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 with their example? Thousands believed that this was so.
But in late 1970, with the publication of a collection of his letters written from prison,* Jackson became not just one of three black prisoners being railroaded by the state, but an international figure. The letters were stunning. The prose style was muscular and supple, at times poetic. Their content showed the growth of a remarkable autodidact. The quality of the political and social analysis was uneven; some of the letters were rich in insight and imagination, but some argued a doctrinaire and mechanical Marxism. Yet the voice of an enormously gifted writer was unmistakable.
Jackson was becoming transfigured even before his death. His young brother, seventeen-year-old Jonathan, in what may have been an attempt to free him, became the central figure in the Marin County courthouse massacre of August, 1970, in which young Jackson himself, two black convicts, and a judge were killed by gunfire, and Ruchell Magee and a Marin prosecutor were wounded. Jackson memorialized his brother in the dedication of Soledad Brother as the “tall, evil, graceful, bright-eyed black man-child…the black Communist guerrilla in the highest state of development.” And the reflected glory of Jonathan’s daring and panache fell on George.
Angela Davis, herself already a heroine of the left, was drawn into the struggle to free the Soledad Brothers. She was then teaching philosophy at UCLA, had joined the Communist Party, and was active in the Party’s all-black Che-Lumumba Club in Los Angeles. Her own celebrity helped to dramatize the fight for the Soledad three and there can be no doubt of her commitment to the cause.
Jackson had already known of and admired Angela Davis before she had enlisted on his behalf. For her part, Davis, though she was able to have only glimpses of Jackson during his court appearances, became emotionally drawn to him in a way that went beyond politics. In what might be called Prisoner Movement circles in California, the alliance between Davis and Jackson seemed felicitous, even Olympian. Who else but George Jackson might win the heart of Angela Davis? Yet for Davis it was a fateful match, for it tied her to the Marin courthouse bloodshed, drove her to become a fugitive from California law, and resulted in her lengthy imprisonment and subsequent trial for murder. Indeed, the state ludicrously based its case against her on the ground of her alleged uncontrollable passion for Jackson, which, the state argued, led her to join a plot to free him so that her physical desire might at last be slaked.
Following the death of his brother and the arrest a few months later of Angela Davis, Jackson began to slip into a deeper and deeper gloom, lightened only by the favorable reviews of his book and the gathering excitement and adulation the movement to free him was focusing on his person. He began to confide to some visitors his certainty that the prison authorities would find a way to kill him before he came to trial, that it might be better to die in an escape attempt, in which he might at least kill a few “pigs,” than to be slain in his cell or rail-roaded to the gas chamber in a rigged trial. By August of 1971 he had got hold of a gun, undoubtedly smuggled in to him by one of his young white admirers, and very possibly with the complicity of the San Quentin authorities. Many of the circumstances are still obscure, but in any case Jackson did have a gun on August 21, and launched a desperate escape attempt. Three white guards and two white trusties were killed, their throats slashed. Jackson and one other inmate broke out of the Adjustment Center and dashed for freedom. Jackson was cut down by rifle fire. It seems certain that he was hit first in the rear of his leg, fell to his hands and knees, and was finished off by the fatal shot into his back.
Several months after Jackson’s death, the remaining Soledad Brothers, Drumgo and John Clutchette, were acquitted by a predominantly white jury in San Francisco. A couple of months after that, Angela Davis was acquitted of all counts against her by an all-white jury in San Jose. Would Jackson be alive and free today had it not been for his fatal escape attempt? What led him to try it? Was he murdered by the prison authorities in order to silence him? Was he trapped by his own legend? What kind of man was he really? The three books under review are of only partial help in the effort to answer even a few of the questions raised by his short life and his violent death.
Angela Davis’s autobiography necessarily touches on Jackson himself as well as on the case of the Soledad Brothers. But, astonishingly, we learn little about him from her. Beyond a brief, cautious acknowledgment that her commitment to him was personal as well as political, Davis tells us only of the symbol and the victim.
Eric Mann’s Comrade George is in part a tract arguing for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist, racist, imperialist America. Mann attempts to draw together Jackson’s ideas about revolutionary struggle. But Jackson was in no way a systematic thinker, as his two books demonstrate. He called himself a communist as well as a Maoist, a Black Panther, a Fidelista, a revolutionary, and a black guerrilla fighter. He also proudly called himself a member of the lumpenproletariat and, particularly after his brother was slain, he turned more and more toward a mystical romanticizing of violence. Mann tries hard to put all of this together but is trapped by his idea that the revolution begins in the prisons. He cannot get beyond Cleaver’s old reformulation of Marx on the central role of the lumpenproletariat; he is simply wrong in asserting that it is the historic role of prisoners to radicalize the workers. And who can believe, as he suggests, that the modern worker will teach work disciplines to the prisoners?
Mann provides a valuable analysis of the official account of the circumstances surrounding Jackson’s alleged breakout attempt and his death, showing that the official version is full of holes and contradictions. But he does not have strong evidence for his claim that Jackson was executed by the prison authorities literally on orders from Reagan, any more than he establishes his claim that Rockefeller literally took orders for the Attica massacre from Nixon.
Angela Davis’s autobiography has been attacked as “Stalinist,” which seems to me unfair. But other phrases from the vocabulary of the Thirties seem appropriate; the work might fairly be characterized as “agitprop,” or one might say that it was written “under discipline.” It is not an autobiography and it would be wrong to consider the bare facts we are given as the basis for considering her life. She has relentlessly insisted that her life has nothing of interest in it apart from her continuous commitment to struggle against capitalist imperialism, racism, and sexism. In this book, which she admits she undertook only with reluctance, she scarcely permits herself the expression of any feeling apart from those generated by the events of the struggle. She experiences joy, love, anger, hatred, tenderness, and fear, but always and only as part of the political struggle. From this philosophy teacher there is little philosophy, almost no analysis. Her political discourse is carried on in short, declarative, almost slogan-like sentences. It is as though she were expounding a basic text to an audience of the convinced.
In such a work, then, it is not surprising to find superficial and dis-appointing the discussion of the criminal justice and penal systems in which both Angela Davis and George Jackson were so painfully caught. For her the legal order is simply a tool of racism and capitalist exploitation, incapable even in limited ways of protecting the rights of persons. Her own acquittal and that of the Soledad Brothers were due, in her view, entirely to the mobilization of international masses and not to the functioning of due process, or to the skill of the defense lawyers, or the integrity of the jurors. She does not even mention the legal moves through which her own case was separated from that of her original codefendant, the luckless Ruchell Magee. Nor does she mention that her lawyers made detailed psychological studies of the venire men and women and systematically selected just about the jury they wanted. From a book so tightly controlled and so clearly polemical, one does not expect to get much sense either of her own life or of George Jackson’s.
“The Dragon Has Come” was written by Jackson’s editor Gregory Armstrong. As anyone who has read Jackson’s letters in the handwritten original can attest, his prose needed very little, if any, rewriting or editing. But Armstrong skillfully selected and arranged Jackson’s letters and devotedly supervised their publication. In the course of all this, he became strongly drawn to Jackson and, on the evidence presented here, his feelings of friendship were returned by Jackson, though with considerably less intensity. Armstrong’s book has already aroused considerable controversy. To many who were close to Jackson, or who admired him from afar and were committed to the legend, the book is detestable. It has been accused of being self-serving as well as dishonest in its treatment of some of the people who were working in Jackson’s behalf.
Armstrong tells us that he has on tape a “confession” from Jackson that he did indeed commit the brutal murder of the Soledad guard. Jackson apparently let this confession slip out during one of his earliest editorial conferences with Armstrong. Jackson and Armstrong were talking about the written deposition of one of the Soledad prisoners that formed part of the case against him and the others. Jackson said:
But you didn’t read it close. If you had read it close, you would have read that somebody has got me holding this guy with my right arm. He’s over here, but still he can’t see my face. I’m supposed to be holding this cat with my right arm. Now listen, man, he didn’t see my face until later on when I dropped the guy and I’m supposed to be beating on him. [P. 97, italics added.]
Subsequently, with the tape recorder off, Jackson went on to tell the stunned Armstrong that the other two accused men had nothing to do with the murder and that he, Jackson, would so state in court, if it came to that. The taped statement seems authentic and there is no reason to suppose that Armstrong is lying about the untaped amplification.
Despite what the state had already done to Jackson, clearly his legend suffers from such a revelation. Perhaps Jackson was not, after all, the victim of an ugly official plot to railroad a radical black prisoner into a legal execution. Moreover, Armstrong stresses that Jackson was not the product of a submerged and desperate ghetto life. His parents were hard-working, upward-striving, lower-middle-class people, pathetically denying themselves pleasures to help ensure that life would be better for their children. Jackson frequently expressed his scorn for them, though the letters make clear he could not stifle altogether the pity and tenderness he also felt for them.
On Armstrong’s tapes, moreover, Jackson himself stresses what he had already made clear in Soledad Brother; that from the age of about five years onward he had been an outlaw, a brigand, one who stole from, “messed-over,” and hurt people. Finally, Armstrong tells us that Jackson was in on, perhaps the mastermind of, the abortive and bloody Marin courthouse affray which cost young Jonathan his life, and that he was thinking about and planning an escape prior to the San Quentin events which took his own life. No wonder that those who needed to see Jackson as a revolutionary saint detest this book. But one should not need saints in order to try to change a society which wastes and destroys talented people like Jackson, and to fight against legal and penal systems which entomb eighteen-year-olds in dark, terrible places.
When he met Jackson, Gregory Armstrong seems to have had such a need. As he makes embarrassingly clear, his association with Jackson provided for a time the “meaning” that he could not find in his own life. This middle-aged white man, an editor at Bantam Books, tells us that he fingered with awe Jackson’s powerful, black biceps, that the words “man” and “cat” and “the man” pervaded his talks with Jackson. After he met Jackson, he shouted “off the pig” when he passed cops in New York. He speaks continuously of his own anguish and isolation, of his own oppression by social mores that are sexually restrictive. He speaks of himself and Jackson as “desperate” men who found each other. But he also thinks that under other circumstances he and Jackson might have “been anything, even each other.”
Armstrong is too intelligent to be unaware that he, and others, were exploiting Jackson for their own psychological purposes, and that maybe it even suited them that the mythic Jackson they created became a martyr. On the evidence presented here, Armstrong made no strenuous effort to discourage Jackson’s escape fantasies. Instead he spoke weakly to Jackson of “defining” himself by some desperate act. Later, he even told Jackson that he would try to help him escape. He is also decent enough to feel shame and remorse for what so many of George Jackson’s friends had done to him.
One wants to forgive Armstrong because of this decency and because of his honesty, but his accusations against almost everyone else who took part in Jackson’s defense are less forgivable. He is malicious, for example, about Fay Stender, Jackson’s lawyer for the Soledad case, who has spent most of her professional life defending victims of California’s criminal justice system. Because Stender and her husband sought to lighten the gloom brought by the news of the arrest of Angela Davis in New York by turning a routine dinner party into a more elaborate one, Armstrong accuses them of “celebrating” the arrest. He even accuses Mrs. Stender, who is white, of secretly resenting Angela Davis because she threatened the lawyer’s leadership of the Soledad Brothers case. Having written a book about his own need for a larger-than-life George Jackson and about his own feelings of guilt and inferiority in the presence of black people, he apparently believes that everybody else is driven by the same feelings.
If Fay Stender had been more in control of circumstances surrounding George Jackson, it seems likely that he would have come to trial with the Soledad Brothers and that he would now be free as well as alive. But an evil alchemy was at work: a combination of Jackson’s own desperation after ten years in prison, of the relatively easy access to him of an adoring, narcissistic movement to free him, and of the hatred and fear of him by the prison authorities. He was goaded into an attempt to escape and he was, perhaps, ambushed. Does the legend he left behind compensate for the loss?
November 28, 1974