The anniversary -- a 25th -- came and went without notice, what with the Republicans finishing their convention, the Democrats starting theirs and the National Association of Black Journalists hobnobbing in Nashville.
But it was 25 years ago Aug. 21 that George Jackson was killed while trying to escape from San Quentin prison in California. Most Americans no doubt thought they had rid themselves of a dangerous Marxist radical, a member of the militant and violent Black Panther Party who had murdered one prison guard at Soledad Penitentiary and two more -- plus three inmates -- in the escape attempt at San Quentin.
That may be. But in this column the conservative will pay homage to the leftist. When we lost Jackson, we lost an important voice who had much to tell us about America's persistent conundrums with race, class, justice and violence.
He came upon us suddenly, in 1970, with the publication of his book of prison letters "Soledad Brother." The book appeared after Jackson and two other Soledad inmates were accused of murdering a prison guard. He benefited, however briefly, from the radical chic fad that made celebrities of imprisoned blacks with a talent for writing. Jackson's book followed Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul On Ice," another autobiographical work about prison life, but Jackson was no imitator of Cleaver.
Jackson's conversion to Marxism came in the early 1960s -- when Cleaver was still prowling the streets for rape victims, and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale hadn't even thought of a Black Panther Party. Sentenced to a one-year-to-life term in 1959 -- when he was only 18 -- Jackson studied Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao Tse-tung. He began writing letters to his mother, his conservative father and, later, his younger brother Jonathan.
I read "Soledad Brother" when it was released. Nine years later, I had to read it again, along with his second book "Blood In My Eye," which was completed only days before his death. The occasion was a two-part series on Jackson I was doing for a WEAA radio show called "Readers, Writers and Books." I read anything and everything about Jackson I could get my hands on and wrote two scripts for the show. By the time I was done Jackson was no longer some mere historical footnote for me. It was as if he had become the older brother I never had, one with whom I did not agree and with whom I could argue his devotion to a Marxist revolution that, deep down, he must have realized was never coming.
Jackson did, indeed, have those arguments with his father. "Soledad Brother" is filled with many letters with George chiding his father for his conservative ways:
"Martin Luther King organized his thoughts much in the same manner as you have organized yours. I am sure you are acquainted with the fact that he was opposed to violence and war; he was indeed a devout pacifist. It is very odd, almost unbelievable, that so violent and tumultuous a setting as this can still produce such men. He was out of place, out of season, too naive, too innocent, too cultured, too civil for these times.
"The symbol of the male here in North America has always been the gun, the knife, the club. Violence is extolled at every exchange: the TV, the motion pictures, the best-seller lists. The newspapers that sell best are those that carry the boldest, bloodiest headlines and most sports coverage. To die for king and country is to die a hero."
In those few passages, Jackson, without even realizing it, summed up America's dilemma with violence as being a male thing. He wrote those words seven days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Jackson's observations about crime and justice were equally thought-provoking. When New York Times reporter Tad Szulc questioned him about crime, Jackson responded with an analysis that challenged the very definition of criminal conduct:
"Fugitive slaves," Jackson reminded Szulc, "were criminals. Anyone helping a fugitive slave was a criminal." Who was and was not a criminal depended to a large extent on society's definition of what was and was not criminal conduct, Jackson implied. That's why, Jackson concluded, he never met inmates from the upper class in his 12 years in prison, only the working class.
During the week of the 25th anniversary of Jackson's death, the San Jose Mercury reported that one of its reporters had uncovered that America's crack epidemic started with CIA operatives flooding America's cities with the stuff to fund the BTC contras. None of the operatives has gone to prison. Jackson would have predicted that America's greed, brutality and corruption make such things not only possible, but inevitable.
Pub Date: 8/28/96