While America has claimed to be a democracy, numerous Black activists who have fought for justice and liberation in the United States have been jailed and targeted for their political beliefs. We know the ones lionized over the years, like Angela Davis and Huey Newton. But many more have languished in prison and forgotten by the mainstream, even today.
Even worse, some Black political prisoners have been killed while they were incarcerated.
After a series of killings of political prisoners in the 1970s– including George Jackson on August 21, 1971– a group of organizers launched Black August to honor their lives.
As Wayne State University professor Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly told ESSENCE:
Black August expresses solidarity with…Black political prisoners and prisoners of war. It’s supposed to be a month of sacrifice and self-discipline. From the outset it was aimed at strengthening the Black freedom struggle, within and beyond the walls of prisons. It’s a commemoration, not a celebration. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is one of the longest- standing political prisoners, called Black August ‘a month of injustice and divine justice, of repression and righteous rebellion, of individual and collective efforts to free the slave and break the chains that bind us.’
With Black August coming to a close, we’re highlighting some of these freedom fighters and their work in this ongoing struggle.
George Jackson was sentenced to one year to life for allegedly stealing $70. While in prison, Jackson organized political education sessions among other inmates. As renowned historian Walter Rodney wrote, Jackson “was incarcerated for years under the most dehumanizing conditions because he discovered that blackness need not be a badge of servility but rather could be a banner for uncompromising revolutionary struggle. He was murdered because he was doing too much to pass this attitude on to fellow prisoners.” Jackson died at just 29 years old on August 21, 1971 from what many consider was a state-sponsored assassination.
Members of the MOVE 9
The MOVE 9 was a group of activists imprisoned after the police attacked their home in August 1978. The attack preceded the May 1985 bombing of MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia by the police, during which law enforcement destroyed a total of 61 residential homes. Two women in the group, Janine Africa and Janet Africa, were released in 2019. Others died behind bars.
Mumia Abu Jamal
Mumia Abu Jamal was the Minister of Information for the Philadelphia Black Panthers from 1969 to 1971. He was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing a police officer, though he has maintained his innocence. The death sentence was lowered to life in prison, but activists have called for his release. Those concerns grew when it was uncovered that his health has deteriorated in prison. Angela Davis has called Mumia, who is a renowned author and journalist, “the most eloquent and most powerful opponent of the death penalty in the world…the 21st Century Frederick Douglass.”
Activist Pam Africa speaks at a rally in Philadelphia | Getty Images
Mutulu Shakur was the step-father of iconic rapper Tupac Shakur. Mutulu was diagnosed with life threatening cancer, but was denied compassionate release. In the 1960s until the 1980s, Shakur “participated in civil rights, Black liberation and acupuncture healthcare” as part of the era’s social movements. In the late 1980s Shakur was sentenced to 60 years in prison on RICO, armed bank robbery, and killing charges, though supporters say there is no evidence that he killed anyone.
A judge conceded that Shakur’s rights were violated by the federal counter intelligence program, COINTELPRO, that targeted numerous Black activists.