George Lester Jackson was an African-American activist, author and member of the Black Panther Party. When Jackson was 18 years old, he was sentenced from one year to life for stealing US$70 from a gas station. He spent the next 11 years in prison, eight and a half of them in solitary confinement.
The Sixties witnessed the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, along with the emergence of a vibrant youth and student movement and new revolutionary organizations. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 – followed by Black rebellions which broke out in 125 towns and cities across the United States – focused widespread debate into the concept of non-violent social change and the political and philosophical leaning of the Civil Rights Movement which he personified. The disillusionment in the U.S. with “non-violence” and the ideological contention over leadership, direction, strategy and tactics of the movement for equal rights for black people was embodied by the establishment of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, whose leaders saw themselves as taking up Malcolm X’s legacy. The Black Panther Party represented a significant break with the liberalism of intergrationists and the separatism of the nationalists in America.
George Jackson was one of scores of new political prisoners held by the U.S. state. In Soledad prison, California, Jackson became involved in revolutionary activity and co-founded the Black Guerrilla Family in 1966 based on Marxist and Maoist political thought as well as that of Marcus Garvey. His cell became a hotbed of revolutionary thought. In 1970, he was framed, along with two other Soledad Brothers, for the murder of prison guard John Vincent Mills. The same year, he published Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, a must-read for anyone progressive and still widely read in U.S. prisons today. (Another work, Blood in My Eye, was published posthumously.) Most important was his identification of the state as the source of peoples’ problems in the USA and internationally and the unity of people’s struggles He opposed the division by the state of the American polity on the lines of race. Importantly, despite ideological and organisational inconsistencies, George Jackson and the Black Panthers raised the question of socialism and linked the ending of black oppression with the ending of the oppression of the working class and struggling people around the world:
“International capitalism cannot be destroyed without the extremes of struggle. The entire colonial world is watching the blacks inside the U.S., wondering and waiting for us to come to our senses. Their problems and struggles with the Amerikan monster are much more difficult than they would be if we actively aided them. We are on the inside. We are the only ones (besides the very small white minority left) who can get at the monster’s heart without subjecting the world to nuclear fire. We have a momentous historical role to act out if we will. The whole world for all time in the future will love us and remember us as the righteous people who made it possible for the world to live on. If we fail through fear and lack of aggressive imagination, then the slave of the future will curse us, as we sometimes curse those of yesterday.
“The black bourgeoisie (pseudobourgeoisie), the right reverends, the militant opportunists, have left us in a quandary, rendered us impotent. … The blanket indictment of the white race … is silly and indicative of a lazy mind (to be generous, since it could be a fascist plot). It doesn’t explain the black pig; there were six on the HamptonClark kill. It doesn’t explain … the pseudo-bourgeois who can be found almost everywhere in the halls of government working for white supremacy, fascism, and capitalism.”
He spoke with a fury that matched his condition:
This monster – the monster they’ve engendered in me will return to torment its maker, from the grave, the pit, the profoundest pit. Hurl me into the next existence, the descent into hell won’t turn me.. .. I’m going to charge them reparations in blood. I’m going to charge them like a maddened, wounded, rogue male elephant, ears flared, trunk raised, trumpet blaring. . .. War without terms.
A prisoner like this would not last. And when further, Soledad Brothers had became one of the most widely read books of black militancy in the United States – inside and outside the prisons.
All my life I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do just when I wanted, no more, perhaps less sometimes, but never any more, which explains why I had to be jailed…. I never adjusted. I haven’t adjusted even yet, with half of my life already in prison.
He knew what might happen:
Born to a premature death, a menial, subsistence-wage worker, odd-job man, the cleaner, the caught, the man under hatches, without bail – that’s me, the colonial victim. Anyone who can pass the civil service examination today can kill me tomorrow … with complete immunity.
On January 13, 1970, Opie G. Miller, a Soledad prison AC gunrail offficer, an expert marksman armed with a rifle, killed three black prisoners and wounded a fourth, a white prisoner, in a recreation yard during a fist fight. It had been several months since the men had last released into the yard and the open air. The fight may have been premeditated. Miller fired from a guard tower 13 feet (4 m) above the yard; no warning shots were fired. In a letter from June 10, 1970, George Jackson described the scene as seeing three of his brothers having been “murdered […] by a pig shooting from 30 feet above their heads with a military rifle.”
Following the incident, thirteen black prisoners began a hunger strike in the hopes of securing an investigation. On January 16, 1970, a Monterey County grand jury convened, then exonerated Miller in the deaths with a ruling of “justifiable homicide.” No black inmates were permitted to testify, including those who had been in the recreation yard during the shooting. In Soledad Prison, inmates heard the grand jury’s ruling on the prison radio. Thirty minutes later, prison guard John V. Mills was found dying in another maximum-security wing of the prison. On February 14, 1970, after an investigation into Mills’ death by prison officials, George Lester Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Wesley Clutchette were indicted by the Monterey County grand jury for first-degree murder.
On August 21, 1971, three days before his trial in the guard’s killing, George Jackson was murdered – shot in the back – along with two other inmates by prison guards at San Quentin prison under the hoax that he was trying to escape and had “hidden a gun in his hair.” Jackson was likely murdered in a highly sophisticated set-up as part of the U.S. government COINTELPRO program to try to to deter future would-be black revolutionaries. This programme was the most elaborate act of subversion ever carried out against political groups in the USA up to that time. 
The state’s story (analyzed by Eric Mann in Comrade George) was full of holes. Prisoners in jails and state prisons all over the country knew, even before the final autopsy was in, even before later disclosures suggested a government plot to kill Jackson, that he had been murdered for daring to be a revolutionary in prison. Shortly after Jackson’s death, there was a chain of rebellions around the country that autumn, in San Jose Civic Center jail, in Dallas county jail, in Suffolk county jail in Boston, in Cumberland county jail in Bridgeton, New Jersey, in Bexar county jail in San Antonio, Texas.
The most direct effect of the George Jackson murder was the rebellion at Attica prison just three weeks later in September 1971 – a rebellion that came from long, deep grievances, but that was raised to boiling point by the news about George Jackson.  Thirty two prisoners and 11 staff died when police and a National Guard army put down the uprising with gas, helicopters and heavy gunfire. 
After Jackson’s death, on March 27, 1972, the two surviving Soledad Brothers – Fleeta Drumgo and John Wesley Clutchette – were acquitted by a San Francisco jury of the original charges of murdering a prison guard on the grounds that the state had failed to completely prove its case. In 1986, Stephen Bingham, Jackson’s attorney, was acquitted on charges that he smuggled him a gun and a wig, and was thereby responsible for the escape attempt and murders, after he emerged from hiding for 13 years in order to stand trial.
George Jackson’s 17-year-old brother, Jonathan, was also killed trying to free him. The month of August, Mumia AbuJamal noted, became “a month of meaning … of righteous rebellion; of individual and collective efforts to free the slaves and break the chains that bind us.”
1 Between 1968-1971, FBI-initiated terror and disruption resulted in the murder of Black Panthers Arthur Morris, Bobby Hutton, Steven Bartholomew, Robert Lawrence, Tommy Lewis, Welton Armstead, Frank Diggs, Alprentice Carter, John Huggins, Alex Rackley, John Savage, Sylvester Bell, Larry Roberson, Nathaniel Clark, Walter Touré Pope, Spurgeon Winters, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Sterling Jones, Eugene Anderson, Babatunde X Omarwali, Carl Hampton, Jonathan Jackson, Fred Bennett, Sandra Lane Pratt, Robert Webb, Samuel Napier, Harold Russell, and George Jackson. (COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story By Paul Wolf)
2 Attica was surrounded by a 30-foot wall, 2 feet thick, with fourteen gun towers. Fifty-four per cent of the inmates were black; 100 per cent of the guards were white. Prisoners spent fourteen to sixteen hours a day in their cells, their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their visits from families conducted through a mesh screen, their medical care disgraceful, their parole system inequitable, racism everywhere. How perceptive the prison administration was about these conditions can be measured by the comment of the superintendent of Attica, Vincent Mancusi, when the uprising began: “Why are they destroying their home?”
Most of the Attica prisoners were there as a result of plea bargaining. Of 32,000 felony indictments a year in New York State at the time, only 4,000 to 5,000 were tried. The rest (about 75 per cent) were disposed of by deals made under duress, called “plea bargaining.”
With files from Dougal MacDonald on Facebook, Howard Zinn, People’s History of the United States, Progress (African and Caribbean Progressive Study Group, London) and Wikipedia