Angela Davis: An Autobiography
“The Dragon Has Come”
He was the revolutionary warrior sans peur et sans reproche; fierce to his enemies, gentle to those he loved and to all of the oppressed. He was gifted, handsome, powerful of body; fighter, poet, critic, philosopher, lover, brother, son. He was the baddest black man in any “joint” that tried to confine him and break his spirit. He was a symbol of resistance to the cruelty and injustice dealt by the social, legal, and political systems to all underdogs but especially to blacks. Finally, he was the victim of that very injustice and cruelty. He entered the California prison system when he was eighteen years old. He left it ten years later, dead, his brain smashed by a bullet fired by a guard at San Quentin. The bullet entered his back, coursed upward, and blew off the top of his head. The crime for which he was sentenced by the state was a marginal “participation” in an armed robbery of a Los Angeles gas station; the robbery netted seventy dollars. These are the barest essentials of the legend of George Jackson.
The incontestable facts of Jackson’s brief life provide plenty of the materials of legend. Long before the world heard of him or of the Soledad Brothers, Jackson was well-known among blacks on the inside in California—at Q, at Folsom, Tracy, and Soledad, all the dark and bloody ground of the state’s “enlightened” penal system. Superbly fit, handy with his fists or the karate strike, smart, articulate, a leader among his fellows, he took “shit from no one.” To the prison authorities, of course, he was a troublemaker. But they had a definitive and terrible instrument for handling Jackson: the indeterminate sentence. He was doing one year to life. He would be freed whenever the state was satisfied that he had been “rehabilitated.” Failing rehabilitation, he would stay in prison for life. By 1970, Jackson had served nine years. Other inmates looked on him with awe and pity.
Jackson came to the attention of the outside world as one of the three Soledad Brothers, black inmates accused of murdering a guard in 1970. He was awaiting trial on that charge when he was killed. The forces rallying around the Soledad Brothers were a melange of radicals of whom the most important were black revolutionaries, reformers committed to change in the criminal justice and penal systems, and a looser group of New Left people who had begun to think of prisoners, notably black prisoners, as the cutting edge of the revolution. The Soledad Brothers quickly became to the 1970s what the Scottsboro Boys were to the 1930s. The state’s case against them seemed flimsy, trumped-up. Jackson and another Brother, Fleeta Drumgo, had been spreading radical ideas in the prison, were becoming heroes there. Had the state, fearing revolt in the prisons, tried to frame the Brothers, pin a flimsy murder rap on them, and execute them to get them out of the way and cow the inmates …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.