Never mind Charlottesville; it’s Black August.
On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom galvanized thousands in the streets of the nation’s capital. On August 25,1925, A. Philip Randolph helped to establish the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Harlem. It was in August 1791, when the Haitian Revolution rid the country of French colonialism and enslavement — precursors to the Nat Turner Rebellion of August 1831 and Watts Uprising of 1965. It was on August 8, 1978, that the Philadelphia Police Department first raided the MOVE Organization, giving way to the MOVE 9. August also bears the births of Fred Hampton, Mutulu Shakur, Marcus Garvey – whose organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, formed in August 1914 as well. The month also marks the deaths of W.E.B. Du Bois and, much more recently, young Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of the police.
August, Black August, has always been a month of struggle and resistance. A month long commemoration that marks the remembrance of the lives of freedom fighters, liberation seekers and political prisoners protesting the solution to the most egregious solution to state-driven economic anxiety: mass incarceration.
“Whereas this summer has seen many celebrations of Freedom Summer’s influence on expanding black communities’ access to the institutions of U.S. democracy, Black August marks a less pleasant but no less dramatic reality of American politics. It points to the racialized exclusions that continue to haunt the American experience — especially in the form of the expansive prison industrial complex that makes the United States the world’s leader in incarceration. In remembering histories of black activism from the space of prison cells, Black August points to the ongoing failure to realize the promises of freedom and democracy that drove the civil rights activists of the 1960s,” writes Dan Berger, professor and author of “Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.”
The contemporary inception of Black August can be found in the actions of Jonathan Jackson who was gunned down outside the Marin County, Calif., courthouse on August 7, 1970, as he attempted to liberate three imprisoned Black Liberation Fighters: James McClain, William Christmas and Ruchell Magee. Angela Davis’ former co-defendant Magee (who is still imprisoned) is the sole survivor of the August 7 rebellion. He has been locked down for 40-plus years, most of it in solitary confinement in the SHU in Pelican Bay. Jonathan Jackson’s brother George Jackson, who had just completed “Soledad Brother,” was assassinated a year later on August 21, 1971, by San Quentin prison guards.
“At the dawn of mass incarceration, the creators of Black August saw that racism itself was being reinvented or at least being updated through the criminal justice system. Black August commemorated histories of black radicalism and practiced ascetic personal discipline to call attention to the many ways that history continued to bloody the land — now in the form of prisons and ghettos. Racism was not bad people nurturing ancient prejudice; it was solitary confinement and unfunded schools. A state that thought itself unbloodied by history littered the land with prisons, giving us the greatest human rights crisis now facing our country,” Berger continues.
Inmates today have continued to protest and press forward all over the United States. Hunger strikes have roused thousands in states such as Georgia, California, and North Carolina. Black August participants refused food and water before sundown, eschewed drugs and boastful behavior, boycotted radio and television, and engaged in rigorous physical exercise and political study. Through Black August, prisoners sought to demonstrate the personal power they maintained despite incarceration. Letter writing campaigns have served as vital lines of inspiration and direct communication and human rights activists such as Mumia Abu-Jamal have served as critical catalysts, tirelessly working to empower the voices of those who continue to be oppressed by the public and private prison industry.
Black August has since spread beyond prison walls to the Black community-at-large most tangibly, into the culture of the new generation in New York City, the Bay Area and Atlanta. In Oakland, the Black August Organizing Committee has held movie showings, organized summer programs for youth, and advocated for political prisoners. Other organizations, including the Eastside Arts Alliance and the Freedom Archives, have organized events showcasing the history of Black August in relation to contemporary racial justice organizing. The Black August Hip Hop Project organized annual events between 1998 and 2010, including international delegations of artists and activists to Cuba, South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil, and Venezuela. Black August concerts have included artists such as The Roots, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), and Erykah Badu and others.
In Atlanta, where Garvey was once held as a political prisoner for mail fraud, to Freddie Hilton (Kamau Sadiki), Ramon Salazar to Verona Salazar as identified by the Collective Black People Movement, Black August commemorations center wellness, running parallel to All Natural ATL and in the past, Happily Natural Day – a powerful summer festival dedicated to holistic health, cultural awareness and social change. On August 20, 2017, All Natural ATL kicks off the Annual Black August 5K Run for Freedom, with the RBG Fit Club, HABESHA, FTP Movement, Community Movement Builders and Afrikan Martial Arts Institute to promote health and fitness with a cause. After the run there will be Kemetic Yoga, Martial Arts, Archery and Fitness Training along with a Black August Block Party gathering to culminate the weekend.
In recent years, the Red Bike and Green ATLANTA offered a free family oriented ride geared towards increasing the wellness of African Americans – citing the prevalence of chronic diseases, largely due to lack of healthy foods and movement.
So, never mind the recent displays of long-fomenting racial angst; or as George Jackson put it: “Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that people are dying who could be saved.”
Never mind Charlottesville; it’s Black August.