Resistance on Trial

The San Quentin Six

Like the Soledad brothers, the San Quentin Six were working class men of color with prior involvement in political events, as is demonstrated in this chart by the San Quentin Six Legal Defense Fund. Undated. Courtesy of Freedom Archives.

As the outside world transformed rapidly around her, in 1972 Davis finally stood trial alongside Magee. In the midst of a national assault on the Black Panther Party, the trial became part of the iconic imagery of the struggle for Black freedom for many viewers. This silent footage from the UCLA Film and Television Archive begins as Davis enters the courtroom raising her fist in the Black Power salute, and shows Magee chained to his chair. The three month long ordeal began on February 28, 1972, and included over 100 prosecution witnesses and 12 defense witnesses. Despite her intellect and political convictions, the mass media and prosecution portrayed Davis as motivated by lust for Jackson, echoing historical stereotypes of Black women. Nevertheless, after 3 days of heated jury deliberation, Davis was declared innocent. 1

Although Davis won her freedom, Magee has spent the last 57 years behind bars, much of that time in solitary confinement. As an accomplished jailhouse lawyer committed to exposing the racism of the prison system, Magee pursued a distinct legal strategy which led to the separation of the two trials. Inspired by the successful case of an enslaved man named Cinque who escaped the Amistad slave ship to win his freedom in court, he argued that he was held involuntarily as a slave and denied his constitutional rights. Unfortunately, over the years he lost much of the support Davis received from the general public. 

  1. Aptheker, The Morning Breaks.  xiiv

The escape attempt also resulted in lasting consequences and a lengthy legal battle for Hugo Pinell, Willie Tate, Johnny Larry Spain, David Johnson, Fleeta Drumgo and Luis Talamantez, men accused of participating in the uprising who would become known as the San Quentin Six.

The defendants themselves were participants in the prison movement. Spain participated in food strikes and work stoppages. Pinell filed legal protests against the deaths of Black prisoners Nolan, Edwards, and Miller in Soledad and refused an offer of early parole in exchange for giving false testimony against Jackson. Talamantez was a well known organizer of Chicano prisoners who stressed Black and Brown unity against prison officials. Many defense activists believed the men were framed because of their political convictions and organizing. 2

The controversial San Quentin Six trial ended in a mixed verdict a full five years after Jackson’s death. All together, the six defendants were charged with five deaths and three assaults. However, only Spain was convicted of murder. Drumgo, Talamantez, and Tate were acquitted and released on parole. Pinell and Johnson were convicted for assaulting guards. However, their lawyers saw this as only a partial victory not only because some of the defendants were unable to win their freedom but because they hoped to put the brutal and racially discriminatory California prison system itself on trial. As journalist Karen Wald explains, they hoped to prove that Jackson’s murder was a state sponsored assasination and that “conditions in the maximum-security Adjustment Center (AC) at San Quentin were so barbarous that any of the convicts in the AC could have spontaneously committed the slayings and assaults on August 21.” 3 . Doctors Rundel and Zimbardo described the conditions of life in the AC in vivid detail. 

 By the time the case went to trial, the revolutionary left that supported Davis had lost much of its influence and attempts to gain media coverage and mass support were less successful. Nevertheless, when the defendants went free many continued to organize for other political prisoners. Pinell, left inside, spent 43 years in solitary confinement. Tragically Pinell was murdered on Aug. 12, 2015, in New Folsom State Prison. 

San Quentin Six at Political Rally in Los Angeles

Fleeta Drumgo, Bato Talamantez, David Johnson and Sundiata Tate attend a rally sponsored by the National Alliance Against Racism and Oppression. The rally took place at the Olvera Street Plaza in Los Angeles in 1977 Courtesy of Freedom Archives

Resistance on Trial