Why civil rights activists should champion a little-known prisoner holiday
By Dan Berger
August 19th, 2014
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, when thousands of mostly white college students from around the country traveled to Mississippi to contest segregation at its most violent source. Commemorations of the momentous civil rights campaign appropriately highlight the black political participation that has grown as a result of those heroic voter registration efforts and seems symbolically reflected in the two-time election of the nation’s first black president.
There is another anniversary of black protest this year that has received less attention. Thirty-five years ago California prisoners founded Black August, a holiday to pay tribute to African-American history in the context of an ever-expanding carceral state. In a kind of secular activist Ramadan, Black August participants refused food and water before sundown, did not use the prison canteen, eschewed drugs and boastful behavior, boycotted radio and television, and engaged in rigorous physical exercise and political study. Through Black August, prisoners sought to demonstrate the personal power they maintained despite incarceration.
Black August celebrations have always been somewhat subterranean, and all the more so in recent years when some prison officials have used reprisals such as long-term solitary confinement to punish those who organize for better conditions. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that prisoners in several states, including California, Pennsylvania, and Georgia—all states that have witnessed prisoner strikes in recent years—continue to honor at least some aspects of the holiday.
Whereas this summer has seen many celebrations of Freedom Summer’s influence on expanding black communities’ access to the institutions of U.S. democracy, Black August marks a less pleasant but no less dramatic reality of American politics. It points to the racialized exclusions that continue to haunt the American experience—especially in the form of the expansive prison industrial complex that makes the United States the world’s leader in incarceration. In remembering histories of black activism from the space of prison cells, Black August points to the ongoing failure to realize the promises of freedom and democracy that drove the civil rights activists of the 1960s.
A Prison-Made Holiday
Black August began in California’s San Quentin in August 1979. The men who founded the holiday wished to commemorate the rich, tragic history of prison protest over the past decade as well as the number of historically significant events in the black freedom struggle that have taken place in the month of August. “We figured that the people we wanted to remember wouldn’t be remembered during black history month, so we started Black August,” cofounder Shuuja Graham told me.
For the founders, the month of August was also significant for tragic reasons. In 1971 imprisoned intellectual and Black Panther George Jackson was killed in a bloody uprising. His seventeen-year-old brother, Jonathan, had been killed the previous August attempting to free three prisoners from a Marin County courthouse. Both events caused an already tense prison system to crack down on prisoner access to media and to the public. Their subversive study groups became more clandestine, as violence among prisoners and between prisoners and guards increased in frequency. And those who wished to press for social change from inside the prison faced steeper obstacles to participating in political organizations.
Black August points to the ongoing failure to realize the promises of freedom and democracy that drove the civil rights activists of the 1960s.
Then on August 1, 1978, Jeffrey Khatari Gaulden was killed during a game of touch football in the San Quentin prison yard. Someone pushed him too hard, and he hit his head as he fell to the ground. As the other prisoners clamored for medical attention, guards cleared the yard one person at a time, searching each person individually. By the time the prisoners were cleared, Gaulden had bled out. The thirty-two-year-old had been imprisoned since 1967, and was inspired by the likes of George Jackson to become a militant activist. He makes few appearances in the records of California’s prison movement before his death, though he was well known among Bay Area prison activists and well respected among other men of color in the California prison system. He was convicted in May 1972 for killing a civilian laundry worker at Folsom the previous September, allegedly in retaliation for Jackson’s death. The incident occurred just after Gaulden was released from solitary confinement, and he was returned there after his conviction.
To his compatriots, Gaulden’s death signaled the decline of what had once been a vibrant movement for prisoner rights. Black August was a way for them to honor him and other activists. As the holiday continued, adherents identified a variety of other significant events that had occurred in August. There were slave rebellions, from the beginning of the Haitian Revolution (August 21, 1791) to those attempted by Gabriel Prosser (originally scheduled for August 30, 1800), launched by Nat Turner (beginning August 21, 1831), and called for by Henry Highland Garnett (August 22, 1843). There were deaths (W.E.B. Du Bois, August 27, 1963) and births (Marcus Garvey, August 17, 1887; Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, formed in August 1914). And there were protests, from the UNIA’s month-long international convention of 25,000 people at Madison Square Garden in August 1920 to the 1963 March on Washington, from the Watts rebellion of 1965 to the 1978 standoff between police and the black naturalist organization MOVE in Philadelphia.
Black August was not the first protest of its kind. Prisoners in New York had organized “Black Solidarity Day” earlier in the 1970s in protest of racism in prison. But for a variety of reasons, Black August is the one that took hold. The early celebrations inside the prisons were matched with small protests at the gates of San Quentin. And social networks of activist organizations carried Black August from prison to prison in Illinois and New York, Georgia and North Carolina, and places in between. But by the early 1980s, few people were paying attention to the worsening conditions inside prisons.
More recently, the history of Black August has been taken up in hip hop circles and other groups in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. In Oakland, the Black August Organizing Committee has held movie showings, organized summer programs for youth, and advocated for political prisoners. Other organizations, including the Eastside Arts Alliance and the Freedom Archives, have organized events showcasing the history of Black August in relation to contemporary racial justice organizing. The New York–based Black August Hip Hop Project organized annual events between 1998 and 2010, including “international delegations of artists and activists to Cuba, South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil, and Venezuela.” Black August concerts have included artists such as The Roots, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), and Erykah Badu, among many others. Black August has bled into the culture of a new generation. While it is difficult to track exact numbers, especially in California, where marking the history of George Jackson and Black August still finds prisoners facing disciplinary sanction, some dissident prisoners continue to honor the tradition alongside its extension into the world of hip hop. Black August, a celebration of black diasporic radicalism, has itself gone diasporic.
Unbloodied by History
In the 1960s, Mississippi wore its white supremacy on its sleeve. The Sunflower State took pride in its stark racial order, and the signs were everywhere to be seen, detailing which water fountains, restaurants, and restrooms were for “whites” and which ones for “coloreds.” These signs were not just visual: they could be heard in the bellowing pronouncements of the state’s segregationist officials and felt in the police truncheons and putrid cells of the notorious Parchman Prison.
By 1964 the visibility and vitriol of Mississippi’s apartheid had reached the national stage, and the state seemed to epitomize the backwardness of Jim Crow. With Freedom Summer, the Southern civil rights campaign reached its crescendo: the noble pursuit of basic human rights in the face of storybook villains who boasted of their cruelty was laid bare for all to see. That summer, and the landmark civil rights legislation it inspired, nurtured a definition of racism that revolved around dramatic spectacles of open violence in defense of an unjust and archaic system.
California, in contrast, not only looked peaceful but actively presented itself as far removed from racism and unpleasantness of all kinds. True, the 1965 Watts rebellion—which left thirty-four dead and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage—challenged that idyllic image. So did a series of ballot initiatives that kept in place housing and employment segregation. But as activists discovered across the country, often in the wake of uprisings and riots, attempts to defeat racism in the North and West were routinely stymied by the complex institutional factors upholding police brutality, residential segregation, employment discrimination, and educational inequity. Too many officials believed their cities and states to be exempt from the kind of evil so obviously perpetrated in the South.
At the dawn of mass incarceration, the creators of Black August saw that racism itself was being reinvented or at least being updated through the criminal justice system.
California perfected this kind of racial innocence. “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history,” essayist Joan Didion wrote in her memoir. “In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” That difference between Mississippi and California, the difference between an acknowledged bloody history and its disavowal, found expression in California’s prison policies. It is part of why Black August emerged there rather than in Mississippi or elsewhere.
After the Second World War, California had pioneered a liberal form of prison management called bibliotherapy. It was a philosophy that believed expanded literacy among incarcerated people would prove rehabilitative. Instead, it proved radicalizing, and the state prisons churned out people who were hyper-literate and militantly opposed to the racism they experienced in prison and in their home communities of Los Angeles and Oakland. Men such as Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Alprentice Bunchy Carter left prison and built the Black Panther Party; others, such as George Jackson and Khatari Gaulden, contributed to this black radical upsurge without ever leaving prison.
In response, state officials abandoned bibliotherapy. They placed new restrictions on the number of visitors and the types of publications people in prison could receive. They expanded solitary confinement units. By the early 1980s, they launched the biggest prison construction project in world history. As geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, California’s “prisoner population grew nearly 500 percent between 1982 and 2000, even though the crime rate peaked in 1980 and declined, unevenly but decisively, thereafter.” The state built twenty-three prisons, “thirteen community corrections facilities, five prison camps, and five mother-prisoner centers” between 1984 and 2007. California was early to experiment with the “three strikes” system and mandatory minimum sentences that contributed to the massive spike in the number of prisoners since the 1970s. After the Second World War, the state was seen as a leader in rehabilitative “corrections”; after consolidating the shift toward retribution that began in the 1970s, it has since the 1980s been a leader in punitive policing and imprisonment.
California has always fancied itself a place of reinvention. At the dawn of mass incarceration, the creators of Black August saw that racism itself was being reinvented or at least being updated through the criminal justice system. Black August commemorated histories of black radicalism and practiced ascetic personal discipline to call attention to the many ways that history continued to bloody the land—now in the form of prisons and ghettoes. Racism was not bad people nurturing ancient prejudice; it was solitary confinement and unfunded schools. A state that thought itself unbloodied by history littered the land with prisons, giving us the greatest human rights crisis now facing our country.
Memory matters. What we remember, what we commemorate, says something about the kind of society we imagine ourselves to be living in. Of course, memory is selective; selecting certain details, people, events is always at the expense of other stories we might tell. As several commentators have noted, the Manichean story of nonviolent resistance to Southern segregation overlooks the prevalence of armed self-defense among black Southerners and others, traditions that later inspired the Black Panther Party to pick up arms. The “I have a dream” speech recycled every second Monday in January freezes Martin Luther King, Jr. in time, while his many passionate declarations for economic justice and an end to U.S. militarism are overlooked. The list goes on and on, every memorial a well-intentioned act of forgetting.
The stories now being told about Freedom Summer righteously celebrate the bravery of the thousands of civil rights workers who brought down Jim Crow segregation. Their contributions to bringing democracy to the United States deserve our highest praise and deepest reflection. But such commemorations should not lull us into the false sense that their mission has been completed. A popular civil rights slogan during the summer of 1964 demanded “Freedom Now.” With some attention to Black August and its surrounding histories of prisoner organizing, especially in light of such high-profile police murders of unarmed black men, this summer’s commemorations might point out how much work is left to do before we can say that the United States has let freedom ring.
Dan Berger is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. His work on race, prisons, media, and American social movements has appeared widely in popular and scholarly journals. He is the author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press (2014). Berger is also the author or editor of three previous books: Letters From Young Activists, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, and The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism. A longtime activist, Berger is a cofounder of Decarcerate PA.