To the Man-Child, Tall, evil, graceful, brighteyed, black man-child Jonathan Peter Jackson who died on August 7, 1970, courage in one hand, assault rifle in the other; my brother, comrade, friend the true revolutionary, the black communist guerrilla in the highest state of development, he died on the trigger, scourge of the unrighteous, soldier of the people; to this terrible man-child and his wonderful mother Georgia Bea, to Angela Y. Davis, my tender experience, I dedicate this collection of letters; to the destruction of their enemies I dedicate my life. George L. Jackson
You must then stop giving yourself pain by feeling that you failed somewhere. You have not failed. You have been failed, by history and events, and people over whom you had no control. Only after you understand this can you then go on to make the necessary alterations that will bring some purpose and value to your life; you must gain some control!
George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth was one of the most powerful African American women’s rights activists of her time. Incensed with a need for freedom, she escaped slavery before New York’s ban in 1827. A mother to four children, she escaped with her youngest and had to leave her other children behind. Upon learning that her son had been illegally sold south, she successfully campaigned for his return, the first time an African American woman had done so. William Lloyd Garrison published her memoirs in 1850 under the title, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave.
Read an excerpt from a speech given by Truth at the Women’s Rights Convention, 1851, in Akron, Ohio:
“I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. “
William Still was born free in 1821 and was known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still helped over 800 people escape slavery and continue on the road to freedom. He also served as chairman of the Vigilance Committee for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. A meticulous recordkeeper, Still once discovered that he aided in the escape of his older brother who was left behind when his parents escaped their own bondage. Still worked with a team across New Jersey, New York, New England and Canada and even crossed paths with Harriet Tubman.
In 1872, Still published an account of his work on the Underground Railroad in The Underground Railroad Records. A leader in the community, Still also helped to establish an African American orphanage and open the first YMCA for blacks in Philadelphia.
Photo: Pauli Murray. Carolina Digital Library and Archives. “Murray, Pauli, 1910-1985.” 5 July 2007. Online image. UNC University Library. Accessed 8 April 2011.
Pauli Murray was a civil rights activist, lawyer and author who was ahead of her time. Known for her short haircut and tomboy style, Murray often passed as a teenage boy and openly flaunted her numerous relationships with women.
A staunch advocate for women’s rights, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” in response to sex discrimination and criticized the lack of women leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, she cofounded the National Organization for Women in a hope to pursue women’s rights.
Murray was also a lawyer active in efforts to end segregation — using her law school training to advocate for equal rights for African Americans. Her book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, was considered a bible for Civil Rights lawyers that examined and critiqued segregation laws. The book was referenced in arguments for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark SCOTUS case that ended school segregation.
In 1977 Murray became the first African American woman to become an Episcopal Priest. Her first autobiography was published posthumously in 1987 and later released as, Pauli Murray: the Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest and Poet.
Image: Bayard Rustin (center) speaking with (left to right) Carolyn Carter, Cecil Carter, Kurt Levister, and Kathy Ross, before demonstration / World Telegram & Sun photo by Ed Ford. Library of Congress.
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” - Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin was active in the struggle for human rights and economic justice in the United States and around the world for over fifty years. As an activist and political organizer, Rustin played an important role in propelling the civil rights movement forward and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities. He is perhaps best known for his work organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
As an openly gay African American, Rustin stood at the intersection of several fights for equal rights. During the 1980s, Rustin spoke out publicly for gay rights and worked to bring the AIDS crisis to the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also continued working for economic justice.
Rustin’s long-time partner, Walter Naegle, accepted Rustin’s posthumously-awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2013.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Yvonne Davis, grew up witnessing racial and social injustices firsthand in her neighborhood that was known as “Dynamite Hill” – for the frequency of Ku Klux Klan bombings. During college Davis became politically active and joined both the socialist party and Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
In 1970 Davis was accused of being involved in a court room escape attempt by the Soledad Brothers. She went into hiding and was placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list until her capture in New York. As her trial approached, Davis' supporters started a successful #freeangela campaign and artists like The Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Yoko Ono and German Franz Josef Degenhardt dedicated songs to Davis. She was acquitted of all charges in 1972 and went on to become a successful advocate for social change.
Today, Davis remains an active and respected voice in the fight for civil and women’s rights, poverty issues and health care and prison reform.
Written by Lanae S., Social Media Specialist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
California officials frequently cite possession of black literature, left-wing materials, and writing about prisoner rights as evidence of gang affiliation. In the dozens of cases I reviewed, gang investigators have used the term “[BGF] training material” to refer to publications by California Prison Focus, a group that advocates the abolition of the SHUs; Jackson’s once best-selling Soledad Brother; a pamphlet said to reference “Revolutionary Black Nationalism, The Black Internationalist Party, Marx, and Lenin”; and a pamphlet titled “The Black People’s Prison Survival Guide.” This last one advises inmates to read books, keep a dictionary handy, practice yoga, avoid watching too much television, and stay away from “leaders of gangs.”
The list goes on. Other materials considered evidence of gang involvement have included writings by Mumia Abu-Jamal; The Black Panther Party: Reconsidered, a collection of academic essays by University of Cincinnati professor Charles Jones; pictures of Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Nat Turner; and virtually anything using the term “New Afrikan.” At least one validation besides Pennington’s referenced handwritten pages of “Afro centric ideology.”
As warden of San Quentin Prison in the 1980s, Daniel Vasquez oversaw what was then the country’s largest SHU. He’s now a corrections consultant and has testified on behalf of inmates seeking to reverse their validations. As we sat in his suburban Bay Area home, he told me it is “very common” for African American prisoners who display leadership qualities or radical political views to end up in the SHU. Similarly, he recalls, “we were told that when an African American inmate identified as being Muslim, we were supposed to watch them carefully and get their names.”
Vasquez testified in federal court in the case of a former inmate, Ernesto Lira, who was gang validated in part based on a drawing that included an image of the huelga bird, the symbol of the United Farm Workers. While the image has been co-opted by the Nuestra Familia prison gang, Vasquez testified that it is “a popular symbol widely used in Hispanic culture and by California farmworkers.” Lira’s validation was one of a handful to ever be reversed in federal court—though not until after he was released on parole, having spent eight years in the SHU. And though the court ruled that the huelga bird is of “obscure and ambiguous meaning,” it continues to be used as validation evidence.
Evidence used to send inmates to solitary indefinitely includes possession of books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Gang evidence comes in countless forms. Possession of Machiavelli’s The Prince, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been invoked as evidence. One inmate’s validation includes a Christmas card with stars drawn on it—alleged gang symbols—among Hershey’s Kisses and a candy cane. Another included a poetry booklet the inmate had coauthored with a validated BGF member. One poem reflected on what it was like to feel human touch after 14 years and another warned against spreading HIV. The only reference to violence was the line, “this senseless dying gotta end.”
“Direct links” that appear in inmates’ case files are often things they have no control over, like having their names found in the cells of validated gang members or associates or having a validated gang affiliate send them a letter, even if they never received it or knew of its existence. Appearing in a group picture with one validated gang associate counts as a direct link, even if that person wasn’t validated at the time.
In the course of my investigation, I obtained CDCR’s confidential validation manual. It teaches investigators that use of the words tío or hermano, Spanish for uncle and brother, can indicate gang activity, as can señor. Validation files on Latino inmates have included drawings of the ancient Aztec jaguar knight and Aztec war shields, and anything in the indigenous Nahuatl language, spoken by an estimated 1.4 million people in central Mexico.
Some SHU inmates, aside from the “bona fide gang members,” are those “the guards don’t like,” says Carbone, Pennington’s lawyer. “They get annihilated with gang validations in order to get them off the main lines…The rules are so flimsy that if the department wants somebody validated, he will get validated.”
Judge Harold Haley with shotgun taped around his neck during the Marin Co. Court room takeover. Jonathan Jackson had tried to negotiate the release of the Soledad Brothers by kidnapping Judge Haley. Jackson and the Judge died in the resulting shootout. August 7, 1970.
The man who owns the factory or shop or business runs your life; you are dependent on this owner. He organizes your work, the work upon which your whole life source and style depends. He indirectly determines your whole day, in organizing you for work. If you don’t make any more in wages than you need to live, you are a neoslave. You qualify if you cannot afford to leave California for New York. If you cannot visit Zanzibar, Havana, Peking, or even Paris when you get the urge, you are a slave. If you’re held in one spot on this earth because of your economic status, it is just the same as being held in one spot because you are the owner’s property.
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
You may never read this, and I may never touch you, but I feel better than I have for many seasons. You do know that I live, and I hope that by some means you have discovered that I love you deeply, and would touch you tenderly, warmly, fiercely if I could, if my enemies were not at present stronger.