George Jackson in a Global Frame
Fifty years ago, George Lester Jackson’s Blood in My Eye dropped like a bomb, but the author did not live to hear it. He had been killed by guards at the San Quentin State Prison six months before the book, his second and last, hit the shelves. Though hailed in the Seventies as a martyr in the struggle by Black Americans within and against the United States prison system, today Jackson haunts discussions of racial injustice and anti-racist social movements from the margins.
The unprecedented surge of protest following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 precipitated a wave of public reckoning with the violent history of white supremacy in the United States. The legacies of activists, including Angela Davis, organizations such as the Black Panther Party, and protagonists of the Attica Prison uprising have begun to receive their due. George Jackson was part of this matrix and deserves a new hearing, too.
Jackson contributed to the movement in various ways over the course of a decade spent behind bars. He landed in Soledad, a notorious California state prison, before his 20th birthday. Charged with stealing $70 from a Los Angeles gas station, Jackson followed the suggestion of his counsel and pleaded guilty in the state court. For this act of contrition—a practice still encouraged by state-appointed defenders today— he received the draconian sentence of “one-year-to-life.” This term would prove tragically accurate on August 21, 1971.
While Jackson’s name may be familiar to readers of Black Perspectives, he was once a household name around the world. Walter Rodney marveled at Jackson’s resolve despite the vicious repression visited upon him in prison, while C.L.R. James called his letters from prison the greatest contribution to political thought since the death of V.I. Lenin. Jackson’s first book, Soledad Brother, reached the best-seller list in 1970 and was swiftly translated into Spanish, French, and German. Blood in My Eye appeared in five different languages within two years. The campaign to set him free counted Jane Fonda, Pete Seeger, and Dr. Spock among its supporters. In death, he was memorialized in a hit ballad by Bob Dylan. Tributes by Archie Shepp, Steel Pulse, and many others would follow.
Not merely a passive victim or cause célèbre, Jackson persistently cultivated solidarity against state terror among activists and thinkers on both sides of the prison gates. A voracious reader, he scoured prison libraries and convinced friends, family, and comrades to secretly send him books about fascism in Europe, slave revolts in the Americas, and anticolonial insurgencies. He assumed the mantle of an international, revolutionary Marxist tradition in the vein of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong. He became a best-selling author and a respected prison organizer in California. He listened to and learned from his comrades, some of whom established an annual month of remembrance, study, and struggle in his honor.
Angela Davis’s arrest, incarceration, and trial were predicated on the claim that she supplied weapons to George’s 17-year-old brother, Jonathan Jackson, who made an audacious, armed incursion at the Marin County Courthouse on August 7, 1970. Jonathan, fighting to secure his brother’s release, was killed that day— along with the two prisoners he had liberated and the judge they had taken hostage— after the police fired into the van where he attempted to flee.
The younger Jackson had served as a bodyguard for Davis, whose membership in the Communist Party earned her public harassment and threats of dismissal from her employer, the University of California. Davis met Jonathan through the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, which worked to publicize the case of three men— John Clutchette, Fleeta Drumgo, and George Jackson— who were accused of killing a California prison guard on January 16, 1970.
Davis and the elder Jackson developed a close relationship nurtured through brief visits and long letters, some of which were submitted as evidence in her trial. On June 4, 1972, Davis was acquitted of all charges. She has spent the past fifty years as a leading abolitionist, activist, and professor.
Less well-known is that Davis credits Jackson with spurring her own carceral inquiries. Without George, she reflected recently, she might never have discovered the prison as an important site of knowledge production.
Though Jackson and Davis shared many views, their dialogue also included debate. One topic they disagreed on concerned the notion of “fascism” and its applicability in the United States. For Davis, fascism denoted authoritarian repression beyond what even Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover had been able to implement in the early 1970s. For Jackson, echoing the prison writings of the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci (an author whose translated writings were found in Jackson’s cell after his death), fascism referred chiefly to state-led economic development and the incorporation of organized labor.
In other words, for Jackson, fascism involved not only racist repression but also national development and reform. In this sense, the U.S. of the 1960s-70s was fertile fascist soil indeed. Such an expansive understanding of political domination may complicate and enrich antifascist sentiments percolating today around the defense of existing, often hard-won political liberties. Jackson forces us to rethink the distinctions between conservative and liberal administrations and to confront the legacies of even the New Deal and Great Society within a longer history of capitalism and U.S. imperialism.
Jackson and Davis also diverged in political affiliation. George joined the Black Panther Party in 1969 after encountering the writings of its co-founder, Huey P. Newton, whose own trial in 1968 had made international headlines and caused stirrings throughout the U.S. prison system. In 1970 The Black Panther newspaper published excerpts from Soledad Brother, and in early 1971 Jackson began to pen original writings for the Party paper, some of which he later edited for inclusion in Blood in My Eye.
Jackson’s increasingly analytical essays doubled as dispatches from prison and strategic proposals for the New Left, of which the Party was considered “vanguard.” As the BPP expanded its programming beyond the popular patrolling of police in Oakland, the Party gradually developed a suite of community service initiatives in service to the people. This move helped the Party to mushroom nationwide, with dozens of chapters and branches opening in 1968 and 1969. These programs included the popular Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren and Free Medical Clinics, but the Party also provided transportation for seniors, and they even made headway on setting up their own shoe factory.
Though Jackson wrote extensively on repression and violence, he drew many lessons from anticolonial revolutionaries. In his estimation, the Party’s community service programs among Black Americans in Oakland created an “autonomous infrastructure” that could fortify a “people’s army.” Meeting immediate needs was thus a component of the revolutionary struggle. For inspiration, the Black Panther Party would look to the successes of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde in the 1960s; the Cuban rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains in the 1950s; and the barefoot doctors program in the People’s Republic of China.
Jackson thus articulated the Party’s work as preparation for a domestic war of liberation. Though he also aspired to lead a clandestine, armed wing of the Party—and the centrality of violent action in his vision undoubtedly has contributed to his marginalization in contemporary and respectable circles— Jackson’s assessment of the non-military dimensions of revolution provides an untapped resource for 21st-century activists.
If the “Black commune” would focus on the “lumpenproletariat” of the urban core, neither the BPP nor Jackson neglected those who had already been snatched off the streets. Jackson helped establish a San Quentin branch of the Party in early 1971, and his writing and organizing against the racist prison regime won him widespread influence. He was committed equally to the struggle against anti-Black racism and to challenging the divide-and-rule ethos promulgated by the wardens, the bosses, and their goons.
Organizers of the hunger strike and subsequent mobilization at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York looked to Jackson’s life as an example, and his death catalyzed their long-simmering frustrations into a movement. After four days, the state of New York intervened to crush its insurgent commune. Dozens of prisoners were killed by security forces, and not one officer faced charges. But throughout the 1970s, the prisoners’ movement would grow in strength, demanding better treatment, freedom for political prisoners, the abolition of prisons altogether, and the wholesale reconstruction of society in the United States— indeed, increasingly, around the world.
Focusing our eyes on Jackson— as a figure, an organizer, and a theorist— rejuvenates this ongoing movement to build an equitable global society. Jackson’s internationalist vision insisted that radicals fight not only for domestic legislation or the expanded funding of public works but to take up the challenge of building independent infrastructure rooted in the struggles of the oppressed worldwide. A thorough reappraisal of his legacy is long overdue.permission.