Story at a glance
- Black August originated in California prisons in the 1970s as a month of reflection and study.
- The month of August is also the anniversary of a number of significant events in Black history.
- Changing America spoke to Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, about the history of this month and its relevance today.
There’s a hashtag for Black August on social media, one that has perhaps been more busy than in previous years due to elevated discussions of racism in the national conversation after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans this year. But the roots of this month go much deeper and much farther back in history.
“It’s not just a phrase that we’ve made up because of the moment that we’re in,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “There’s a history to this concept and commemoration of Black August.”
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At the time, another activist, George Jackson, was serving a year-to-life sentence for allegedly stealing $70 from a Los Angeles gas station. His 17-year-old brother Jonathan Jackson was killed on Aug. 7, 1970, after attempting to free three prisoners and taking a judge, district attorney and three jurors hostage to demand the release of the "Soledad Brothers." One year later, on Aug. 21, George was killed while trying to escape from San Quentin prison. Their deaths are cited as the beginnings of Black August, a month chosen for its history of Black resistance and observed in prisons across California.
Nat Turner’s rebellion, the Watts Rebellion and the March on Washington all happened during August; the Jackson brothers and Emmett Till were killed in August, and Marcus Garvey and Fred Hampton were born in August. But the concept of Black August goes beyond any one event or series of events, Albright said.
“There’s a whole history of people and events and movements that took place in August that was really the reason why the creators of this chose this month,” Albright said. “This moment that we're in is part of a thread, is part of a longer narrative of resistance and when you can understand that continuity you can understand the possibility of what we're asking.”
In the late 1970s, Muslim prisoners observed Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community, during August, inspiring a legacy of fasting and other exercises of self-discipline. Years later, as Black August spread outside prison walls and across the United States, it is considered a time for reflection, study and personal development. This, as well as the origins and focus on the incarceration of Black Americans, differentiates the month from Black History Month, which some have criticized for failing to highlight more radical revolutionaries.
learn about political prisoners who sacrificed their lives to fight against imperialism/colonialism. many of our revolutionaries are still incarcerated and are treated with specific repression because of their radical politics. black august celebrates the people/movements that— (@noname) July 30, 2020
This year, Black August comes in the wake of protests against police brutality and racism sparked by the killing of George Floyd and just ahead of a presidential election. The Black National Convention will be held on Aug. 28 — virtually, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We see this bridge between the tradition of resistance and elevating issues around political prisoners and prison industrial complex and this moment that we’re in, where you’ve got prison issues intersecting with voting rights,” Albright said. “In the midst of all this you've got the ongoing battle of prison conditions which coronavirus has really exposed.”
Jails and prisons have been some of the biggest coronavirus hotspots in the country. By July 28, at least 78,526 people in prison had tested positive for COVID-19, according to The Marshall Project, more than the total cases in 30 other states and the District of Columbia. By that same date, the total number of deaths had risen by 7 percent in one week to 766.
Meanwhile, Iowa became the last state to restore voting rights to some convicted felons, and D.C. became the first place in the United States to restore voting rights to incarcerated felons. But a Supreme Court decision in July left in place a lower court order that likely will prevent hundreds of thousands of felons in Florida from voting in the November election.
So while Black Americans observe Black August, they are also bracing for the months and years ahead.
“There's never been a period in this country's history absent of black resistance,” Albright said. “The notion that at any point in this country's history that we were sitting by as victims or objects of history and weren't driving resistance is [inconsistent] with history.”
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