By Bakari Kitwana
Political activists around the country are still absorbing the news of Geronimo ji Jaga’s death. For those of us who came of age in the 80s and 90s, the struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s were in many ways a gateway for our examination of the history of Black political resistance in the US. Geronimo ji Jaga (formerly Geronimo Pratt) and his personal struggle, as well as his contributions to the fight for social justice were impossible to ignore. His commitment, humility, clear thinking as well as his sense of both the longevity and continuity of the Black Freedom Movement in the US all stood out to those who knew him.
I interviewed him for The Source magazine in early September 1997 about three months after he was released from prison, having served 27 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. Three things stood out from the interview, all of which have been missed by recent commentary celebrating his life and impact.
First that famed attorney Johnnie Cochran was not only his lawyer when ji Jaga gained his freedom, but also represented him in his original trial. They were from the same hometown and, according to ji Jaga, Cochran’s conscious over the years was dogged by the injustice of the US criminal system that resulted in the 1970 sentence. Second, according to ji Jaga, he never formally joined the Black Panther Party. As he remembered it, he worked with several Black activist organizations and was captured by the police while working with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. And finally, his analysis of the UCLA 1969 shoot-out between Black Panthers and US Organization members that led to the death of his best friend Bunchy Carter and John Huggins is not a simple tale of Black in-fighting. Now is a good time to revisit all three.
Misinformation is so much part of our current political moment, particularly as the 24-hour news cycle converges with the ascendance of Fox News. In this climate, the conservative analysis of race has been normalized in mainstream discourse. This understanding of racial politics, along with the election of Barack Obama and a first term marked by little for Blacks to celebrate, makes it a particularly challenging time to be politically Black in the United States. Ask Jeremiah Wright, Shirley Sherrod, and Van Jones—all three serious advocates for the rights and humanity of everyday people whose critiques of politics and race made them far too easily demonized as anti-American.
If we have entered the era where the range of Black political thought beyond the mainstream liberal-conservative purview is delegitimized, Geronimo ji Jaga’s life and death is a reminder of our need to resist it.
EXCERPTS FROM THE 1997 INTERVIEW:
How did you get involved with the Black Panther Party?
Technically I never joined the Black Panther Party. After Martin Luther King’s death, an elder of mine who was related to Bunchy Carter’s elder and Johnnie Cochran’s elder requested that those of us in the South that had military training render some sort of discipline to brothers in urban areas who were running amuck getting shot right and left, running down the street shooting guns with bullets half filled which they were buying at the local hardware store. When I arrived at UCLA, Bunchy was just getting out of prison and needed college to help with his parole. We stayed together in the dorm room on campus. But we were mainly working to build the infrastructure of the Party.
You ended up as the Deputy Minister of Defense. How did that come about?
They did not have a Ministry of Defense when I came on the scene. There was one office in Oakland and a half an office in San Francisco. I helped build the San Francisco branch and all of the chapters throughout the South—New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis, Winston-Salem, North Carolina and other places. We did it under the banner of the Panthers because that’s what was feasible at the time. Because of shoot-outs and all that stuff, the work I did with the Panthers, overshadowed the stuff that I did with the Republic of New Afrika, the Mau Mau, the Black Liberation Army, the Brown Berets, the Black Berets, even the Fruit of Islam—but I saw my work with the Panthers as temporary. When Bunchy was killed, the Panthers wanted me to fill his position [as leader of the Southern California chapter]. I didn’t want to do it because I was already overloaded with other stuff. But it was just so hard to find someone who could handle LA given the problems with the police. So I ended up doing it, reluctantly. And this is how I ended up on the central committee of the Black Panther Party. I never took an oath and never joined the Party.
What was your role as Deputy Minister of Defense?
The Ministry of Defense was largely based on infrastructure: cell systems in the cities; creating an underground for situations when you need to get individuals out of the city or country. When you get shot by the police, you can’t be taken to no hospital. You gotta have medical underground as well. That’s where the preachers, bible school teachers and a lot of others behind the scenes got involved. When Huey got out of prison in 1970, this stuff blew his mind.
What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Party?
The main strength was the discipline which allowed for a brother or sister to feed children early in the morning, go to school and P.E. classes during the day, go to work and selling papers in the afternoon, and patrol the police at night. The weak points were our naiveté, our youth, and the lack of experience. But even at that I really salute the resistance of the generation! I have a problem saying it was just the Panthers `cause that’s not right. When you do that you x-out so much. There was more collective work going on than the popular written history of the period suggests. And when you talk about SNCC you are talking about a whole broader light than the Panther struggle. So you have to talk about that separate—that’s a bigger thing. They gave rise to the intelligence of a whole bunch of Panthers.
What was Bunchy Carter like?
He was a giant, a shining prince. He had been the head of the Slausons gang. He was transforming the gangbangers in Los Angeles into that revolutionary arm. He was my mentor. Such a warm and lovable, brainy brother. At the same time he was such a fierce brother. He was very dynamic—he was an ex-boxer, and he was even on The Little Rascals probably back in the fifties. His main claim to fame was what he did with the gangs in the city. And that was a monumental thing. All that was before Bunchy became a Panther.
Because of the death of Bunchy Carter as a result of the Panthers’ clash with Maulana Karenga’s US organization, even today rumors persists that Dr. Karenga was an informant. . .
Not true. Definitely not true.
What was the Panther clash with US all about?
We considered Karenga’s US organization to be a cultural-nationalist organization. We were considered revolutionary nationalist. So, we have a common denominator. We both are nationalist. We never had antagonistic contradictions, just ideological contradictions. The pig manipulated those contradictions to the extent that warfare jumped off. Truth is the first casualty in war. It began to be said that Karenga was rat, but that wasn’t true. The death of Bunchy and John Huggins on UCLA campus was caused by an agent creating a disturbance which caused a Panther to pull out a gun and which subsequently caused US members to pull out their guns to defend themselves. In the ensuing gun battle Bunchy Carter and John Huggins lay dead.
What’s your worst memory of the 27 years you spent in prison?
I accepted the fact that when I joined the movement I was gonna be killed. When we were sent off to these urban areas we were actually told, “Look, you’re either gonna get killed, put in prison, or if you’re lucky we can get you out the country before they do that. Those are the three options. To survive is only a dream.” So when I was captured, I began to disconnect. So it’s hard to say good or bad moments because this is a whole different reality that had a life of its own.
Many people would say that during those twenty-seven years that you lost something. How would you describe it?
I considered myself chopped off the game plan when I was arrested. But it was incumbent upon me to free myself and continue to struggle again. You can’t look back twenty-seven years and say it was a lost. I’m still living. I run about five miles every morning, and I can still bench press 300 pounds ten times. I can give you ten reps (laughter). Also I hope I’m a little more intelligent and I’m not crazy. It’s a hell of a gain that I survived.
What music most influenced you during that time?
In 1975 I heard some music on a prison radio. I hadn’t seen a television in six years until about 1976, and it was at the end of the tier. I couldn’t see it unless I stood up sideways against the bars. When I really got to see a television again was in 1977. So, I was basically without music and television for the first eight years when I was in the hole. When I was able to get on the main line and listen to music and see T.V., of course the things I wanted to hear were the things I heard when I was on the street. But by then those songs had to be at least nine years old. So, I would listen to oldies. And the new music it was hard to get into, but I slowly began to get into that. But when hip-hop began to come around, it caught on like wildfire. It reminds me how the Panthers and other groups started to catch on like wildfire. It reminded me of Gil Scott-Heron. He would spit that knowledge so clearly and that was the first thing that came to mind when I heard Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, Paris, Public Enemy and Sista Soldier—the militancy.
What type of books were you reading?
We maintained study groups throughout when I was on main line. Much of the focus was on Cheik Anta Diop—He was considered by us to be the last Pharaoh. We also read the works compiled by Ivan Van Sertima. Of course, there were others.
In terms of a spiritual center, what helped you to get through?
Well the ancestors guided me back to the oldest religion known to man—Maat. We also studied those meditations that were developed by all of our ancestors—the Natives, the Hispanics, the Irish—not just the ones that were strictly African.
The youngest of seven children, Ji Jaga was born Elmer Pratt, in Morgan City, a port city in southwestern Louisiana, two hours south of New Orleans, on September 13 1947. 120 years earlier marked the death of Jean Lafitte, the so-called “gentleman’s pirate” of French ancestry who settled in Haiti in the early 1800s until he was run out with most other Europeans during the Haitian revolution. Lafitte’s claim to fame was smuggling enslaved Africans from the Caribbean to Louisiana during the Spanish embargo of the late 17th & early 18th centuries, often taking refuge in the same bayous that were Pratt’s childhood home. Pratt was dubbed Geronimo by Bunchy Carter and assumed the name ji Jaga in 1968. The Jaga were a West African clan of Angolan warriors who Geronimo says he descends from. Many of the Jaga came to Brazil with the Portuguese as free men and women and some were later found among maroon societies in Brazil. How Jaga descendants could have ended up in Louisiana is open to historical interpretation, as most Angolans who ended up in Louisiana and Mississippi and neighboring states entered the US via South Carolina. Some Jaga were possibly among the maroon communities in the Louisiana swamplands as well. According to the Pratt, the Jaga refused to accept slavery—hence his strong identification with the name.
What were some of your earliest early childhood memories?
Well, joyous times mostly. Morgan City was a very rural setting and very nationalistic, self-reliant, and self-determining. It was a very close-knit community. Until I was a ripe old age, I thought that I belonged to a nation that was run by Blacks. And across the street was another nation, a white nation. Segregation across the tracks. We had our own national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” our own police, and everything. We didn’t call on the man across the street for nothing and it was very good that I grew up that way. The worst memories were those of when the Klan would ride. During one of those rides, I lost a close friend at an early age named Clayborne Brown who was hit in the head by the Klan and drowned. They found his body three days later in the Chaparral River. And, we all went to the River and saw them pull him in. Clayborne was real dark-skinned and when they pulled him out of the river, his body was like translucent blue. Then a few years later, one Halloween night, the Klan jumped on my brother. So there are bad memories like that.
Does your mother still live there?
She’s gone off into senility, but she’s still living—94 years old this year. [She died in 2003 at 98 years-old] And every time I’ve left home, when I come back the first person I go to see is my mama. So, that’s what I did when I got out of prison. Mama has always stood by me. And, I understood why. She was a very brainy person. Our foreparents, her mother was the first to bring education into that part of the swampland and set up the first school. When I was growing up, Mama used to rock us in her chair on the front porch. We grew up in a shack and we were all born in that house, about what you would call a block from the Chaparral River. She would recite Shakespeare and Longfellow to us. All kind of stuff like that at an early age we were hearing from Mama—this Gumbo Creole woman (laughs). And she was very beautiful. Kept us in church, instilled all kinds of interests in us, morals and respect for the elders, respect for the young.
What about your father?
My father was very hard working. He wouldn’t work for no white man so he was what you could call a junk man. On the way home from school in Daddy’s old pick-up truck we would have to go to the dump and get all the metal that we could find as well as rope, rags, anything. When we got home, we unloaded the truck and separated the brass, copper, the aluminum, so we could sell it separate. That’s how he raised an entire family of seven and he did a damn good job. But he worked himself to death. He died from a stroke in 1956.
With an upbringing so nationalistic, what made you join the US military?
I considered myself a hell of an athlete. We had just started a Black football league. A few years earlier, Grambling came through and checked one of the guys out. So initially my ambition was to go to Grambling or Southern University and play ball. Because of the way the community was organized, the elders called the shots over a lot of the youngsters. They had a network that went all the way back to Marcus Garvey and the days when the United Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) was organizing throughout the South in the 1920s. My uncle was a member of the legionnaires, the military arm of the U.N.I.A. Of the seventeen people in my graduating class, six of us were selected by the elders to go into the armed forces, the United States Air Force. The older generation was getting older and was concerned about who would protect the community.
Many of the brothers that went to Vietnam have never gotten past it. You seemed to have made a progressive transition. How have you done that?
I’ve never suffered the illusion that I was aligned to anything other than my elders. And my going to Vietnam was out on a sense of duty to them. When I learned how to deal with explosives, I’m listening at that training in terms of defending my community. Most of the brothers that I ran into in the service really bought into being Americans and “pow” when they were hit with the reality of all the racism and disrespect, they just couldn’t handle it.
What was it like to be a Black soldier in the US military in 1965?
This was my first experience with integration. But I was never was a victim of any racial attack or anything. During the whole first time I was in Vietnam—throughout 1966—I never heard the “N” word. And all of my officers were white. When I went back in 1968 that’s when you would see more manifestations of racial hatred, especially racial skirmishes between the soldiers. But first off there were so many battles and we were getting ambushed so much. Partners were dying. We were getting over run. I mean it was just madness. If you were shooting in the same direction, cool.
You were very successful in the military. Why did you get out?
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I was due to terminate my service a month later. I wasn’t gonna do it. I was gonna re-up ‘cause I had made Sergeant at a very early age, in two tours of combat, so I could have been sitting pretty for the rest of my life in the military. I was loyal and patriotic to the African nation I grew up in who sent me into the service. And after Martin Luther King was killed, my elders ordered me to come on out of the service. King was the eldest Messiah. Malcolm was our generation’s Messiah. And now that their King was dead, it was like there’s no hope. So they actually unleashed us to do what we did. This is why when Newsweek took their survey in 1969, it was over 92% of the Black people in this country supported the Black Panther Party as their legitimate political arm. It blew the United States’ mind.