WASHINGTON (AP) — For Jonathan Peter Jackson, a direct relative of two prominent members of the Black Panther Party, revolutionary thinking and family history have always been intertwined, particularly in August.
This is the month of 1971, when his uncle, the famous Panther George Jackson, was killed during a riot at San Quentin State Prison in California. A revolutionary whose words resonated inside and outside prison walls, he was a published author, activist and radical thought leader.
For many, February is the month dedicated to celebrating the contributions of black Americans to a country where they were once enslaved. But Black History Month has an alternative: it’s called Black August.
First celebrated in 1979, Black August was created to commemorate Jackson’s struggle for black liberation. Fifty-one years since his death, Black August is now a month-long celebration and awareness campaign dedicated to black freedom fighters, revolutionaries, radicals and political prisoners, living and deceased.
The annual commemorations have been adopted by activists from the global Black Lives Matter movement, many of whom are inspired by freedom fighters like Jackson and his contemporaries.
“It’s important to do this now because a lot of people who were on the radical scene during this period, relatives and non-relatives, who are like blood relatives, are entering their golden years,” said Jonathan Jackson, 51, of Fair Hill, Maryland.
George Jackson was 18 years old when he was arrested for robbing a gas station in Los Angeles in 1960. He was convicted and given an indefinite sentence of one year to life and spent the next decade in prisons in Soledad and San Quentin, California, mostly solitary. lockdown.
While incarcerated, Jackson began to study the words of revolutionary theorists such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, who championed class consciousness, defying institutions, and overthrowing capitalism through revolution. The founding leaders of the Panthers, including Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, were also inspired by Marx, Lenin, and Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung.
Jackson became a leader in the prisoner rights movement. His prison letters to loved ones and supporters were compiled in the best-selling books “Soledad Brother” and “Blood in My Eye”.
Inspired by his words and frustrated with his situation, George’s younger brother Jonathan initiated a takeover in Marin County Superior Court, California, in 1970. He freed three inmates and held several court clerks hostage in attempt to demand the release of his brother and two other inmates, known as the Soledad Brothers, who were accused of killing a corrections officer. Jonathan was killed while trying to escape, although it is disputed whether he was killed in a courtroom shootout or shot dead while driving with hostages.
George was killed on August 21, 1971, during a prison riot. Inmates at San Quentin Prison began formally commemorating his death in 1979, and from there, Black August was born.
“I certainly wish more people knew about George’s writings (and) knew about my father’s sacrifice on that fateful August day,” said Jonathan Jackson, who wrote the foreword to “Soledad Brother” in the early 1990s, shortly afterward. after graduating from college.
Monifa Bandele, leader of the Movement for Black Lives, a national coalition of BLM groups, says Black August is about learning the vast history of black revolutionary leaders. This includes figures such as Nat Turner, famous for leading a slave rebellion on a southern Virginia plantation in August 1831, and Marcus Garvey, leader of the Pan-Africanism movement and born in August 1887. Revolution in 1791 and the March on Washington in 1963, both in August.
“This idea that there was a narrow path through which black people resisted oppression is really a myth that was dispelled by Black August,” said Bandele, who is also a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a group that raises awareness of political prisoners.
“And what we saw happening after the 1970s is that it grew outside the (prison) walls because, as incarcerated people returned to their families and communities, they started doing Black August community celebrations,” he added.
The ways to honor this month also come in many forms and have evolved over the years. Some participate in the fast, while others use this time to study the ways of their predecessors. Weekly event series are also common during Black August, from reading groups to open mic nights.
Sankofa, a black-owned cultural center and coffee shop in Washington that has served the DC community for nearly 25 years, wraps up a weekly open mic night in honor of Black August on Friday. The event attracted locals of all ages, many who shared stories, read poetry and sang songs with the theme of the rebellion.
“This month is about resistance and celebrating our political prisoners and using all the faculties we have to free people who are in prison, let me say, unfairly,” MC Ayinde Sekou told the crowd during a recent event in Sankofa.
Jonathan Jackson, George’s nephew, also believes there are largely systemic reasons why Black August, and his family history specifically, is not widely taught.
“It is sometimes difficult for radicals who have not been assassinated, per se, to enter popular discourse,” he said. “George and Jonathan were never victims. They acted and were killed doing it, and sometimes that’s very hard to understand for people who accept political assassination.”
Jackson hopes to honor the legacy of his father and uncle by documenting the knowledge of the elders of that era as a way to continue the fight.
“We need to get these testimonies. (…) We need to understand what happened so that we can improve on what they did. I think now is as good a time as any to do that,” he said.
Associated Press writers Aaron Morrison and Terry Tang contributed to this report.
Almaz Abedje, a DC-area native, is a member of AP’s Video Newsgathering team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/almazabedje.