(Thanks to San Francisco Bay View newspaper for preserving most of photos included with this article.)
Jonathan Jackson was only 17 years old when he gave his life for oppressed people on Aug. 7, 1970, when he went to the San Rafael, Calif., courthouse to free his older brother George Jackson, along with Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette — the “Soledad Brothers.”
These three revolutionary inmates were charged with killing Soledad prison guard John Mills. Just before Mills was thrown over a third floor railing, a grand jury exonerated fellow officer O.G. Miller for shooting to death Black inmates Cleveland Edwards, Alvin Miller and W.L. Nolen on Jan. 13, 1970. African-American witnesses weren’t allowed to testify at the whitewash hearing.
While no evidence linked the Soledad Brothers to the killing of Mills, California Governor and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan wanted to kill them in the state’s gas chamber because they were revolutionaries.
George Jackson was internationally known for “Soledad Brother,” a book-length collection of his letters from prison. “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me,” he wrote.
A field marshal of the Black Panther Party, George Jackson had already spent a decade behind bars for a $70 robbery. As an 18-year-old he was given a one-year-to-life sentence for being a passenger in a car whose driver allegedly robbed a gas station.
Jonathan Jackson went to Judge Harold Haley’s courtroom armed with guns. San Quentin prisoner James McClain was there, defending himself against frame-up charges of assaulting a guard following the beating to death of Black inmate Fred Billingsley by prison officials. Fellow inmates Ruchell Cinque Magee and William Christmas were also in the courtroom as witnesses for McClain.
Like the enslaved Africans who joined John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, these three San Quentin prisoners immediately joined Jonathan Jackson’s freedom fight. Judge Haley, assistant prosecutor Gary Thomas and three jurors were made their prisoners.
“We are revolutionaries,” they proclaimed. “We want the Soledad Brothers free by 12:30.”
According to Black Panther Party veteran Kiilu Nyasha, “The plan was to use the hostages to take over a radio station and broadcast the racist, murderous prison conditions and demand the immediate release of the Soledad Brothers.” (San Francisco Bay View, Aug. 3, 2009)
But the capitalist class would rather have one of their judges killed than let Black prisoners go free. As Jonathan Jackson drove away in a van, San Quentin guards and court cops started firing. Jonathan Jackson, McClain and Christmas were killed, along with Judge Haley. Magee and Assistant District Attorney Thomas were wounded.
“Free Angela! Free Ruchell!”
The courageous action of these four Black heroes at the San Rafael courthouse shook the capitalist state from the White House to the local police precinct.“Psychologically the slave masters have been terrified by the boldness and innovative tactical conception,” wrote Fred Goldstein in Workers World. “No court is safe anymore.” (Aug. 20, 1970)
Scapegoats had to be found. Magee and Angela Davis, who had chaired the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, were put on trial. Jonathan Jackson had been a bodyguard for Davis and three of the guns used at the San Rafael jailbreak were registered under her name. That was enough for Gov. Reagan to try to send Davis to the gas chamber as a “conspirator” responsible for Haley’s death. In 1969 Reagan had gotten trustees at the University of California, Los Angeles, to fire the radical philosophy professor for being a member of the Communist Party.
For two months Davis eluded the FBI, which put the Black communist on its“10 most wanted” list. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover listed her as being “armed and dangerous” — an official invitation to shoot her on sight. President Nixon congratulated Hoover for the capture of Davis and labeled the Black woman “a terrorist.”
From her prison cell Davis declared, “Long live the spirit of Jonathan Jackson!”
The Black community mobilized coast to coast to defend their sister. More than 200 “Free Angela Davis” defense committees were formed [initiated largely by the Communist Party). Members of every Workers World Party branch joined and supported these committees.
People rallied in Cuba, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) as well. On June 4, 1972, a jury acquitted Angela Davis of all charges.
Tried separately from Davis, Magee had adopted the name “Cinque”after the African leader of the 1839 slave revolt on the ship Amistad. The original Cinque was freed by a Connecticut court. Ruchell Cinque Magee, who also was part of a slave revolt, was convicted of kidnapping after murder charges were dismissed.
Judge Morton Colvin refused to adjourn the trial for a single day when Magee’s mother died. Yet Colvin recessed the hearing for two days following former President Truman’s death. At one point this bigot-in-robes kicked all 40 Black spectators out of the courtroom. (Jet, March 1, 1973)
An appeals court forced Colvin to allow former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who later founded the International Action Center, to help defend Cinque. Jury foreman Bernard J. Suares stated in a 2001 affidavit that the jury actually voted to acquit Cinque of kidnapping for the purpose of extortion.
Ruchell Cinque Magee remains imprisoned today. Jailed for 47 years, he is the longest held political prisoner in the U.S. and possibly the world. As an accomplished jailhouse lawyer, Cinque has freed dozens of fellow inmates.
You can write to this heroic freedom fighter at Corcoran State Prison. The address is Ruchell Magee # A92051, 3A2-131 Box 3471, C.S.P. Corcoran, CA 93212
One year after his younger brother sacrificed his life, George Jackson was assassinated by prison guards on Aug. 21, 1971. George Jackson’s murder sparked the Attica prison rebellion in which 29 prisoners were slaughtered by billionaire New York Gov., Nelson Rockefeller.
On March 27, 1972, the two remaining Soledad Brothers — Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette — were acquitted by a San Francisco jury.
“Courage in one hand, the machine gun in the other,” was how George Jackson described his 17-year-old brother Jonathan.
Sources: “If They Come in The Morning” by Angela Davis and other political prisoners; “The morning breaks; the trial of Angela Davis” by Bettina Aptheker.
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