George Jackson: His Liberating Reading List and His Legacy

Photograph Source: Book Cover for Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson

Are books dangerous? You bet they are. That’s why there are book burners and why there is censorship of books. In the hands of readers hungry for ideas, books are weapons and tools for social change. In the hands of George Jackson, books were a lifeline to the world outside prison where he lived much of his life. Books educated him and made a role model to other prisoners. If we all read and understand the same books that Jackson read we might call ourselves intellectuals and intelligent.

“It put a smile on my face when I saw June Jordan’s name there,” Angela Davis said on a Zoom event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the celebrated, notorious author of Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye and co-founder of the Black Guerrilla Family who had been behind bars in California every since 1961 when he was 20 years old.

Davis was talking about the list of books that the authorities at San Quentin typed 13 days after George Jackson was shot and killed August 21, 1971. Not surprisingly, Davis took a keen political and personal interest in the list of 99 books that were removed from the cell of prisoner A-63837.

After all, she was/is a Black intellectual, a former Communist Party member, student of Herbert Marcuse, a fugitive from the FBI, a college teacher, an author, a comrade of Jackson’s and more. While it had limited circulation in the 1970s, the list didn’t go public, modestly, until August 2009, and then again with a wide reach twelve years later, in August 2021 in the nick of time for the 50th anniversary of George’s bloody death.

In the interview with Davis, which was conducted by The Freedom Archives for its “99 Books” Project, Angela noted that June Jordan’s name and the title of her book of poems, Some Changes, were the “only surprises” (for her) on Jackson’s list. She added that “all the books have a memory attached to them.” In my mind they are also linked to images, recollections, libraries and reading lists.

The 99 books would likely have sticky association for anyone who was literate and on the Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They suggest that George’s library was an essential part of his environment and shaped his thinking irrevocably.

If I were to go down the list today, item by item and not have any information about the person who owned or at least possessed the books I would conclude that he (or she) was both a Marxist and a communist. In fact, Jackson was both, though orthodox communists and Marxists might not see him in that light.

His revolutionary fervor and intellectual fire made him appealing to Angela Davis, and to many radicals who took a keen interest in prisons, prisoners and the prison movement which was then growing rapidly. It culminated in the insurrection by prisoners at Attica, the New York State prison, that began on September 9, 1971, nineteen days after Jackson’s murder. Something was clearly in the air.

While The Freedom Archive gathered the interviews and materials for the anniversary, the event itself was hosted by the Los Angeles-based Labor Community Strategy Center, its director and co-founder, Eric Mann, and Channing Martinez. Mann, the author of Comrade George: An Investigation into the Life, Political Thought and Assassination of Gerge Jackson was an SDS member and a Weatherman who served eighteen months behind bars for his role during a demonstration in 1969 at the Harvard School for International Affairs. Like Angela Davis, he’s reinvented himself again and again and retained core values.

June Jordan is the one woman author on the list; the one black woman author. Also, only about a dozen or so of the books on George’s list are by Black writers, including a novel by Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) and a novel by John Oliver Killens (Black Man’s Burden.) The authors of many of the volumes were members of the Communist Party of the U.S.A., such as Herbert Aptheker and Philip Foner. No author appears on the list more often than Foner. Jackson had Foner’s biography of Frederick Douglass and volumes 1, 2 and 3 of his History of the Labor Movement in the United States.

Many of the books are from International Publishers and Monthly Review, though there are some mass market paperbacks by commercial publishing companies.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of books by Marx and Engels, a smattering of Lenin and some Stalin, along with Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and Ho Chi Minh’s prison poems. Jackson knew by heart Ho’s most famous line (and image): “When the prison doors are open, the real dragon will fly out.”

The French existentialists, Sartre, Malraux and Camus show up, plus many books that were topical in the 1960s, such as H. Rap Brown’s Die Nigger Die!, G. William Domhoff’s Who Rules America, Grier and Cobb’s Black Rage, and Felix Greene’s Vietnam! Vietnam! Jackson had copies of his own books, Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye.

What’s really surprising, at least to me, is that he had two books by Euell Gibbons: Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop and Stalking the Healthful Herbs. Surprising to me because Jackson didn’t have the opportunity to do any stalking in the wild. But perhaps the books allowed him to travel in his imagination beyond the walls of his prison cell and into the world of nature and plants.

Books do tend to expand the world of the reader, especially prisoners. Someone more familiar with Jackson’s life than I, explained that he emphasized physical health and would have been interested in a diet of clean, uncontaminated food of the sort that was largely unavailable in prison.

A San Quentin employee named N. R. Snellgrove removed the books from Jackson’s cell after what he called the “Adjustment Center incident.” Jackson, who may or may not have had a gun smuggled into the prison, was shot and killed during the incident. So were three guards and two inmates.

Half a dozen inmates, known as the San Quentin Six—Fleeta Drumgo, David Johnson, Hugo Pinell. Johnny Spain, Luis Talamantez and Willie Tate— went on trial in Marin County a short distance from the prison. The trial lasted 17 months in 1975 and 1976, cost the State of California millions of dollars and focused the attention of radicals for years.

Angela Davis also went on trial. In August 1970, George’s younger brother, Jonathan, used a gun registered to Davis to try to free three inmates at San Quentin. On August 7, 1970, he burst into a Marin County courtroom, took Judge Harold Haley hostage and demanded freedom for three prisoners. Jonathan didn’t get very far. He, Haley, William Christmas, and James McClain were killed when they tried to drive away from the courthouse.

Ruchell Magee tried to help Jonathan free the prisoners. More than half a century later he is still behind bars; a political prisoner held longer than anyone else in the U.S.

Angela Davis’s trial in San Jose in 1972 lasted 13 weeks. She gave the opening argument herself, not her lawyers. The trial ended with a verdict of not guilty on all three charges: kidnapping, conspiracy and murder.

Jonathan Jackson’s armed action, the bloody violence at the Adjustment Center, the trial of the San Quentin Six and the trial of Davis, gave many on the Left the impression that George Jackson lived and died by the gun.

In an essay in The Paris Review, Max Nelson, who writes about prison literature, explained that George Jackson “pulled a pistol on his wardens at San Quentin… freed several of his fellow inmates, presided over the slashing of eight prison officials’ throats (six guards and two trustees), and then died under heavy gunfire while sprinting to freedom.”

That’s one narrative. Whether it’s accurate, the full story or a frame-up of Jackson isn’t clear. Was George a bloodthirsty criminal as Max Nelson suggests or is Nelson’s description sensationalism?

The list of the books in Jackson’s cell invites both friends and foes to reimagine him as a voracious reader and thinker who lived and died, not by the gun and the bullet, but by the books he possessed.

Snellgrove typed up the list for L. S. Nelson, the warden at San Quentin and dated his document, “September 3, 1971.” At the end of the list he typed: “Total number of books taken from cell of George Jackson and listed, ninety-nine (99).”

Nelson’s typescript made its way to the trial for the San Quentin 6, and then into the archives for the trial where it was discovered and recovered by Greg Thomas, then a Black professor of English at Syracuse University and now at Tufts in Medford, MA. Not surprisingly, Thomas teaches prison literature.

Liberation News, the newspaper of “The Party for Socialism and Liberation,” published the list without comment under the headline “Exclusive, official inventory.” The editors knew they had something important. So did Claude Marks at the Freedom Archives, and also Eric Mann, who noted that Jackson’s “greatest guerrilla warfare was in the realm of ideas” and that his focus was on ”ideological and cultural struggles.”

At the Zoom event, Jackson talked on a tape recording about fascism and about the necessity of creating “revolutionary culture” and “reestablishing a sense of community.” Jackson’s ideas about fascism are thought-provoking. For example, he noted that ex-communists like Mussolini make the best fascists. Mussolini was briefly a member of the Italian Saocialist Party.

Angela Davis described Jackson as an intellectual and “extremely learned” and “totally aware of what was happening in the so-called free world.” Because of her intellectual connections with George and their correspondence, Davis said that she began to think of “the prison as an apparatus of racism and oppression” and “the relationship of the prison to women.”

In some of his letters, Jackson expresses views that might be described as sexist. “Women like to be dominated, love being strong-armed, need an overseer to supplement their weakness,” he wrote in 1967. He changed his tune after he got to know Angela Davis and Fay Stender, a Berkeley civil rights lawyer who helped to guide Jackson’s Soledad Brother to the book’s editor Greg Armstrong at Bantam. Stender was shot and paralyzed by a gunman who invaded her house. He assumed that Stender had betrayed Jackson.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jackson was largely, though not exclusively known in the left wing circles I frequented as an advocate of guerrilla warfare, not primarily as an intellectual. In that light, it seems significant that Davis noted that “intellectuals are marginalized from the struggle.” That’s how I remember that time, and that’s what I said at the Zoom event.

Not surprisingly, Mann seemed to disagree. After all he’s an author and an intellectual. Mann belonged to CORE, SDS and Weatherman, but he heard a “different drummer” to borrow Thoreau’s image. He followed his own revolutionary road. Mann has straddled Black and working class movements. An internationalist, he has focused on local issues most recently in Los Angeles. “It’s a continual struggle to find the countervailing idea,” he noted.

The Zoom event reached a crescendo with an interview conducted with Eddie Conway, 75 years old, and a former member of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party who had spent most of his life behind bars. In 1971 he was convicted of the murder of a Baltimore police officer. In 2014 he was released on parole, after an appellate court ruled that his jury had been given improper instructions in his case.

“George was the most well-read prisoner among prisoners,” Conway said. “He was the intellectual among prisoners.” Conway added, “The ruling class is afraid of ideas, especially the idea that the wealth of the world belongs to the people of the world.”

After the Strategy Center event I went back to Jackson’s letters and reread them. I first read them when they were initially published and was blown away, in the parlance of that time, by George’s mastery of metaphor, his distinctive voice and his unique way of expressing himself.

It might be useful to say here that Jackson was a creative writer and that he added immensely in his own work to the extensive body of prison literature in the U.S. that includes writers like O. Henry, Alexander Berkman, Nelson Algren, Chester Himes, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Piri Thomas and H. Rap Brown. Some on the left have known and written about this subject for a long time. One of them is H. Bruce Franklin the author of Prison Literature in America: the Victim as Criminal and Artist (1982). Franklin has been and still is a radical intellectual and a prolific author.

By all means let’s honor George Jackson, but let’s not stereotype him. He wasn’t one thing, but many: a reader, a Black revolutionary, a political prisoner, a writer, an intellectual, a victim and an artist. He was a survivor who transcended the brutality of the prison system and in some ways he was also messed up by it. Prison has a way of doing that  even to the most defiant. George’s ideas about fascism seem to be prescribed and limited by his experience behind bars. If you’re in solitary the world seems to be fascistic.

Still, Jackson’s letters are magnificent, and a monument to candor, honesty and beauty. Read this brief excerpt from a letter written in June 1970, see if you don’t agree and want to read more:

“All my life I pretended with my folks, it was the thing in the street that was real. I was certainly just pretending with the    nuns and priests, I served mass so that I could be in a position to steal altar wine, sang in the choir because they made me. When we went on tour of the rich white catholic schools we    were always treated very well — fed — rewarded with gifts.  Old Father Brown hated me but always put me down front when we were on display. I can’t say exactly why, I was the ugliest, skinniest little misfit in the group.”

As a commentator on the 99 Books project, Robyn Spencer observed that “George is American history.” The author of The Revolution Has Come:  Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Spencer is the co-founder of the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project. “George’s friends were Marx, Lenin and Mao,” she observed. She added, “Make your own book list. Add the women, the LGBTQ and non-binary people his list lacked.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.