‘Let our motto be resistance.’ Black August commemorates African Americans who fought racial oppression

Two highly publicized killings launched the annual observance of Black August, a month-long observance that grew from a California, prison-based Black movement.

In 1843, Black clergyman and abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet delivered the speech, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States,” at the National Negro Convention. Informally known as the “Call to Rebellion,” Garnet urged enslaved “brethren” to rise and fight their owners for freedom. However, convention participants voted against it. Even fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his white abolitionist mentor William Lloyd Garrison opposed the action because it did not use moral persuasion to convince whites to abolish enslavement.

People like Garnet are commemorated this month during what is called Black August. Unlike Black History Month, it specifically focuses on Black liberation by commemorating rebellion against enslavement, segregation, and mass incarceration. It also lauds Black civil and human rights activists for their contributions against racism, enslavement, and colonialism.

August was chosen because it hosted the birthdays of many movement-specific, Black civil and human rights heroes. Also, major historical events occurred in August which removed barriers to freedom. “August is a month of meaning, of repression and radical resistance, of injustice and divine justice; of repression and righteous rebellion; of individual and collective efforts to free the slaves and break the chains that bind us,” Mumia Abu-Jamal reminded readers last year.

The former radio journalist and Black Panther, Abu-Jamal has been imprisoned for almost four decades for the 1981 shooting death of a police officer.   A charge that Abu-Jamal has denied,  he has filed numerous appeals to overturn his conviction. While his work is acknowledged during Black August, for years, Abu-Jamal recognizes what he calls “the legacy of Black people’s resistance to the armed repression of the U.S.”

Black August has kept alive the histories of activists like Abu-Jamal. They fought against racist laws and social practices preventing Black people from enjoying the freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution to which all Americans are entitled.

“Black August is a time to engage in self-reaffirming action to advance our struggle for self-determination and national liberation, and to commemorate actions of resistance, revolution and rebellion, while promoting an understanding and awareness of active and proactive acts of resistance,” writes Mama Ayanna Mashama of the Black August Planning Organization.

The Soledad Brothers

Initiators of Black August sought to inspire generations of Black people in- and-out of prison. Their call was to continue pushing for racial equality and justice. Black August began as a means for honoring the lives of California prison activist George Jackson and his younger brother Jonathan. On August 7, 1970, 17-year-old Jonathan was shot to death by the police as he attempted a kidnapping from a Marin County Civic Center courtroom.

Jonathan planned to exchange the hostages for the release of his brother George and two of George’s fellow inmates, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo. Together, they were known as the Soledad Brothers, because they were incarcerated in California’s Soledad Prison. The three prisoners were accused of murdering a Soledad Prison guard, a capital offense. For the daring rescue attempt, Jonathan is remembered during Black August.

Jackson had been  in Soledad since he was a teenager. He was charged with robbing $70 from a gas station. Told by an attorney to plead guilty for the chance of getting sentenced to fewer years in prison, instead, he was given a sentence of one year to life. Several of his years were in solitary confinement.

Almost a year after Jonathan’s death, George Jackson was killed on August 21, 1971, by an officer in San Quentin Prison, where Jackson had been transferred. Authorities claimed that Jackson, who was shot in the prison yard by an officer in the guard tower, was trying to escape.

Said to be an effective organizer, the imprisoned Jackson co-founded the Black Guerrilla Family in 1966 with fellow Black San Quentin prisoner and mentor, W.L. Nolen. Like Jackson, Nolen studied revolutionary movements and was widely read. The organization advocated for prisoners’ rights and safety, supported the Black Power movement, and called for the freedom of all African Americans from racism. It also taught Black prisoners that their struggles paralleled  anti-enslavement and anti-colonial revolutions in Africa and across the African Diaspora.

The Black Guerrilla Family was influenced by Marxism and Marcus Garvey. The Jamaican activist established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) in the early 1900s, The U.N.I.A. promoted Black economic self-sufficiency and Black entrepreneurship through Black-owned businesses. Garvey called for political and cultural unity between descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S., Central and South America, Caribbean nations, as well as elsewhere globally where there were  Africans.. His best-known saying was “Up you, mighty race! You can accomplish what you will.” Garvey was born on August 17 and is also honored during Black August.

A broader recognition

From 1979 to the present, interest in and awareness of Black August has increased. The Florida-based organization The Black Collective assists those curious about Black August by posting suggested books, films, and music by or about Black activists historically heralded during the month.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal representation to Black prison, civil and human rights activists, compiled significant dates in Black August, such as the Haitian Revolution and Nat Turner’s Rebellion. They also included the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the  reaction to Brown’s case and similar incidents resulted in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Observance

The Islamic faith heavily influenced Black prisoners in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially the teachings of the Nation of Islam and its best known proponent Malcolm X. In the early years of Black August, prisoners admired the Nation’s practice of fasting during the Islamic holy period of Ramadan. The prisoners adopted fasting in observance of Black August as an exercise in the self-discipline they felt would make them more effective “soldiers” in the fight for freedom. Fasting also served as a reminder of the sacrifices made by individuals who were murdered because of their uncompromising activism.

Prisoners also wore black armbands on their left arms in memory of those who gave their lives for Black freedom. One example is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose famous “I Have A Dream” speech took place in August at the 1963 March on Washington.

Outside of prisons, many employed additional practices of self-discipline and self-control in observing Black August such as abstaining from drugs and alcohol and other distractions. The purpose of these practices is to emphasize Black unity, fortitude and strength needed to continue  the movement for justice and against racial oppression.

A poem by the spoken word trio, The Last Poets, perhaps best expresses the theme of Black August: “Blessed are those who struggle. Oppression is worse than the grave. Better to die for a noble cause, than to live and die a slave.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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