Black August: Marin County Courthouse Rebellion

By Tracey Onyenacho Aug 14, 2020

The Black August series highlights historical events that remind us of the legacy of Black radical tradition. Black August is a month that holds space for political education and study of Black history, resilience, and resistance. Black August was started by incarcerated people in the 1970s after the death of George Jackson and August was chosen for its significance in many important dates in Black struggle.

Seventeen-year-old Johnathan Jackson busted into the Marin County Courthouse with a gun on August 7, 1970, during his brother’s murder trial and held the presiding judge, Harold Haley, hostage. The desperate move was an attempt to force the release of George Jackson, a Black Panther Party activist and Johnathan’s older brother, from Soledad Prison. 

On that day, Johnathan also freed three imprisoned people (William Christmas, James McClain, and Ruchell Magee) who helped Johnathan bring the judge, assistant district attorney, and three jurors to an awaiting van. As the van attempted to exit the lot, courthouse security shot up the moving vehicle, killing Johnathan Jackson, Christmas, and McClain as well as Judge Haley. 

Activist Angela Davis was also charged and later acquitted of kidnapping and murder, accused of assisting in the rebellion at the courthouse, by the purchase of a gun from a pawn shop and her close affiliation with Johnathan and George Jackson. 

The rebellion came months after increased racial violence on Black imprisoned folks within Soledad from both prison guards to white supremacist prison gangs. The Soledad Brothers, which included George Jackson, were known for killing a white prison guard after three Black imprisoned people were shot dead by another prison guard. George Jackson also formed the Black Guerrilla Party while at Soledad and released "Soledad Brother," a book filled with letters he wrote between 1964 and 1970 detailing his political ideology as a Black revolutionary as well as "Blood In My Eye," both best sellers.

George Jackson was killed on August 21, 1971, in an attempted prison escape. The 2007 film "Black August" is a retelling of the last fourteen months of Jackson’s life.