Political Prisoner Ruchell Cinque Magee
Sole survivor of the August 7, 1970, Courthouse Slave Rebellion
Preface: I can hardly believe that 47 years have gone by since the August 7,1970, Marin Courthouse Slave Rebellion. Ruchell is now 77 years old, same as myself. It’s a sin and a shame the fascist state has practically taken this brother’s whole life. And he has never seriously injured anyone. Quite the opposite, Ruchell has been responsible, through his jailhouse lawyering, for the release of countless prisoners over the five-plus decades he’s been incarcerated. Here’s his story, written years ago and updated.
“Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today. It’s the same but with a new name.” —Ruchell Cinque Magee
I first met Ruchell Cinque Magee in the holding cell of the Marin County courthouse in the summer of 1971. Ru was soft-spoken, warm and gentlemanly in typically Southern tradition. We visited and corresponded for many years.
I had just returned to California from New Haven, Connecticut, where I had organized as a rank-and-file Panther, a leader of the People’s Committee (a diverse auxiliary group) and a member of the legal defense team of three Panthers, Lonnie McLucas, Erica Huggins and Chairman Bobby Seale, on trial for murder and conspiracy.
Already familiar with courtroom injustice, racism and bias against Black defendants witnessed in two capital trials (Lonnie McLucas tried first), it didn’t come as a surprise that Ruchell was getting a raw deal in the Marin courtroom where he was frequently removed for outbursts of sheer frustration.
In my correspondence with George Jackson, author of the bestseller, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, he had advised me to seek a press card in order to visit him at San Quentin. In so doing, I wound up working for The Sun Reporter, a local Black newspaper (byline Pat Gallyot), and covering the pretrial hearings of Angela Davis and Magee, subbing for Reggie Major.
By 1971, Ruchell was an astute jailhouse lawyer, responsible for the release and protection of a myriad of prisoners benefiting from his extensive knowledge of law used to prepare writs, appeals and lawsuits for himself and many others.
Now Ruchell was fighting for the right to represent himself against charges of murder, conspiracy to murder, kidnap and conspiracy to aid the escape of state prisoners.
Although critically wounded on August 7, 1970, Magee was the sole survivor among the four courageous prisoners who conducted the courthouse slave rebellion. Nevertheless, he was charged with everything they could throw at him including the murder of the judge, a charge later dropped.
“All right gentlemen, hold it right there. We’re taking over!”
Armed to the teeth, Jonathan Jackson, 17, George’s, younger brother, raided the Marin courtroom and tossed guns to prisoners William Christmas and James McClain, who in turn invited Ruchell to join them. Magee seized the hour spontaneously as they attempted to escape by taking a judge, assistant district attorney and three jurors as hostages in that audacious move to expose to the public the brutally racist prison conditions and free the Soledad Brothers—John Clutchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Jackson—on trial for killing a guard with a mandatory death sentence if convicted.
McClain was on trial for assaulting a guard in the wake of Black prisoner Fred Billingsley’s murder by prison officials at San Quentin in February 1970. With only four months before a parole hearing, Magee appeared in the courtroom to testify for McClain.
The four revolutionaries successfully commandeered the group to the waiting van and were about to pull out of the parking lot when Marin County police and San Quentin guards opened fire. When the shooting stopped, Judge Harold Haley, Jonathan Jackson, Christmas and McClain lay dead; Magee was unconscious and seriously wounded, as was the prosecutor, Gary Thomas. One juror suffered a minor injury.
In a chain of events leading to August 7, on January 13, 1970, a month before the Billingsley slaughter, a tower guard at Soledad State Prison had shot and killed three Black captives on the yard, leaving them unattended to bleed to death: Cleveland Edwards, “Sweet Jugs” Miller and the venerable revolutionary leader, W. L. Nolen, all active resisters in the Black Liberation Movement behind the walls. Others in the Movement included George Jackson, Khatari Gaulden, Hugo L.A. Pinell (Yogi Bear), Howard Tole and Warren Wells.
After the common verdict of “justifiable homicide” was returned and the killer guard exonerated at Soledad, a white racist guard was beaten and thrown from a tier to his death. Three prisoners, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette and Jackson were charged with his murder precipitating the case of The Soledad Brothers and a campaign to free them led by college professor and avowed Communist Angela Davis and Jonathan Jackson.
Magee had already spent at least seven years studying law and deluging the courts with petitions and lawsuits to contest his own illegal conviction in two fraudulent trials. As he put it, the judicial system “used fraud to hide fraud” in his second case after the first conviction was overturned on an appeal based on a falsified transcript.
Magee’s strategy centered on proving that he was a slave, held involuntarily and denied his constitutional rights.
Therefore, he had the legal right to escape slavery as established in the case of the African slave, Cinque, who had escaped the slave ship, Amistad, and won freedom in a Connecticut trial. In fact, he added Cinque to his name.
Ruchell Cinque Magee had to first prove he’d been illegally and unjustly incarcerated for over seven years. He also wanted the case moved to the federal courts and the right to represent himself.
Moreover, Magee wanted to conduct a trial that would bring to light the racist and brutal oppression of Black prisoners throughout the state. “My fight is to expose the entire system, judicial and prison system, a system of slavery. This will cause benefit not just to myself but to all those who at this time are being criminally oppressed or enslaved by this system.”
On the other hand, Angela Davis, his co-defendant, charged with buying the guns used in the raid and conspiracy, was innocent of any wrongdoing because the gun purchases were perfectly legal and she was not part of the original plan. Davis’ lawyers wanted an expedient trial to prove her innocence. This conflict in strategy resulted in the trials being separated. Davis was acquitted of all charges and released in June of 1972.
Ruchell fought on alone, losing much of the support attending the Davis trial. After dismissing five attorneys and five judges, he won the right to defend himself. The murder charges had been dropped, and Magee faced two kidnap charges. He was ultimately convicted of PC 207, simple kidnap, but the more serious charge of PC 209, kidnap for purposes of extortion, resulted in a disputed verdict. According to one juror’s sworn affidavit, the jury voted for acquittal on the PC 209 and Magee continues to this day to challenge the denial and cover-up of that acquittal.
Ruchell is currently on the mainline of Lancaster California State Prison doing his 54th year in California gulags—many of those years spent in solitary confinement under tortuous conditions, despite having no assault or murder convictions!
Magee’s case is a prime example of the maltreatment and persecution of young Black men in this very racist country. Here’s a brother who was incarcerated at age 16 in Franklinton, Louisiana—Ku Klux Klan territory in the 1950s—for his association with a white girl. He was charged with aggravated attempted rape and sent to the notorious adult slave plantation, Angola, for eight years, then banished from the state and sent to stay with relatives in Los Angeles. His inherited property—his mother died while he was in Angola—was confiscated, no doubt.
Six months later, he got into a minor altercation, was arrested and brutalized badly enough to be hospitalized before being jailed in 1963. He immediately began filing writs and petitions protesting his illegal incarceration, and the rest is history.
So-called law enforcement in this country lets police and prison guards murder with impunity, while our Black brothers and sisters wind up serving life without the possibility of parole even though they never got that sentence.
Fight fascism! Free the people!
Kiilu Nyasha, Black Panther veteran and revolutionary journalist, hosts the TV talk show Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, broadcast live on San Francisco Channels 29 and 76, and blogs at The Official Website of Kiilu Nyasha, where episodes of Freedom are archived.
She invites all who can to write and visit Ruchell:
Ruchell Magee A-902051,
CMC, P.O. Box 8103
San Luis Obispo
—San Francisco Bay View News, February 2, 2017