Authors: George Jackson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American prisoner and letter writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, 1970

Blood in My Eye, 1972

Biography

George Jackson began a rigorous program of self-education in California’s Soledad prison at age nineteen while serving a one-year-to-life sentence for armed robbery. He became interested in Marxist literature and used its precepts as a framework for his studies of politics, economics, history, philosophy, and languages. He blamed the problems of African Americans on capitalism. He considered American involvement in the war between North and South Vietnam as “neoimperialism”–another example of the kind of white aggression that had subjugated most of the world and created the institution of black slavery. With only a tenth-grade education, he became knowledgeable and articulate, thanks in part to the fact that he spent many years in solitary confinement with nothing to do but read, meditate, and nurture his resentment. He antagonized prison guards and parole officers by declaring his advocacy of armed overthrow of the government led by black militants and abetted by the International Communist Party directed by the Soviet Union.{$I[AN]9810001855}{$I[A]Jackson, George}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jackson, George}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Jackson, George}{$I[tim]1941;Jackson, George}

Jackson put his finger directly on a sore spot. There were Americans who believed that the only conceivable armed revolution in the United States would be one that followed Jackson’s scenario. Some feared that the poorest minorities and whites, led by resentful African Americans (who had the most to gain and the least to lose), inspired by Marxist rhetoric and abetted by Soviet agents, could conceivably overthrow the government and establish a communist regime. No doubt a bloodbath would follow as private property was seized by the new regime and the whole economic system forcibly transformed, as it had been in the Soviet Union and Communist China.

In 1970, Jackson and two other militant black prisoners were charged with murdering a white guard and held in solitary confinement in San Quentin prison, awaiting trial which could result in their executions. Teenage Jonathan Jackson, inspired by his older brother’s prison letters, died during an armed takeover of the Marin County, California, courthouse intended to force release of the “Soledad brothers.”

Most of the letters collected in Soledad Brother are addressed to family members and friends, and they deal mainly with prison life and Jackson’s struggle to educate himself while trying to keep his sanity in a nearly impossible situation. He was especially troubled by the fact that his indeterminate sentence for a robbery which netted only seventy-one dollars might keep him confined for the rest of his life unless he allowed the authorities to break his spirit. The prison letters and miscellaneous writings published posthumously in Blood in My Eye focus on Jackson’s ideas about history, politics, and revolution. Many of these never got beyond the prison gates until after he was dead.

Jackson was killed in a riot at San Quentin prison on August 21, 1971. His sympathizers claimed he was deliberately murdered because he was becoming too influential in spite of being locked in a tiny cell. Many of Jackson’s own letters predicted that he would be murdered. The official story was that he was shot while trying to scale the wall after leading a rampage in which three guards and two convicts were killed. His death made him a martyr and created worldwide publicity that ensured a wide readership for his books.

Reading Jackson’s explosive, articulate letters is a good way to recapture the mood of the revolutionary 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the undeclared war was raging in Vietnam and it seemed the United States and the Soviet Union would inevitably try to exterminate each other with nuclear bombs. Jackson was the most submerged member of the most submerged class in the United States. African Americans, who had been silent for centuries, were suddenly venting their rage with an eloquence most white middle-class readers never expected of them. White Americans, who still represented the vast majority of book buyers, were reading African American writers such as James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, and Jackson.

The Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980’s, and the revolution Jackson predicted never came to pass. There was, however, a widespread cultural revolution in which he played an important part as an author and as a charismatic individual. Prison reforms inspired by militant African Americans such as Jackson have eliminated much of the sadistic abuse of minorities he exposed. Prisoners now have better food, better living conditions, and better communication with the outside world.

Jackson ranks with revolutionary leaders such as Malcolm X and Cleaver as one of the most influential African American spokesmen of the time. What was so remarkable about Jackson’s achievement was that it came about while he was locked in a prison cell under hostile around-the-clock surveillance. With the collapse of international communism, Jackson is certain to be remembered more for his courage, self-discipline, and intellectual achievement than for his radical politics. Ironically, this apostle of violence inspired many underprivileged youths to pursue education as the true route to freedom and self-fulfillment.

BibliographyArmstrong, Gregory. The Dragon Has Come. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. An emotional memoir by Jackson’s editor.Davis, Angela Yvonne, et al. If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance. New York: Third Press, 1971. A collection of essays about African Americans’ experiences with the American justice system. Devotes a section to the “Soledad brothers.”Durden-Smith, Jo. Who Killed George Jackson? New York: Knopf, 1976. Attempts to find out not only who Jackson was and how he died but why. Includes an index.Howard, Clark. American Saturday. New York: R. Marek, 1981. An unsympathetic account of Jackson’s death.Jackson, Lester. “A Dialogue with My Soledad Son.” Ebony, November, 1971. Summarizes discussions of politics, religion, and race relations.Lester, Julius. “Black Rage to Live.” The New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1970. Compares Jackson’s Soledad Brother with The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968).Liberatore, Paul. The Road to Hell: The True Story of George Jackson, Stephen Bingham, and the San Quentin Massacre. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996. An in-depth account of the San Quentin massacre that focuses on Jackson and his radical lawyer, Stephen Bingham.Mann, Eric. Comrade George: An Investigation into the Life, Political Thought, and Assassination of George Jackson. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Claims that Jackson was framed and murdered.Wilentz, Amy. “Lawyer on Trial: Stephen Bingham Faces His Past.” Time, January 20, 1986. Reviews the underground existence of the lawyer accused of smuggling Jackson a gun on August 21, 1971.Yee, Min S. The Melancholy History of Soledad Prison: In Which a Utopian Scheme Turns Bedlam. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1973. Good investigative journalism.
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