First Culture

Soledad Brothers: The Black Inmates Who Refused To Be Silent

In January 1970, a fight ensued in Soledad prison where sixteen inmates were released from the maximum security section into the recreational yard. All except two of the sixteen were black and ordered to a far end of the yard while the white inmates were allowed to be at center.

This did nothing to prevent the scuffle that resulted in the shooting of three black inmates (W.L. Nolen, Cleveland Edwards and Alvin Miller) from the guard tower by the white officer on duty, Opie G. Miller – he would later be exonerated in a secret trial barred to black witnesses on grounds of “Justifiable homicide.”

The killing was met with a wave of protests in form of hunger strikes from thirteen black inmates and led by the trio who would eventually be known as the Soledad brothers; George Jackson, who had been indicted ten years earlier at 18 with indefinite imprisonment for  stealing $70 at gunpoint from a gas station,  Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette.

Their focus was to challenge the system that bolstered such inhumane treatment of blacks and hopefully secure a fair trial for the deceased. What however happened was the opposite. Not long after the news of the exoneration of Miller reached the inmates through a public radio, another white guard, John V. Mills was beaten and thrown from a third-floor tier to his death and on February 14th 1970, the Soledad brothers were charged with his murder.

While no evidence linked the Soledad Brothers to the killing of Mills, their defense counsel was nevertheless formed by Fay Stender and comprised of a wealth of celebrities including Jane Fonda and Angela Davis who supported their cause and pulled public attention to what they believed to be an unfair and partial treatment that was racial steered.

An avid reader of literature, George Jackson was not new to the throes of oppression. W.L. Nolan, a member of the Black Panther Party upon their friendship introduced him to Mao Zedong and Karl Marx and Jackson began in solitary confinement to read about communist ways and principles. He examined their political structures, their reaction to oppression, their radical theories and began to form opinions of his own.

In 1966,  Jackson co-founded the Black Guerilla Family, whose idea was based on Marxist and Maoist ideologies and political thoughts.​​ It was in many ways similar to the Black Panther party both in ideology and operation and the premise of white people as perpetual foes was constant across both divides.

Six months after they were charged and during a prison trial of James McClain at the Marin County Courthouse, George Jackson’s 17 year old brother, Jonathan Jackson stormed the courthouse with two others wielding rifles and intercepting the court proceeding announced, “Gentlemen, we will be taking over from here.”

Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and three women on the jury were among the people taken hostage. The groups demand was simple, to secure the freedom of the “Soledad Brothers.” Jim Kean, a photographer for the San Rafael Independent Journal remembers being told by one of them “You take all the pictures you want. We are the revolutionaries.”

At the end of the hostage situation, Jonathan Jackson had been shot, Judge Haley was killed by an accidental discharge, Prosecutor Thomas was paralyzed for life and Juror Graham suffered a bullet wound to her arm.​​​ In reacting to his brother’s demise, George Jackson writes a letter that he signs off with;

Cold and calm though.
All right, gentlemen, I’m taking over now.


What the public is told when George Jackson is shot by a tower guard inside San Quentin Prison barely a year later in 1971 is that it had been an escape attempt on the part of Jackson and that the guard had only acted as compliant with routine. About this assertion, James Baldwin writes; “No Black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.”

There are theories till this day that assert that his death had been planned by the officials at the prison who in bid to punish him had knowingly handed him a gun, these claims have been strengthened by the discrepancies present in the diverse accounts of his killing.

But less and less people are concerned with how George Jackson died, the majority deciding to focus on how he lived, on what a revolution like that does to you and on the two surviving Soledad Brothers,  Clutchette and Drumgoole, who were subsequently acquitted by a San Francisco jury.

As a dedication in his book, Jackson writes about his brother; 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.



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Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Senior Editor working out of East Africa.

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Soledad Brothers: The Black Inmates Who Refused To Be Silent

by Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke time to read: 3 min