A few months ago when activists with the regional queer liberation group Southerners on New Ground (SONG) embarked on their Black Mamas Mother’s Day Bail Out campaign, they did not know that in a matter of weeks they would raise over $200,000 to free 64 Black women from jails across the South — some who had been there for as long as 451 days simply because they could not afford to post bail. They did not know the strong support they would receive from partnering organizations like Black Lives Matter chapters, the Dream Defenders and Sister Song, or from individual citizens, some of whom donated change from car ashtrays to support the cause.
What they did know is that the US system of mass incarceration that disproportionately entraps poor, Black women is immoral. They knew that, like their ancestors who paid for loved ones’ freedom before chattel slavery was officially abolished, they were going to take direct action to combat the injustice. And they knew that there would be more bailouts in the future.
This month, they are once again raising money to free Black women from jail — this time in honor of the tradition known as “Black August.” Like the Black Mamas Bail Out campaign, Black August has roots in the struggle against mass incarceration.
The story begins in 1970 in California’s Soledad prison, where racial tensions were high among the incarcerated men and the guards. At the time, Black liberation activist George Jackson was writing a series of letters to expose the abuse that prisoners faced. Originally sentenced in 1961 to an indeterminate term of one year to life for his role as a getaway driver in a $70 gas station robbery, Jackson became radicalized in prison after meeting fellow Black inmate W.L. Nolen, who introduced him to Marxism. The two joined forces to found the Black Guerrilla Family, a prison and street gang based on Marxist and Maoist thought. As Jackson’s activism grew, so did his prison sentence.
On Jan. 13, 1970, guards placed Nolen and 13 other Black inmates in the prison yard with inmates involved in the white-supremacist Aryan Brotherhood. When the inevitable fight broke out, Corrections Officer Opie Miller shot and killed Nolen along with two other Black inmates. In the critical minutes after the shooting, prison guards refused to allow the dying men to be taken to the hospital, and they bled to death in the yard. Soon after, an all-white jury ruled the shooting deaths to be justified.
Four days after Nolen’s killing, Corrections Officer John Vincent Mills was killed inside Soledad. Jackson and two fellow inmates, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, were charged with the murder. But members of the Black Panther Party suspected that the inmates — who came to be known as the Soledad Brothers — were being framed to crush their growing political power inside the prison.
Fast-forward to Aug. 7, 1970: George Jackson’s 17-year-old-brother, Jonathan, a member of the Panthers and a former bodyguard for radical Black activist Angela Davis, stormed into the Marion County Courthouse in San Rafael, California. Armed with guns registered to Davis, Jackson with the help of three inmates in the courtroom took hostage Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and three jurors in a desperate bid to secure the release of the Soledad Brothers, who had been moved to California’s San Quentin prison while awaiting trial.
Jonathan Jackson was driving the getaway van when he was killed by police, along with two of his accomplices and Judge Haley. Although he failed to free the Soledad Brothers, Drumgo and Clutchette were acquitted of the murder charges two years later. Prosecuted for conspiracy, Davis was also acquitted.
As for George Jackson, two days before his murder trial was set to begin on Aug. 23, 1971, he was killed at San Quentin during what authorities called a failed escape attempt. Jackson allegedly started a riot while armed with a pistol and was shot by guards. However, no one has ever been able to determine how he obtained the pistol; some believe that guards may have supplied it in the hopes it would lead to his death. The authorities allowed his body to lie in the prison yard for four hours after he was gunned down.
Less than three weeks later, inspired by Jackson’s death and revolutionary life, inmates at New York’s Attica prison launched the largest prison uprising in history to demand more humane treatment and basic political rights such as peaceful assembly. Attica in turn gave rise to the modern prisoners’ rights movement, which in recent years has seen organizing gains in Southern prisons in the form of labor strikes.
In 1979, eight years after George Jackson’s death and nine years after his brother’s, activists inside San Quentin prison began commemorating what they called “Black August” to uplift the history of prison protests and other historical events that took place during that month, from the arrival of the first slave ship in Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619, to South Carolina’s Stono Rebellion of 1739 and Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 in Virginia, to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“We figured that the people we wanted to remember wouldn’t be remembered during Black History Month, so we started Black August,” cofounder Shujaa Graham, an exonerated death-row inmate from California by way of Louisiana, recalled in 2014.
So for many Americans, Black August represents a month of resistance — one in which activists are encouraged to find inspiration from Black liberation activists of the past like George Jackson, while at the same time recognizing the ongoing work to be done. That is why SONG believes it is so fitting to continue the bailouts this month.
“At its very essence, Black August emphasizes honoring and upholding Black community,” as SONG’s website states. “We can think of no better way to commemorate the history of Black August than to bail out as many Black women, broadly defined, and Black trans people across the South as we can.”
To learn more about SONG’s Black August bailout action or to contribute, click here.