Between 1971 and 1972, Lennon, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan all released songs of solidarity with the Black Panthers. McCartney had already released his hymn to the civil rights movement on The White Album with “Blackbird.”
In November 1971, Dylan released his as a non-album single called “George Jackson.” In 1972, Lennon and Ono released “Angela,” their ode to Black Panther Angela Davis on their Some Time in New York City album, and the Rolling Stones sang their tribute to her, “Sweet Black Angel,” on Exile on Main Street.
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George Jackson was a Black Panther leader imprisoned at San Quentin. His 17-year old brother Jonathan sometimes worked as a bodyguard for Angela Davis, a professor at UCLA who was fired by then-governor Ronald Reagan because she was a Black Panther and Communist.
On August 5, 1970, Davis bought three shotguns, registered in her name. Two days later Jonathan Jackson burst into a courtroom and took a judge, the Deputy D.A., and three jurors hostage in order to negotiate the release of his brother George. Jonathan was assisted by San Quentin prisoners who were about to stand trial or appear as witnesses.
The plan was to go to a radio station, demand the release of his brother and his two associates, and alert the public to the racist, deadly conditions of the prison. But the police opened fire on their getaway van. Jonathan Jackson, two of the prisoners, and the judge were killed. One of the prisoners and one of the jurors were injured, and the Deputy D.A. was shot in the back and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
On August 21, George Jackson was slipped a gun in prison. He took a number of guards hostages and told them to open the cells. Six guards were killed and found in his cell. Jackson escaped to the yard but was shot dead by corrections officers. On September 9, his death inspired 1,000 prisoners in the Attica Correctional Facility to riot and take 33 hostages. Eventually the authorities agreed to 28 of their demands.
Angela Davis was arrested and the “Free Angela Davis” campaign asked Lennon to contribute to her cause, so Lennon refashioned a song with which he’d been tinkering. It had started out orginally as “JJ,” about a lady who “couldn’t get laid at all,” then morphed into a peace song named “People.” With Yoko Ono he molded it to suit Black Panther Angela’s story, calling her a political prisoner in an era before Amnesty International would popularize the term.
They praise her as a teacher and try to comfort her with the idea that the love and hope of freedom fighters is a wind that never stops moving around the world, albeit slowly. Even though Davis is behind bars, her brothers and sisters are breathing together with her and soon she will be returned to them. (The themes of wind and breathing show this to be predominantly Ono-written lyrics.) When Lennon and Ono sing that the world watches her, they quote the famous phrase civil rights marchers would chant when Southern racists would attack them with clubs, hoses, or guard dogs. When TV cameramen captured the images of the racists’ assaults, their brutality was exposed to millions of viewers and turned the tide of public opinion against the Southern segregationists.
Phil Spector’s strings and Elephant’s Memory paint a suitably strong mid-tempo backdrop. The highlight is a sumptuous organ that sounds akin to Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work,” also from 1972. Ono’s voice duets nicely with Lennon. Her vibrato is a touch ostentatious but it is one of her nicest vocal performances on a Lennon album.
The Stones’ Angela Davis tribute, “Sweet Black Angel” from Exile on Main Street has the edge, however — assuming one isn’t offended by Jagger’s imitation of a stereotypical black sharecropper circa 1933. You have to read the lyrics on the internet to understand what he’s saying, which makes the song more accessible by making it basically meaningless to the 99% of the listeners who, 40 forty years later, have no idea who Angela Davis is. The fact that they released it as the b-side to “Tumbling Dice” also shows they were confident they’d captured a unique, earthy country-blues groove.
There is another poignant aspect to “Angela” for Lennon fans when he and Ono mourn with Davis that “They” shot down her man — never suspecting what the future would hold.