Fifty-three years ago this month, Jonathan Jackson sat in the spectator’s section of a Marin County courtroom. No sooner had the judge walked in than Jackson pulled a semi-automatic weapon from the satchel and announced:
“All right, gentlemen, I’m taking over now.”
He handed another gun to the defendant, James D. McLain, who had a guard remove his handcuffs before proclaiming to the jury: “I have been unjustly accused, I want to be a free man.”
Jonathan then armed another inmate who was scheduled to testify in McLain’s case, and together the three African Americans took five hostages, including the judge. On the way out of the courtroom Jonathan proclaimed, ““We are revolutionaries!” And then.
“We want the Soledad Brothers free by 12:30.”
Jonathan Jackson was at the time 17-years-old.
The commando-like assault on the courthouse in California’s Bay area was intended to free from prison three Black militants–including Jonathan’s brother George Jackson– known as the “Soledad Brothers.” George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette were charged with murder by hurling a white correctional officer, John Mills, over a third floor railing in retaliation for the fatal shootings of three Black inmates by a white prison guard earlier in the year. With African American witnesses barred from testifying, a grand jury declined to indict the white officer.
A field marshal of the Black Panther Party, George Jackson had already spent a decade behind bars for a $70 robbery; when he was 18, a judge sentenced Jackson to an indeterminate sentence of one-year-to-life for joyriding in a car whose driver allegedly robbed a gas station.
After the murder of the prison guard, California Governor Ronald Reagan made it clear that he wanted to send the Soledad Brothers to the gas chamber, no doubt to send a message to anyone who might be inspired by their revolutionary ideas.
Jonathan Jackson’s jail break was unsuccessful; as the Black revolutionaries’ van pulled out of the parking lot, prison guards opened fire, killing him, McClain, an inmate named William Christmas and the judge. And George Jackson would die almost a year to the day later, on August 21st, 1971 during what authorities described as an attempted prison break. James Baldwin would write later than there was no Negro in America who believed that George Jackson’s death was anything other than an assassination.
I was first introduced to George and Jonathan Jackson in 1991 when I was 26. I had just recently moved from Minneapolis to Detroit to work as a City Hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press and my radicalization began almost immediately. One of the first texts that the Motor City’s Black militants had introduced me to was Soledad Brothers: the Prison Letters of George Jackson, in which this towering intellectual paid homage to his little brother. Two days after his brother’s death, he wrote:
We reckon all time in the future from the day of the man-child’s death.
Man-child, black man-child with submachine gun in hand, he was free for a while. I guess that’s more than most of us can expect.
I want people to wonder at what forces created him, terrible, vindictive, cold, calm man-child, courage in one hand, the machine gun in the other, scourge of the unrighteous- “an ox for the people to ride”!!!
Go over all the letters I’ve sent you, any reference to Georgia being less than a perfect revolutionary’s mama must be removed. Do it now! I want no possibility of anyone misunderstanding her as I did. She didn’t cry a tear. She is, as I am, very proud. She read two things into his rage, love and loyalty.
I can’t go any further, it would just be a love story about the baddest brother this world has had the privilege to meet, and it’s just not popular or safe-to say I love him.
Cold and calm though, “All right, gentlemen, I’m taking over now.”
Black August honors Black revolution and there are no better examples of it than the Brothers Jackson, whose visages would surely occupy a Black Liberation Mt. Rushmore. Their killings, and the witchunt against Angela Davis for supplying Jonathan Jackson with the guns that he used in his courthouse attack, rallied the Black community, and convinced the faithless among us that our cause was just, and necessary.
While it was neither as dramatic, or lethal, the brawl on the Montgomery riverfront on August 5th, seems to be having a similar effect on the Black community, with 16-year-old Aquaman reprising the role of 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, rushing in to help a Black man besieged by the white supremacist mob.
It is, of course, too early to tell but in the weeks since the riverfront brawl in Alabama, African Americans—on social media and podcasts, in barber shops and nail salons–have expressed a solidarity with one another that I certainly have not heard in at least 30 years.
Just two days ago, a middle-aged Black man drove slowly through a grocery store parking lot filled exclusively with African Americans, honking his horn and shouting:
“Keep fighting Black people! Stay up!
It was a breathtaking display—one that I don’t recall in recent years, and it raised the question:
Is Black revolution poised for a comeback?
To help unbundle this, we have with us today, Tory Russell, an activist in St. Louis, Missouri.