s saying the same thing. He’s saying, ultimately, I’m going to wind up either dead or in prison. He’s speaking to me and he’s speaking to thousands and hundreds of thousands of other prisoners that live this experience. He’s speaking about a life that all of us live in different social, economic, and political conditions within society, but always had the same thing in common. Poor, Black, and in real trouble.
Maximillian Alvarez: I want to bring Eddie into the conversation, because like you said, a friend had sent you George Jackson’s Prison Letters when you were in the county jail, getting ready to go to prison for what you knew was going to be a long time. But then, as you said, George Jackson’s Prison Letters impacted so many people beyond yourself. As we’ve talked about in previous episodes, I know that you and Eddie and others on the inside, you guys were turning over milk crates. You were reading Mao’s Little Red Book, getting into revolutionary conversations. Where did George Jackson fit into that? What conversations would you and Eddie and others get into about Jackson inside the prison?
Mansa Musa: And that’s an interesting question because when you look at Comrade George – That’s what he’s commonly referred to by everybody –
Maximillian Alvarez: We’ll refer to him as Comrade George for now.
Mansa Musa: – When you look at Comrade George and Comrade George’s writings, on the heels of Prison Letters, he wrote Blood in My Eye. And in Blood in My Eye, you got a chance to see how much he was an astute political student. This is really what our conversation about Comrade George was because most people during that period romanticized Comrade George and his writings. And so identifying with him as an individual, they identified more with his revolutionary stance in terms of his being a military strategist.
We identified with George Jackson. We knew him to be an astute political student and he understood the revolutionary politics. Because he understood what this is. If you don’t have a political understanding and you don’t have a political ideology, you don’t have a political position, then no matter what you say, it’s going to be for nothing. When you’re talking about revolution, you’re talking about going to people and organizing people to understand the need and the necessity to overthrow a government or a country. You can’t get them to get that understanding of the strength of might alone. You have to educate them on the strength of understanding that the conditions they live under are bad and that it’s a better way to live and educate them on what this means in terms of taking a stand. And this is the conversation we had about Comrade George.
We looked at him from him being an astute political thinker and understanding his essays, his work, and his writings in the context of that. Because of that, when we had a conversation, we were able to take a lot of his works towards The United Front, where he did this analysis on the sheer size of the prison-industrial complex versus the amount of people in there. Automatically opened the door for a Unitarian-type organization. This is astute political thinking to see the connection between the prison-industrial complex during that time and how it could be utilized and organized for revolutionary activity. This is what we talked about. We talked about that part of George Jackson. We recognized that he was the field marshal general. We recognized that he was a military strategist for us, but at the same time, we knew that he was an astute political thinker.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, you, Eddie, and so many others are living proof of that thesis. As we said, in direct response to Black America rising up and demanding accountability for 400-plus years of white supremacist racial terror and oppression, and so on and so forth. We have a period in the ’50s and ’60s where it feels like maybe the balance is going to shift. But then, we create this explosive expansion of the prison-industrial complex to try to capture all of that revolutionary energy.
Especially, coming from Black America, but not exclusively. Like you said, even the white, Latino, and American Indian movements. They went after all of us, but they definitely went after Black revolutionaries especially. In that situation, you have two choices: either a whole generation of revolutionaries gets swallowed up and lost to history, or they get swallowed up like Jonah and the whale and you guys start organizing inside the whale. Then, you’re like, we don’t know if we’re ever going to get out of here, but these are our conditions and this is the flock we have to work with. This is the world in which we can organize. So it’s either do that or die, basically. That’s an incredible tale but I wanted to drill down on that even more. Because you mentioned this quote, and I wanted to get your thoughts on it in even more depth.
This is at the end of Comrade George’s first letter in Soledad Brother, where he writes, “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, Tory Gibson, and many, many others. We attempted to transform the Black criminal mentality into a Black revolutionary mentality. As a result, each of us has been subjected to years of the most vicious, reactionary violence by the state.”
Let’s talk about transforming the Black criminal mentality into a Black revolutionary mentality. What did that mean to you? What did that transformation look like for all of you on the inside?
Mansa Musa: The first thing you’re going to recognize is that you ain’t taking no more BS. Now, you are aware of who you are and you recognize that you have a certain right to be treated a certain way. See, when we talk about William Nolen and he talks about Big Jake and them. These are the people that educated him. These are the people he came in contact with. These are the comrades that when they were together, were having their political education classes. They were talking about, like you said, Marx, Lenin, Engels. These were the conversations they were having. The same as we were having. We were having these same conversations, but more importantly, we weren’t theorizing; we were looking at the conditions within the prison and starting to demand certain changes in the way we were living and the way we were being treated.
This is why you had the Attica Uprising; people were starting to become educated about the way they were being treated and their rights. In Comrade George’s situation, they became more politicized. And then, becoming politicized, they recognized that it’s only through raising the consciousness of the prison population that we are going to be effective in terms of changing the conditions, not only inside, but also changing the conditions in society. Because we’re not confined to the prison walls.
Our horizon goes beyond the prison walls in terms of our thinking. In our case, this is what it looked like for me. What it looked like for me was I recognized that, no matter where I’m at, I have a right to be treated as a human being. No matter where I’m at, the conditions that I live under, I have a right to have those conditions reflective of treating me like a human being. More importantly, they’re going to have to change these conditions or it’s going to be a problem. This is what we did. We organized in terms of the medical, and we organized in terms of the food, but this came out of our political education. Our political education told us that if you’re not being treated right, it is not about rebel rousing. It’s not about rah, rah, rah. It’s about doing the grunt work. Getting down. Telling people, listen, we have a right to have adequate medical treatment and the way we going to go about getting adequate medical treatment is we’re going to boycott something in the institution.
We’re not going to go to work in the industry. We’re not going to go in the kitchen. We’re not going to come out of our cell. We’re going to make them come to us and ask us what’s going on and we’re going to tell them. This is what happened with George. That’s why they were marked. They were marked because they challenged the prison-industrial complex. They challenged the powers that be and they were in an environment where they didn’t have no restraints in terms of the police. The police in the California prison carried guns on the catwalk. Or when you went out in the yard, they were armed, locked, and loaded. In the event that one of their agents is hurrying, they told them to go start something. Start something, and then duck. Start something, and then get out of the way.
And that’s what happened with William Nolen and that’s what happened with them. It was inevitable that they were going to come and get somebody. They were going to come and get three prisoners. It was inevitable. When they came and got George Jackson, which turned out to be Soledad Brothers, John Clutchette, Fleeta Drumgo, and George Jackson, it was inevitable. If they didn’t exist, they were going to come and get three, four, or five people. Because they knew that they couldn’t say who did what to the prison guard, but they knew that everybody in that prison felt that way toward the guards. It was like, pick somebody. They happened to pick George because they probably were the most vocal in terms of organizing and educating prisoners.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. When you live in a society like the US which beats into our brains from birth, this individualist fiction, this belief that we’re all free-floating individuals who can attain the American dream if we work hard enough and that we alone are responsible for everything that happens to us. In that society, if you break the law, if you get put in prison, you are a criminal. You are a bad individual who needs to be reformed. But going from that to thinking about, well, I grew up in a society where Black people can’t even live outside of the poor parts of the city. We can’t even get jobs to afford to support ourselves. We’re getting harassed every step we take on the street by the police. We’re getting victimized by the Klan.
You start to see all the different conditions that leave you with, as you said earlier about yourself, you know that you’re either going to end up dead or in prison anyway. But once you start to develop a systemic critique of the conditions that leave so few choices for Black men like yourself, that’s an important part of transferring the criminal mentality to a revolutionary mentality is seeing first the conditions and then changing those conditions. Organizing, doing the grunt work to change those conditions. That’s as eternal and relevant of a message as I can think of. But I wanted to end on that note because here we are 52 years after Comrade George’s death. I wanted to ask what you think George Jackson’s legacy is today. And why do you still think that his work, his words, and the legacy he left are still relevant for us here in the struggle today, in 2023?
Mansa Musa: And that’s really a very good question in the context of what we’re talking about. When you think about George Jackson’s legacy, we had what we call Black August. And Black August is like the outgrowth of George Jackson. When you say Black Lives Matter, all these movements that we see today, you can trace their lineage back to George Jackson, the Black Panther party, and people that were in that space of civil rights.
George Jackson’s legacy today is that what he thought and what he believed is still going on as we speak today. You still have us organizing in prison. You still have us organizing around social conditions in society. You still have people taking a stand against inhumane and oppressive conditions. George Jackson’s legacy is the legacy of Harriet Tubman. George Jackson’s legacy is the legacy of all those former slaves that fought the Nat Turners. George Jackson’s legacy is the legacy of everybody that took a stand against oppression and dehumanization.
Because of this, we are here today to say that we can speak openly about things. And in prison today, even with all the oppression and dehumanization that’s going on, people are standing up because they know that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. We want to close on this note by acknowledging that in terms of standing for something, we ask that you stand with Rattling The Bars and The Real News. Because of events like this here; We talk about George Jackson, we talk about Malcolm X, we talk about our beloved Comrade Eddie Conway. But more importantly, we talk about issues that are relevant to changing attitudes and changing conditions in society. Or giving voice to people that don’t have a voice. And it’s important that we be in this space to give voice to people that don’t have a voice.
We won’t tell people what to say, but give people the opportunity to say what they want to say about the situation and aid the system in getting that message out. We ask you to continue to support The Real News and Rattling The Bars as we go forward. Thank you.