The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee

On January 16, after a television report that the grand jury had ruled the deaths “justifiable homicide,” the Soledad inmates took their revenge. A young, inexperienced guard named John Mills was alone on the floor of Soledad’s Y Wing, where Jackson was housed. A group of inmates grabbed him by the throat, beat him up, and threw him over a third-floor railing. Mills struck the concrete floor below with a thud, tried to rise, then fell dead. The cell block exploded in cheers.

Jackson and two other inmates were detained, placed in solitary, and charged with Mills’s murder; as a serial offender, Jackson faced the gas chamber. The case of the “Soledad Brothers,” as the three were soon dubbed, would have a profound impact on the California prison system, the Left, and ultimately the underground. The key figure was a radical attorney named Fay Stender, who agreed to represent Jackson after she made a name for herself as Huey Newton’s co-counsel in his murder trial. A plain woman with a smoldering sexuality, Stender was utterly entranced by the black inmates she represented. Although married with two children, she would enter into a sexual relationship with Jackson, as she had with Newton.

She was a genius at public relations. As she’d done with Newton, she intended to put the entire white “system” on trial by portraying Jackson as an innocent victim being persecuted for his revolutionary beliefs. Enlisting white activists from across California, Stender formed the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, which soon blossomed into a full-blown bureaucracy with seven subcommittees and a Who’s Who of radical-chic supporters, including Jane Fonda, Pete Seeger, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, and a striking UCLA professor named Angela Davis. The committee turned Jackson into a cause célèbre for the radical Left, pumping out a stream of posters, pamphlets, buttons, bumper stickers, and fund-raising letters while staging bake sales, poetry readings, and art auctions. The Grateful Dead even played a benefit concert.

Under Stender’s guidance, George Jackson emerged as the living symbol of everything the Bay Area Left yearned for: strong, black, prideful, masculine, and undeniably sexual. John Irwin, who was called to testify for Jackson’s defense, noticed how naïve and starstruck Stender and her supporters were. “It was mostly women who were doing the organizing,” he told the writer David Horowitz years later. “They had each picked their favorite Soledad Brother and were kind of ooh-ing and ah-ing over them, like teenagers with movie stars. I couldn’t believe it.”