August “is a month of meaning, of repression and radical resistance, of injustice and divine justice, of righteous rebellion, of individual and collective efforts to free the slaves and break the chains that bind us,” said Mumia Abu Jamal, Philadelphia native, activist, and journalist.
His words echo through the U.S. as activists and social justice groups celebrate Black resistance this month in what is known as Black August.
The Black August tradition began in the 1970s after George Jackson‚ a member of the Black Panthers and co-founder of Black-organized crime group the Black Guerrilla Family, was assassinated during a prison rebellion in California.
This month, activists are once again remembering not only Jackson but other political prisoners, freedom fighters, and martyrs who fought for the freedom of Black people.
This year’s commemoration comes on the back of months of nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others.
Black August has been around for decades though it is little known. Here is what you need to know about the month-long celebration:
George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers
Before his death at a California prison on August 21, 1971, Jackson had spent more than a decade in prison on theft charges. The activist and author, while in prison, studied the teachings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, becoming one of the most outspoken voices on racism in the criminal justice system at the time.
His letters to his parents, his younger brother Jonathan, activist Angela Davis as well as his constant talks with civil rights activists and family who visited him brought to light the extent of racism, segregation and ill-treatment that African Americans suffered even in prisons.
His letters were later published as a collection titled “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.”
In 1970, Jackson and two other black inmates in California’s Soledad Prison were charged with the murder of a white prison guard, John Vincent Mills. Jackson and the two inmates would later become known as the Soledad Brothers.
That same year, Jackson’s brother Jonathan was killed in a shootout with the police outside the Marin County Courthouse after taking Judge Harold Haley, Gary Thomas and three other jurors hostage demanding the release of the Soledad Brothers.
Then the following year, on August 21, Jackson, who was at the time incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, met his attorney Stephen Bingham to talk about his imminent trial for allegedly killing a white guard. During the conversation, Bingham gave Jackson a gun, which he hid under a wig, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
Moments later, the report said Jackson used the gun to force a prison guard to release him and several other prisoners. In the riot that ensued, Jackson and five other prisoners were gunned down as they tried to escape. Three guards were also killed.
The incident remained one of the most talked-about cases in civil rights at the time amid protests calling for an end to racism. A group of imprisoned people later came together to honor the death of Jackson and other prisoners in what became known as Black August.
“So there was an idea that this could be a time that imprisoned people in the California prison system could use for reflection, study, and to think about how to strengthen their struggles,” activist Rachel Herzing told True Leap Press in an interview.
“During the month, people wouldn’t use radios or television, would fast between sun up and sun down, and practice other measures of self-discipline. Eventually the commemorations during that month were taken up outside of prisons, too.”
What else is the month celebrating?
“Black August commemorates the rich history of Black resistance. Revolutionary moments such as the Watts Uprising, Haitian Revolution, Nat Turner Rebellion, Fugitive Slave Law Convention, and March on Washington all happened in August,” according to a statement on the Movement for Black Lives website.
“Also, many of our revolutionaries, such as Marcus Garvey and Fred Hampton, were born in August.”
Black August is not a second Black History Month
While Black History Month founded by Carter G. Woodson encourages Americans to recognize and study the often overlooked accomplishments of Black Americans, Black August specifically honors “political prisoners, freedom fighters, and martyrs of the Black freedom struggle,” according to progressive advocacy group the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“This month, we celebrate all the political prisoners who have helped us understand that prison is political and that our collective freedom depends on abolishing the state’s capacity, through incarceration, policing, and surveillance, to disrupt communities and diminish principled struggle against the unjust status quo.”