by Kiilu Nyasha, director, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”
2014 marks the 44th anniversary of the Marin Courthouse Slave Rebellion and the 35th anniversary of Black August, first organized in 1979 to honor our fallen freedom fighters, Jonathan and George Jackson, Khatari Gaulden, James McClain, William Christmas, and the sole survivor of the August 1970 Courthouse Rebellion, Ruchell Cinque Magee.
A time to embrace the principles of unity and resistance, Black August had its origins in the “Black Movement” behind prison walls in the Sixties, led by George Jackson, W. L. Nolen, Hugo Pinell, and many other conscious, standup brothers who made it safe for Blacks to walk the yards of California’s overtly racist prisons.
On August 7, 1970, news of the revolutionary action hit the front pages of newspapers around the world. Pictures of four young Black men emerging from the Marin courthouse with guns and hostages, provoked panic in some, but most Black folks took great pride and inspiration from the sight of courageous resistance to the ongoing brutality and murder of Blacks inside and outside of prison.
“Freeze!” shouted 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, “We’re taking over” — as he tossed guns to McClain, Christmas, and Magee. With courage and calm they ushered their hostages to a waiting van, planning to go to a radio station to broadcast the racist atrocities against Black prisoners, and demand the immediate release of the Soledad Brothers — George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette.
What Jackson failed to anticipate was the State’s willingness to sacrifice one of its judges and the lives of everyone else to stop that escape. As he tried to leave the parking lot, the San Quentin guards arrived and opened fire, leaving Jackson, Christmas, McClain, and Judge Harold Haley dead, State prosecutor Gary Thomas and Ruchell Magee seriously wounded. One juror sustained a minor injury.
Although critically wounded making it impossible for him to have killed anyone, Magee was charged with everything they could throw at him. In court to testify for McClain that fateful day, Magee had seized the hour spontaneously.
McClain was on trial for assaulting a guard in the wake of Black prisoner Fred Billingsley’s murder by prison officials at San Quentin in February,1970.
An astute jailhouse lawyer, Magee fought for the right to defend himself and won. The murder charges were dropped, and he was ultimately convicted of PC 207, simple kidnap, but the more serious charge of PC 209, kidnap for purposes of extortion, resulted in a disputed verdict. According to one of the juror’s sworn affidavit, the jury voted for acquittal on PC 209 and Magee continues to this day to challenge the denial and cover-up of that acquittal.
I first met Ruchell in the holding cell of the Marin courtroom in the summer of 1971. I found him to be soft-spoken, warm and a gentleman. I was covering the pretrial hearings of Magee and Angela Davis for The Sun Reporter.
Magee wanted to conduct a trial that would bring to light the racist and brutal oppression of Black prisoners throughout the State. “My fight is to expose the entire system, judicial and prison system, a system of slavery. This will cause benefit not just to myself but to all those who at this time are being criminally oppressed or enslaved by this system.”
On the other hand, his co-defendant, Davis, charged with conspiracy and buying the guns used in the raid, was innocent of any wrongdoing because the gun purchases were perfectly legal and she was not part of the original plan. Davis’ lawyers wanted an expedient trial to prove her innocence. This conflict in strategy resulted in the trials being separated. Davis was acquitted of all charges and released in June of 1972.
Magee fought on alone, losing much of the support attending the Davis trial.
He is currently on the mainline of Lancaster State Prison doing his 51st year in California prisons – many of them spent in solitary confinement under tortuous conditions despite having committed no physical assaults or murders. He is indeed a political prisoner. You may write him, send him money orders, and/or stamps at this address:
Ruchell Magee #A92051
P.O. Box 4670
Lancaster, CA 93539