Black August is emerging as an alternative Black History Month

WASHINGTON (AP) — For Jonathan Peter Jackson, a direct relative of two prominent members of the Black Panther Party, revolutionary thought and family history have always been intertwined, especially in August.

This is the month in 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 echoed 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 in a country where they were once slaves. 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 campaign of awareness and celebration dedicated to Black freedom fighters, revolutionaries, radicals and political prisoners, living and dead.

The annual celebrations have embraced activists from the global Black Lives Matter movement, many of whom draw inspiration from freedom fighters like Jackson and his contemporaries.

“It’s important to do it now because a lot of people who were in the radical scene at that time, relatives and not, who are like blood relatives, are entering their golden years,” said Jonathan Jackson, 51, of the Fair. Hill, Maryland.

George Jackson was 18 when he was arrested for robbing a gas station in Los Angeles in 1960. He was convicted and sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of one year to life and spent the next decade in California’s Soledad and San Quentin prisons, most of it in solitary confinement. restriction.

While incarcerated, Jackson began to study the words of revolutionary theorists such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, who advocated class consciousness, the questioning of institutions, and the overthrow of 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 Zedong.

Jackson became a leader in the prisoners’ rights movement. His letters from prison to loved ones and supporters were collected in the bestselling books ‘Soledad Brother’ and ‘Blood in My Eye’.

Inspired by his words and frustrated with his situation, George’s younger brother Jonathan began a takeover of the Marin County Superior Court in California in 1970. He freed three prisoners and held several court officials hostage in an attempt to demand the release of his brother and two other inmates, known as the Soledad Brothers, who were accused of murdering a prison officer. Jonathan was killed as he tried to escape, although it is disputed whether he was killed in a shootout in the courtroom or fatally shot while being taken away as hostages.

George was killed on August 21, 1971, during a prison riot. Inmates at San Quentin began officially 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 day in August,” said Jonathan Jackson, who wrote the foreword to “Soledad Brother” in its early 90s, shortly after graduating from College.

Monifa Bandele, a leader at the Movement for Black Lives, a national coalition of BLM groups, says Black August is about learning about the vast history of black revolutionary leaders. This includes figures such as Nat Turner, who is famous for leading a slave revolt on a southern Virginia plantation in August 1831, and Marcus Garvey, the leader of the Pan-Africanist movement who was born in August 1887. It includes events such as the Haitian Revolution in 1791 and the March on Washington in 1963, both of which took place in August.

“This idea that there was this narrow way that 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 happen after the 1970s is that it grew outside the (prison) walls because as people who were incarcerated returned to their families and communities, they started to have community celebrations of Black August,” he added.

This month’s ways of honor also come in many forms and have evolved over the years. Some participate in fasting, while others use this time to study the ways of their predecessors. Series of weekly events are also common during Black August, from reading groups to open mic nights.

Sankofa, a Black-owned Washington cultural center and coffee shop serving the DC community for nearly 25 years, is wrapping up a weekly open mic night in honor of Black August on Friday. The event has attracted locals of all ages, many who have shared stories, read poetry and performed songs about the rebellion.

“This month is about resistance and celebrating our political prisoners and using all the abilities we have to free people who are in prison, let me say, unjustly,” Emcee Ayinde Sekou told the crowd at during a recent event in Sankofa.

Jonathan Jackson, George’s nephew, also believes there are largely systemic reasons why Black Augustus, specifically his family history, is not widely taught.

“It’s hard sometimes for radicals who weren’t murdered, per se, to enter the popular discourse,” he said. “George and Jonathan were never victims. They took action and they were killed doing that action, and sometimes that’s very difficult for people who are going to get a political assassination to understand.”

Jackson hopes to honor his father’s and uncle’s legacy by documenting the elders’ knowledge from that time as a means of continuing the struggle.

“We have to get these testimonies. … We need to understand what happened so we can improve 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 the AP’s Video Newsgathering team. Follow her on Twitter:

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