Insurgent Maternity: The Soledad Mothers in the Radical Black Prison Movement
Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette and George Jackson became known as the Soledad Brothers after they were accused of murdering the guard John Mills in the California State Prison of that name in early 1970. Their mothers, Mrs. Inez Williams, Mrs. Doris Maxwell, and Mrs. Georgia Jackson, respectively, acted quickly by protesting the illegal railroading and physically punitive measures, notably chaining, taken against their sons who were targeted as militant Black prisoners responding to the racism of the U.S. penal system. The efforts of the Soledad Mothers to galvanize support for the defense of their sons are underrecognized in the historical work on this case that became a pivot of the radical Black prison movement and broader anti-racist freedom struggles, nationally and internationally.
Unknown to each other, the mothers repeatedly combatted attempts by prison officials to cut them off from information about their sons who were held in solitary for 29 days after the guard’s death and forbidden to receive or send any information to their families. Once they learned of the Grand Jury indictment of the three prisoners on February 14, 1970, they mobilized independently to drive up to Salinas from the L.A. area for pre-arraignment hearings, only to witness their sons being dragged in and out of prison vehicles with chains around their necks, ankles, down their backs and between their legs, often shackled together. There were few supporters present at this early stage of the case as the mothers singlehandedly continued to protest the lawless proceedings inside the courtroom and demand time to raise money to hire their own progressive attorneys. Partly through their concerted efforts to contact radical lawyers and sympathizers, such as Angela Davis, the case began to attract significant attention in progressive circles, and the first chapters of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee (SBDC) started to coalesce in Southern California and the Bay Area.
Mrs. Inez Williams speaking at a Black Panther Party rally, Bobby Hutton Park, Oakland, CA 1970. Photo courtesy of Billy X Jennings, Black Panther Party Archivist, itsabouttimebpp.com
Recognized for her authentic and moving speeches, Mrs. Inez Williams was subsequently asked to speak at rallies and press conferences with Angela Davis and others in support of the SBDC. After the three men were transferred to San Quentin State Prison in the summer of 1970, she moved to the Bay Area and became increasingly more involved in defense efforts. She continued her activism in defense of her son Fleeta Drumgo and other political prisoners into the late 1970’s, attending many courtroom trials and hearings and appearing as a national and international spokesperson for the radical Black prison movement on tours often organized by the Communist Party. However, she refused to read ideologically laden speeches prepared by others but insisted on speaking directly out of her own in depth experience as a mother with intimate exposure to the violence of the racist prison system.
After her successful efforts to contact radical lawyers and members of the Che-Lumumba club, an all Black chapter of the Communist Party in Los Angeles to which Angela Davis belonged, on behalf of her son John Clutchette, Mrs. Doris Maxwell remained active in the public defense of the Soledad Brothers. She spoke at length in press conferences and in radio interviews with SBDC members, attorneys and the other mothers about the destructive impact of the racist corrections system on John’s life, from his teenage years.
Her defiant vocal protests in courtroom hearing and trials are legendary. Shortly after the murder of George Jackson in San Quentin on August 21, 1971, she swore at a judge for refusing to admit as evidence of torture the visible scars and welts on the necks, backs and chests of John and Fleeta from cigarette burns and beatings. When officers tried to eject her, supporters in the courtroom rose up and fought back against her aggressors, suffering severe injuries and arrest in their efforts to protect her.
Emerging as a relentless and composed critic of the racist corrections regime, Mrs. Georgia Jackson initiated and continued to participate in defense efforts for the Soledad Brothers. Following the vicious police killing of her younger son, Jonathan Jackson, the leader of the Marin County Courthouse rebellion on August 7, 1970, she came forth as a major militant spokesperson, now a “revolutionary mother” in George Jackson’s words. She subsequently became an assertive leader of the militant wing of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committees in the Bay Area, in political alliance with the Black Panther Party. After the murder of her remaining son, George Jackson, she gave a remarkably focused and combative press conference at the SBDC headquarters the following day in which she attacked the changing lies put forward by prison authorities to mask the fact that George was set up for assassination because he spoke out. In 1972 she petitioned the United Nations to investigate the circumstances of his death.
Video of Mrs. Georgia Jackson speaking at a press conference on August 22, 1971.
The names of these brilliant and courageous mothers do not appear on the official list of famous supporters of the SBDC though their efforts were vital to its genesis and continuing impact, nationally and internationally, as a pivot of the revolutionary prison movement and international Black freedom struggles. They became involved in defense efforts out of fear for their sons’ lives and rage at the brutality to which they were subjected and transformed into uniquely gifted, catalytic activists against the neo-slavery perpetuated by the U.S. penal system to this day.
The Harvard History Design Studio has provided me with expert consultation and inspiration toward envisioning a multi-media archive of the Soledad Mothers’ activism in its varied and potent forms. The first step was the opportunity to participate in the HDS exhibit of affiliated projects, Footprints Across Time, by creating a visually concise inserted addendum to the first Soledad Brothers defense pamphlet (spring, 1970) that updated the information given about the mothers to highlight their dynamic contributions over time. My goal is to create an archive that is accessible and inspiring, especially to those who suffer most directly from the ravages of the racist U.S. penal system and those who are on the front lines of struggle in the contemporary anti-racist prison movement.Visit Website