George Jackson: Letter from a Soledad Brother

Glen Wheeler and Claudia Grayson, known as Sister Sheeba, stand outside George Jackson's funeral at St. Augustine's Church in Oakland, California_August 1971

Glen Wheeler and Claudia Grayson, known as Sister Sheeba, stand outside George Jackson’s funeral at St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland, California_August 1971

Crowd outside in Oakland, California, when  George Jackson's coffin was being brought into St. Augustine's Church_photograph by Stephen Shames_August 1971

Crowd outside in Oakland, California, when George Jackson’s coffin was being brought into St. Augustine’s Church_photograph by Stephen Shames_August 1971

In 1960, at the age of eighteen, George Jackson (1941-1971)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 so – 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 a leading theoretician of the prison movement and a perceptive writer. Soledad Brother, which contains the letters that he wrote from 1964 to 1970, is his testament.


Excerpt from Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson:

March 1967

Dear Mama,

Papa has had the “true release, and at last the clasp of peace.” For him to have received this at such a great age and without violence is no small consolation. I loved him dearly and thought of him as one of our most practical and level-headed kin. You probably don’t remember the long walks and talks Papa and I used to take, or the long visits when he lived on Lake Street and we lived on Warren. But I remember. He used to say things, probably just thinking aloud, sure that I wasn’t listening or would not comprehend. But I did, and I think I knew him better than most. Do you remember how I used to answer “What” to every question put to me, and how Papa would deride me for this? He later in the course of our exchanges taught me to answer questions with “Why” instead of “What.”

Another of our games helped me greatly with my powers of observation. When we would walk, he told me to always look at the large signboards as deeply as possible and after we had passed one, he would make me recite all that was on it. I would never remember as much detail as he, but I did win a kind word or two on occasion. We played this same game at his house with pictures and objects spread out on the table or bed.

I wish he could have survived to see and enjoy the new world we plan to create from this chaos. If I could have gotten out of here last year he would never have gone out on sardines and crackers. I don’t know how anyone else views the matter and don’t care, but now for me his is one more voice added to the already thunderous chorus that cries from unmarked and unhallowed graves for vindication.

Don’t wait for me to change or modify my attitudes in the least. I cannot understand, as you put it, or as you would have me understand. I am a man, you are a woman. Being a woman, you may expect to be and enjoy being tyrannized. Perhaps you actually like walking at the heel of another, or otherwise placing yourself beneath another, but for me this is despicable. I refuse to even attempt to understand why I should debase myself or concede or compromise any part, the smallest part, of anything on earth to anyone who is not of my kind in thought and form. I love you, Mama, but I must be frank. Why did Papa die alone and hungry? Why did you think me insane for wanting a new bicycle instead of the old one I stole piece by piece and put together? Why did you allow us to worship at a White altar? Why even now, following tragedy after tragedy, crisis after crisis, do you still send Jon to that school where he is taught to feel inferior, and why do you continue to send me Easter cards? This is the height of disrespect you show me. You never wanted me to be a Man nor Jon either. You don’t want us to resist and defeat our Enemies. What is wrong with you, Mama? No other mama in history has acted the way you act under stress situations.

I won’t be a good “boy” ever



ZP_George Jackson_1941 to 1971

.     .     .     .     .

Walter Rodney: Tribute to George Jackson

Emory Douglas poster for The Black Panthers

Emory Douglas poster for The Black Panthers

Portrait of Walter Rodney, Guyanese historian and activist, 1942-1980

Portrait of Walter Rodney, Guyanese historian and activist, 1942-1980

Walter Rodney:  a tribute to George Jackson, November 1971:

To most readers in this continent, starved of authentic information by the imperialist news agencies, the name of George Jackson is either unfamiliar or just a name. The powers that be in the United States put forward the official version that George Jackson was a dangerous criminal kept in maximum security in America’s toughest jail and still capable of killing a guard at Soledad Prison [Monterey County, California]. They say that he himself was killed attempting escape this year in August. Official versions given by the United States of everything from the Bay of Pigs in Cuba to the Bay of Tonkin [Gulf of Tonkin] in Vietnam have the common characteristic of standing Truth on its head. George Jackson was jailed ostensibly for stealing 70 dollars. He was given a sentence of one year to life because he was Black, and he was kept incarcerated for years under the most dehumanizing conditions because he discovered that Blackness need not be a badge of servility but rather could be a banner for uncompromising Revolutionary struggle. He was murdered because he was doing too much to pass this attitude on to fellow prisoners. George Jackson was political prisoner and a Black freedom fighter. He died at the hands of the Enemy.


Once it is made known that George Jackson was a Black Revolutionary in the White Man’s jail, at least one point is established, since we are familiar with the fact that a significant proportion of African nationalist leaders graduated from colonialist prisons, and right now the jails of South Africa hold captive some of the best of our Brothers in that part of the continent. Furthermore, there is some considerable awareness that ever since the days of slavery the U.S.A. is nothing but a vast prison as far as African descendants are concerned. Within this prison, Black Life is cheap, so it should be no surprise that George Jackson was murdered by the San Quentin prison authorities [at San Quentin State Prison, Marin County, California] who are responsible to America’s chief prison warder – Richard Nixon. What remains is to go beyond the generalities and to understand the most significant elements attaching to George Jackson’s life and death.


When he was killed in August this year, George Jackson was twenty nine years of age and had spent the last 11 years behind bars—seven of these in special isolation. As he himself put it, he was from the lumpen. He was not part of the regular producer force of workers and peasants. Being cut off from the system of production, lumpen elements in the past rarely understood the society which victimized them and were not to be counted upon to take organized revolutionary steps within capitalist society. Indeed, the very term lumpen proletariat was originally intended to convey the inferiority of this sector as compared with the authentic Working Class.

Yet George Jackson, like Malcolm X before him, educated himself, painfully, behind prison bars to the point where his clear vision of historical and contemporary reality and his ability to communicate his perspective frightened the U.S. power structure into physically liquidating him. Jackson’s survival for so many years in a vicious jail, his self-education, and his publication of Soledad Brother, were tremendous personal achievements, and in addition they offer an interesting insight into the revolutionary potential of the Black mass in the U.S.A., so many of whom have been reduced to the status of lumpen.


To read Rodney’s full letter from November 1971 visit Revolutionary Frontlines at WordPress.