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The Transformation of Johnny Spain
By Chip Brown
Long before the killings, the trials, the fantasies of revolution,
Johnny Spain was a six-year-old boy who lived in a small bungalow
on the south side of Jackson, Mississippi. His father, Fred, drove
a beer truck; his mother, Ann, manufactured TV cabinets. He had
an older brother, Charlie, a younger sister, Lissie, a baby brother,
Ray. That summer of 1955 his name was Larry Armstrong and he looked
pretty much like anybody else’s kid except for his hair –
“nigger hair,” people called it. The children in Choctaw
Village liked to put their hands in it, but no barber in Jackson’s
white parlors would touch it.
Johnny Spain remembers a little from those days, but not much;
the time Charlie, his steadfast defender, called him a nigger; the
times he hid under the bed when Fred came home; when he heard his
father slap his mother and holler, “Take the nigger baby and
get out!” He would have entered first grade that fall were
it not for his hair, and the talk and all. Even the superintendent
of Jackson’s public schools new about him. Nearly twenty years
would pass before children with hair like his would sit in class
Of what happened next, he recalls virtually nothing. His mother
broke the news that he was going to live with a family in California,
where he could attend school out of harm’s way. She packed
his clothes, and then the three of them, Fred and Ann and the boy,
piled in the car and he eventually found himself on a train with
an elderly woman. He thought his parents would turn up and take
him home at any moment, but the sun went down, and morning broke
over new country, and the train was streaking west. It was three
days to Los Angeles. He would never forget the trestle bridges that
traversed the canyons, nor the woman riding with him, but it would
be years before he could understand the impact of that journey.
This was the child who grew up to be Johnny Spain, the onetime Black
Panther, protégé of George Jackson, and sole member
of the San Quentin Six convicted of murder. And this is the central
fact of his life: a long time ago he boarded a train in Mississippi
as a little white boy; when he got off in California, he was black.
Jackson Mississippi, was burned so thoroughly during the Civil
War it got the name Chimneyville, but in the early 1950’s
“the crossroads of the South” was doing business in
furniture, lumber, and cottonseed oil. The population of almost
a hundred thousand was two-thirds white and scrupulously segregated.
In the 1950 city directory “colored people” were distinguished
by a C with a circle around it, and a disclaimer cautioned, “The
publishers are very particular in using this, but are not responsible
in case of error.”
In that year’s edition, an Ann and Fred Armstrong are listed.
The two children noted would have been Charlie and Larry, and as
far as the very particular publishers were concerned, both were
Fred Armstrong still lives in Jackson. On a humid June morning
I found him sitting in a white T-shirt on the screened-in porch
in front of his trailer, a big keg of a man with enormous ears,
and the morning paper spread on his lap.
“Mr. Armstrong, can I talk to you about Larry?”
“Larry?” he said.
The name doesn’t seem to ring a bell.
Finally it clicked. “The nigger?” he said.
We talked through the screen. Fred Armstrong insisted there wasn’t
much to tell. What’s more, he said, at seventy-six some of
the details had escaped him.
“Last time I heard, he’d shot a man or something in
California, I think he’s out of jail now, maybe he’s
In Germany during the war, Fred Armstrong had been an Army cook.
He opened Armstrong’s Café on Monument Street when
he got back. He worked nights, his wife Ann worked days. They had
met at a dance on an Army base, courted by letter, and married on
October 6, 1945. He was thirty-four; she was ten years younger.
“At first she took the marriage seriously,” he said.
“When Charlie was born we were living on Rose Street, we got
along pretty good. I was working all the time, she was working.
She wasn’t bored. We were sleeping together. Then she started
slipping out. She came home at 4:00A.M one night, and I seen her
get out of the car. I slapped her around.
“She got pregnant when I was running the café.”
He recalled “I had it two or three years. I sold out in 1948.
Then I spent eighteen years in the beer business.”
He couldn’t remember the name of the man who fathered Larry.
He knew him though.
“He come in my café and ate. That boy worked down
on State Street at some garage. When he found out I was after him,
“What would you have done to him?”
“Back in those days? I probably would have hung him or killed
him. Now I look back, it was as much her fault as his. He was about
twenty, twenty-five years old. He’d set up at the counter
by the cash register. I seen ‘em talking, but I didn’t
think anything about it. She knew all the niggers, they would come
in from the cotton mill.
“It happened up there across from the farmer’s market.
She’d go up there and the nigger went with her. They’d
go up in the evening after she got done washing dishes.”
“Were you surprised when the baby was born?”
“I was surprised,” he said.
“Ann’s grandmother was dark-colored,” he continued.
“I just passed it off. But the boy’s hair was nigger
hair. I was in the jukebox business, working for Charlie Warren.
When that boy was a year old, Charlie told me, ‘Fred, that’s
a nigger baby and you’d better do something.’
“I said, ‘That ain’t no nigger baby,’ and
he said, ‘Yes he is.’ I really thought it was my own
baby until he was a couple years old. We raised him six years.”
“Was he part of the family?”
“Oh, yeah. He ate at the same table and slept in the same
house. But the older he got the more he looked like a nigger. People
was talking, friends of mine. They’d make remarks: ‘When
you gonna get rid of that nigger boy?’
“I told ‘em after I found out who the father was. Me
and her had a talk about it. He didn’t rape her, she did it
on her own free will. I went down there, I was gonna tell him to
take that baby himself. They said he quit and went to Chicago.
“I didn’t have much to do with Ann after that. I didn’t
want the boy around. He was a good, disciplined boy. Him and Ray
and Charlie played together, but he couldn’t go to the white
school. Something had to be done.
“I don’t know where he is, if he’s dead or what.
I asked Trina, Charlie’s wife, a while ago, ‘What ever
happened to Larry?’ She said he’d shot a man and did
some time in California.”
“Are you interested in his life?”
“No, no. You get over something like that.”
Ann Armstrong and Arthur Cummings converged over a countertop,
talking about poetry and baseball.
Arthur came from D’Lo, Mississippi, twenty-five miles southeast
of Jackson. He was working as a mechanic. He was a regular at Armstrong’s.
There was a wall down the middle, whites on one side, blacks on
the other. Ann worked both sides of the partition.
“Do you dare play a game of cards?” Ann asked.
“Why not,” Arthur said.
Ann was restless, unhappy at home.
“Fred was very abusive,” she recalled.
“One night he got really rough and threw me down the stairs.
He was jealous, but at that point it was all in his mind.”
How did the affair get started?
“One thing led to another,” she said.
“I knew the seriousness of it,” said Arthur.
“The consequences would have been extreme. But I just didn’t
worry about those things.”
Today Arthur lives in New Orleans. Ann lives in the Northwest under
the name of her second husband. She’s a diabetic and is legally
When Larry was born, she put him in a crib in her room, rocked
him, and talked to him more than she had to Charlie. “I felt
more of a responsibility to him. I had the feeling that when he
got past me, he’d have nothing.”
Fred Armstrong sold the café, and in 1951 the young family
moved to a small one-story, two-bedroom house on Stokes Robertson
Road, in a poor white neighborhood on the south side of Jackson.
Larry was two.
His skin was growing darker, but he played with neighborhood kids.
There were chinaberry fights in the fields and baseball games on
Wayne and Senie Fortenberry’s spacious lawn. Senie was friendly
“She told me she was never so shocked in her life the day
he was born and they brought the child in.,” Senie recalled.
“She told me her husband accepted Larry as his child. As far
as we were concerned he was welcome to play in the yard. I had no
problem. You’ll find prejudice in all people, but I go by
“Pastor Wayne Todd told Ann – for the child’s
sake, not the church’s – if they could move to a northern
city, where the children would be accepted, it would be better.
If she couldn’t do that, then maybe she should send them to
a colored family, a fine Christian family, out of this antagonistic
Into my hand Senie pressed a copy of the New Testament and two
gardenias graciously clipped from a fragrant bush. It had upset
her to learn that Larry Armstrong had spent the last two decades
in jail. She confessed that she had always been afraid something
bad would happen to him.
“Why do you think this all happened?”
“It’s because of sin – the sins of society, the
sins of the parents,” she said.
Without identifying herself, Ann called the Jackson school system.
She talked to Sykes Elementary School’s principal, Jim Bennett,
about enrolling Larry. Sykes had opened in 1951 with about four
hundred students. The landmark 1954 Supreme Court desegregation
ruling had no immediate effect on the student body because there
were no blacks in the area.
“If you said to me ‘Larry Armstrong’ I never
would have known who you were talking about,” Jim Bennett
recalled. “But when you describe the kid, I know immediately
who you are talking about.
“John Batte was chairman of the school board and a member
of the downtown Kiwanis Club. He was getting calls. He asked me
what I was gonna do. I said I couldn’t have said no without
his seeing his birth certificate. If his birth certificate said
white, I’d have no choice.”
It never came to that. That summer Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old
Chicago boy, was kidnapped and lynched in Money, Mississippi, apparently
because he whistled at a white woman. Ann feared for Larry’s
safety. She said she had gotten calls from the Ku Klux Klan. As
it turned out, Fred had found a family to take the child.
The transfer was made in Utica, a pokey town with one stoplight
southwest of Jackson, on Route 18.
The Armstrong’s stopped at the Corner Grill, a popular white-owned
black night spot housed in a hundred-year-old former egg hatchery.
They were met by the manager, Iris “Shorty” Davis, a
stout, ebullient woman, part Turkish, part black, part Cherokee.
Now on a hot June day, Shorty opened the door and beckoned her
visitors in, insisting on whipping up some eggs.
“Fred Armstrong was my beer man,” she recalled.
“One day he told me, ‘Iris, I’m worried sick.’
“I said, ‘Fred, what’s wrong?”
“ ‘I got this child at home, he can’t go to school
with the rest of the children. You can tell he’s a colored
child.’ He wanted me to take the baby here. ‘I’m
crazy about him,’ he said. ‘He’s smarter than
my kids. I just can’t keep him.’
“I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I can’t keep
no child here. I got a cousin in California. She wants a child.
I’ll see if she can take him.’
“He said he’d be glad. So I got on the phone and called
Helen, and she said ‘Yeah, I want me a baby.’ She loved
Ann spoke to Helen Spain on the telephone, and a day was arranged
– the exact date, no one remembers. Ann recalls the period
between the decision to give up Larry and the actual day.
“I felt like I was waiting to die,” she said.
“I tried to talk to him a lot, but how do you tell a six-year-old
he has to go away? I tried to paint as good a picture as I could.
I got him some new clothes, made him some cowboy suits, packed his
special toys. There was nothing left in me to kill.”
“He thought it was going to be an adventure,” said
Shorty Davis. “He really wanted to go to school. Ann said
he wasn’t coming back, he’d have a new grandmother.
He said would she ever visit, and she said yes, if she had the money.”
“It was like closing a casket,” Ann said. “I
didn’t tell him goodbye. I don’t tell anybody goodbye.
I say ‘I’ll see you,’ or ‘Have a nice day.’
I know I told him I loved him. He was playing with some other children
and he didn’t pay me too much attention.”
In subsequent months Ann and Shorty became good friends.
“After I helped her, she looked like she fell in love with
me,” Shorty said. “She was pitiful. She came down here
and talked. She was heartbroken. She never told anybody. I was the
one person she could tell what she had done.”
The papers were signed, and a new birth certificate was issued
for Johnny Larry Spain. The one on which his race is listed as white
remains under court seal in Mississippi. Larry Armstrong had a new
home, new parents, a new race.
John and Helen Spain are dead today. John was a hardworking electrician.
Helen, the daughter of a mixed marriage, was a caterer and cook
who once worked for John Wayne.
It was a rocky family from the start. Larry had his own room in
a house full of antiques. The Spains lavished him with toys, gave
him train sets, expensive clothes, a bicycle.
“They loved him but they didn’t know how to show love,”
said Katie Grissom, the Spains’ next-door neighbor. “They
were older people. Helen thought by buying him stuff it would make
him satisfied. There was something missing.”
Larry never thought of Helen as his mother. He came closer to embracing
Johnny Spain as his father. His foster father called him Larry.
One day the younger Spain announced, “I don’t like those
old names anymore.” He asked to be called Johnny like his
Helen’s mother, Mary Davis, lived behind the house. It was
she who had traveled with the boy from Jackson to Los Angeles. She
was sweet; she smelled like fresh cooking; she always had time for
“Do you miss your other mother?” she’d say
“I don’t have another mother.”
One day an ambulance pulled into the driveway, and Mary was taken
“That was the turning point,” Spain recalled in the
visitors’ center at the California state prison in Vacaville.
“I went to the streets after that.” Spain is thirty-eight
years old now, with wide-set eyes, high cheekbones, and powerful
shoulders. A nightstick to the mouth cracked one of his teeth, and
a skirmish with an inmate left his nose skewed to the right.
“My tendency was to take flight; I’d run and hide.
There were times at Helen and Johnny’s when I would get into
an argument, and I’d go out of the house and just start running,
like I was running a mile. I would forget everything about the argument,
and I would be in this incredible race. I’d see people walking
up ahead, and I’d pick a point that would be the finish line.
I would make up a story that I had fallen or had tripped or something
to explain why I was always behind. I’d think, here’s
this guy who’s going to make up the distance, and I’d
try to catch up.”
The Spains sent their foster son to Catholic schools for five years.
He refused to cry when the nuns wrapped his hands with a ruler,
but he broke down in the hall. He saw four schools before he was
expelled for good.
“He was like a bottle with a stopper on it,” said Gonzalo
Cano, a young counselor who ran El Santo Niño, the Catholic
Youth Organization center a few blocks down from Spain’s house.
Soon, Spain was running with a gang called the Baby Outlaws. He
got into fights. The young teenager fired a gun for the first time
at a pile of dirt.
In public school Spain was smart enough to measure the amount of
work for an A, and then do half for the C. He preferred basketball
to studies. He preferred basketball to almost anything. But he was
enough of an athlete to excel in football and baseball; he took
up tennis and in nine months went to the city championships. Helen
cleared a wall for his trophies and ribbons. Sometimes she and Johnny
Sr. went to see him play, but Johnny never glanced at the bleachers.
It would not be until years later, when he was in his twenties
and facing the ordeal of the San Quentin trial, that he would seek
out Ann, his real mother. It was not that he didn’t care about
Ann, or ache for her. It was hard to explain it to people. She had
tried to stay in contact. She sent Christmas presents for a while,
and birthday cards, but Spain stopped answering her letters, and
they stopped coming finally, and that was fine with him.
His real father, Johnny knew, was probably out there, too.
But that summer of 1965, Johnny and Helen Spain were his parents,
and they looked on helplessly as their foster son’s life began
Perhaps the times hastened Spain’s undoing. It was the summer
of Watts. Spain had been hauled before a juvenile court judge as
a runaway. He and Helen were not on good terms; her drinking was
getting bad. His foster father had taken him into the electrician’s
business, but after a job at the Beverly Hills home of Earl C. Brody,
a black lawyer and future judge, the elder Spain got a humiliating
call. Brody’s pearl-handled-gun collection was missing.
“I think little John came back and took the guns,”
Spain was convicted of burglary in 1965 and dispatched to forestry
camp to cut firebreaks. The remedy failed. When he challenged the
crew chief to a fight, he was turned over to the California Youth
Authority and the custody of Howard E. Lambert, a counselor.
Lambert, a white man who died in 1980, was the last stop on the
outside. He removed Spain to a foster home and supervised him until
December 1966. A decade later Lambert would testify at the San Quentin
trial that of the hundreds of kids he’d counseled, Spain was
the one he wished he could have raised in his home. Spain had always
kept his mixed heritage a secret from his friends. He paid Lambert
the ultimate compliment, telling him one day, “You’re
In 1966, the year Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther party in
Oakland, Spain dropped out of school. On the streets he was known
as Caesar. One hot day in July he sat down beside Pinkey Miller
in Roosevelt Park. She thought for such a big sports star he was
awfully shy. Luckily a firecracker went off, and she had occasion
“Did that scare you?” he said.
“Oh, yes,” she said.
They played basketball; he teased her with magic tricks. They shared
hot dogs and danced the Slauson Shuffle at the Friday canteens.
Party Pinkey, she was called. She had snakey moves on the dance
floor – would have gone on Soul Train if her hip hadn’t
“All the girls would speak to me, but they were looking at
him,” she recalled, sitting in her apartment not far from
Johnny Spain’s old house. They especially liked his hair.
“It was thick and wavy.
“That Christmas, I went baby-sitting in Compton, and I couldn’t
get in touch with him. He was staying at his foster mother’s
house. I called and called. I couldn’t reach him. I called
home the second week. I called my sister Gloria. She said, ‘Did
you hear what happened to Caesar, he’s in jail, he killed
She would not see him again until she recognized his picture ten
years later on the front of the Black Panther newspaper and wrote.
They would marry in a prison ceremony not long after that.
Four days before Christmas 1966, Spain and two friends, Jonathan
Gray and Edward Normant, were walking south on Hill Street. An older
white man and his wife were waiting for the bus. Spain asked the
woman how far it was to Washington Boulevard.
“About three or four blocks up the street,” said Nancy
Suddenly Nancy Long saw Spain pointing a gun at her husband, Joe.
“Shut up and don’t give me any trouble,” she
heard him say.
“I don’t care about that gun,” said Long, who
had been at the Ringside Bar all evening.
“You’re not getting my money.”
There was a scuffle. Joe Long shouted at his wife. “Sit down!”
And then four shots flashed from the muzzle of the .22.
Spain ran north up Hill Street.
He was caught that night.
During Johnny Spain’s twenty-one years in prison, he has
seen many psychiatric counselors, read their textbooks, and learned
their language. He now wonders if he had seen the face of his stepfather,
Fred, in the person of Joe Long. His voice grows soft when he recalls
“I didn’t need the money,” he said. “I
don’t know why I did it. The more I tried to answer why, the
larger the question became.
“My connection with my life had been closed off. I was trying
to fit in with my peers. We started running together, and we decided
to pull this stupid robbery. The guy was drunk, and I didn’t
have enough sense to stop it. I could have socked him. I didn’t
have to shoot him. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
A steam horn blasted, and prisoners began to get up for the afternoon
“I didn’t have the values in my system to appreciate
what I was about to do,” said Spain. “In East L.A. they
taught survival in the crudest form – you survived at the
expense of others.”
A few days in juvenile hall and the reality sank in. Spain sobbed
in his cell. His brother Charlie was on the West Coast and came
to the trial. Charlie sat in the courtroom a few rows behind his
younger brother, but Spain never acknowledged him.
“I wished I’d turned around and said, ‘Charlie,
help me,’” Spain recalled. “He’d always
helped me when I was little.”
That would be the last time the brothers each other. They do not
Helen and Johnny Spain visited their foster son in jail. “They
were kind of destroyed,” Spain said. “My mother didn’t
even ask me why. What difference does it make? You can’t change
Convicted of first-degree murder, Spain was sentenced to life in
prison, and on May 5, 1967, was remanded to the state department
of corrections, in whose custody he remains today.
The state prison at Tracy was known as “the gladiator school.”
Upon arriving, Spain filled out a questionnaire.
Q: Who are you?
A: I am Johnny Larry Spain. I am a person in a lot of trouble. I
am a person who needs help.
Q: How do you wish to change?
A: I just want to learn to go by the rules.
Q: What are some of your ambitions or goals in life?
A: To be a famous athlete.
Prison psychologists noted: “This emotionally unstable, generally
confused young man displays rather marked ambivalency in regard
to his racial and masculine adequacy. While continuously he has
sought to identify with the Negro culture, he still emotionally
tends to relate himself to his Caucasian heritage.”
Two years later, inside the walls of the Soledad prison, Johnny
Spain met George Jackson for the first time.
Spain had been transferred from Tracy in July 1968, a time when
the California prisons were anything but immune to the social passions
convulsing society at large. Jackson was the field marshal of the
Black Panther party and the heart of the swelling prison movement,
a campaign by lawyers and activists to reform conditions in the
California prison system. He had begun to compose the incandescent
letters that would be published as Soledad Brother, the book that
would make him an international figure.
Inside prison Jackson was legendary. It was not simply the extent
of his teachings. He was a warrior in an environment where a man’s
life was worth as little as a carton or two of cigarettes. Jackson
kept his body tuned, and his mind off sex, with a thousand fingertip
pushups a day. It was said his hands were so tough he could hold
them under prison tap water so hot enough at the spigot for instant
In the summer of 1969, an inmate buttonholed Spain and steered
him to a lavatory where Jackson was practicing katas – exercises
in a martial arts discipline called the Iron Palm.
“Hey George, this is that youngster I was telling you about.
He’s pretty agile.”
“Throw a couple of punches,” Jackson said.
“Naw,” said Spain, who thought Jackson looked slow
“Take your best shot,” Jackson urged.
Well, okay, Spain thought. I’m gonna knock you on your butt.
He flew at Jackson with a flurry of lefts and rights. He had been
the reigning two-on-two champion from the day he set foot in Tracy,
and here was this overweight asshole, and he couldn’t touch
him! Jackson was blocking every shot. Spain quit, short of breath
“I got better moves with my feet,” Jackson said.
Spain saw Jackson every day. Jackson persuaded him to join an Afro-American
study group; he called Spain “Comrade” and put him up
for membership in the Black Panther party. Spain began to study
Swahili, though he never took an African name. (“I had enough
identification problems already.”) He studied the life of
Che Guevara and the writings of the black psychiatrist Frantz Fanon;
he plowed through histories of Cuba and Indochina.
“George would give me a book and say, ‘Why don’t
you read this.’ And then we’d discuss it,” Spain
recalled. “I could read all these technical books rapidly.
I read Das Kapital in two days.”
If there was an urgency to their discussions, it was heightened
by the tense atmosphere inside the prison. In January 1970 an influential
black prisoner, W.C. Nolan, was killed along with two other black
inmates when guards fired into the yard, ostensibly to break up
a racial disturbance. To Jackson and Spain and other black prisoners,
the killings seemed a deliberate act of murder. They were outraged
when Nolan’s death was ruled justifiable homicide.
In retaliation for Nolan’s death, it is generally believed
that Jackson beat rookie guard John Mills and threw him to his death
off the third tier. Jackson and two other inmates were charged,
and the case of the Soledad brothers became known nationwide. Jackson
was removed from the main line at Soledad.
Eight months later, Jackson’s seventeen-year-old brother
Jonathan made a desperate bid to free him. Jonathan Jackson barged
into a Marin County courtroom, armed a couple of defendants, and
took five hostages, including Judge Harold Haley. The swap that
Jonathan evidently envisioned never came off. He and two others,
including the judge, died in a shoot-out with police.
In Soledad without Jackson, Spain was only drawn deeper into the
movement. A month after joining the Black Panther party, he was
accused of “being in possession of revolutionary material.”
“They brought out letters I had written to Helen,”
Spain recalled. “They had underlined in red the parts where
is was explaining what communism was. Then they found an article
from a Black Panther newspaper in my cell. They said it was revolutionary
Spain was removed from the general prison population and locked
into the Soledad AC (Adjustment Center). That was the beginning
of five and a half years of prison-style segregation. In 1971 he
was transferred to the hole at San Quentin. They put him in Cell
George Jackson, awaiting trial in the Soledad Brothers case, was
in Cell 6.
For virtually twenty-four hours a day Spain and Jackson sat in
six-by-eight-foot cells furnished with a steel bunk and mattress,
a toilet, and a 60-watt bulb. When tear gas was used to control
a recalcitrant inmate, it drifted through the tier, stinging and
choking the men in the neighboring cells.
“I remember one instance where I kicked a guard,” Spain
said. “I used to think of it as counterviolence. I thought,
I’m not wrong to defend myself, I’m not wrong to object
if they drop my letters in a mop bucket.”
Jackson and Spain talked for hours through the bars. Other prisoners
on the tier joined in. At night it was quiet enough to exchange
ideas. If Jackson thought a question was simpleheaded, he might
say, “I’m not going to deal with that, I’m going
to let Comrade deal with that,” and he would pass the query
on to Spain. Sometimes it was just Jackson and Spain talking, and
the rest of the tier listening. They often talked until dawn.
If there wasn’t a discussion, there might be a chess game.
Jackson was a pretty fair player. Players used prescription pills
for pieces, red pain relievers for pawns, muscle relaxants for rooks.
Spain didn’t know chess, but he listened in his cell as Jackson
played. Envsioning the board, he began to see better moves. When
Jackson was gone, and there was no one to talk to, he took up the
Sixteen years and more than twenty-five thousand pages of testimony
later, it is still not clear what happened on the afternoon George
The official story is this: Spain, who worked as a tier tender,
had just been locked in his cell after delivering the afternoon
meal. At 1:30P.M. Jackson was let out to visit Stephen Bingham,
a radical lawyer whose grandfather had been a U.S. senator from
Connecticut. Fifty minutes later Jackson was escorted back from
the visiting rooms across the chapel yard to the AC. Two guards
conducted a routine strip search. One noticed a shiny object in
Jackson’s hair. “Okay’ let’s have it,”
Jackson pulled out a gun.
“This is it, gentleman,” he said, and alluding to the
prison writings of Ho Chi Minh, he said, “The Dragon has come.”
Jackson ordered the guards to release the inmates on the tier.
Spain was one of the first to come out. Jackson forced a guard named
Ken McCray, along with two others, to lie face down on the floor,
pillowcases over their heads, electrical cord binding their hands
and legs. McCray’s throat was cut. Two inmates dragged McCray
into Jackson’s cell. Another guard, Paul Krasenes, was also
dragged in, cut and choking on his own blood and praying. He died.
A third guard, Frank DeLeon, was brought in.
Jackson was in control for approximately thirty minutes. The carnage
in which three people were seriously wounded and five murdered occurred
in about seventeen minutes.
An inmate said he had seen Spain with Jackson as Jackson forced
guard Urbano Rubiaco to open the cells. Spain was also seen entering
the killing field of Cell 6. In testimony (unsubstantiated), Officer
William L. Hampton went further; he said he saw Spain point a revolver
Around 3:15, the alarm was sounded.
“It’s me they want,” Jackson said.
He ran toward the door of the Adjustment Center, fired a shot through
the windowpanes. Then, with Spain on his heels, Jackson ran into
Spain heard the first shots that apparently winged Jackson in the
legs. He dived for the cover of some bushes by the chapel wall.
Crouched under the bush, Spain saw Jackson fall. “He stumbled
by me,” Spain said. “I’m not sure if he was hit.
I didn’t see when he got shot the second time.”
Guards surrounded Spain, ordered him to stand with his hands on
his head. He was then tossed to the ground and chained on the plaza
for hours, handcuffed just in case. Some guards sang, “George
Jackson’s body is a-mouldering in the grave.”
Spain was in shock.
“There was a point when I was no longer in the bushes. I
did see him lying there, I didn’t know if he was dead, but
I had an incredible sense that he was dead,” Spain recalled.
“I was numb. I really wasn’t in San Quentin then. It
was like a large part of me had been lifted away – a part
of me that could not be hurt any longer.”
In the months that followed, Spain had nothing but time to reflect
n Jackson’s death and the untoward course of his own life.
He was indicted on five counts of murder, conspiracy to escape,
and lesser charges. In its trial and pretrial phases, the case of
the San Quentin Six was then the longest criminal proceeding in
American history. Spain was escorted to visiting rooms and court
hearings shackled around the waist, hands, and feet with twenty-five
pounds of chain.
Over the next two years he would wall out the world. Jackson had
been his only friend, but now in a strange way he was free. Eventually
he realized it.
“I looked at my life,” Spain said. “I was twenty-two
years old. People were talking about killing me in the gas chamber.
I’m not a terrible person. I thought I was worth more. I had
to face facts. I had gotten wrapped up in a political movement,
which had some good points, but I was a street kid who didn’t
know anything – I wanted to help all these people with this
revolution I was talking about and I couldn’t even write my
own mother, for doing what under her circumstances was the only
logical thing she could do.”
During the time he waited for his case to come to trial, he thought
often about the family he had left in Mississippi. He was encouraged
in this by an idealistic, dark-haired activist named Cathy Kornblith,
whom he had met at a prison banquet in Soledad shortly after Jonathan
Kornblith, then twenty-three, had devoted much of her life to the
prison movement. She compiled a newsletter, ferried families to
visit relatives in jail, and corresponded with inmates. (Letters
to her often began, “My Beautiful Black Queen, I hold you
on a pedestal” – not the best way to cut ice with a
white feminist.) She was flattered by Spain’s attention –
his friendship with Jackson conferred upon him a certain status
in radical circles – but she soon perceived a quality that
set him apart, a quality that grew more pronounced as their friendship
“He was afraid of family because he didn’t have it,”
she recalled. “He was searching for something. I was really
touched by that – his longing to be whole in the context of
By 1973 they had exchanged hundreds of letters. When Spain needed
a legal investigator to help prepare his defense, Kornblith was
the logical choice. Spain’s lawyer, former Panther general
counsel Charles Garry, felt it was important to emphasize Spain’s
personal odyssey, a transformation he felt expressed “the
story of racism in America.” Ann Armstrong’s testimony
was therefore vital to Spain’s defense. Spain had not heard
from his mother for years, and despite his longings he shied away.
Mississippi was a box of nightmares.
In the spring of 1973, Kornblith found Ann’s correct address.
As Spain felt unable to write the letter, Kornblith stepped up –
the first of many occasions when she mediated among relatives who
found it easier to communicate with a go-between.
In April 1973 Ann Armstrong wrote back.
For weeks and weeks I have not known how to reply to your letter…
I do trust that you understand that my son being in California in
the first place was an act of love… I also trust that you
know there is never even a part of one day that he’s not in
my heart and prayers. My way in life has been, and is, hard –
very hard times, but I am not complaining… Easter will soon
be coming. What do I need to send him and do I send it to you or
to Helen? I do not even have an address for him. Do you think he’d
like pictures of his family here? Write again, please…\
Love and many thanks, Ann
A year would pass before Spain could compose so much as a Mother’s
Day card. The card – which has since been lost – was
their first communication in nearly fifteen years. A month later
Dearest Larry –
– and this what you’ll always be to me – No words
can tell you how very, very happy I was to get your card and your
note. I’ve turned over a whole dictionary in my head trying
to find the right words – none came so you’ll just have
to accept from my heart a reply. Your card and note are the answer
to many prayers over the years. I do hope that since you have accepted
the fact that “I am your mother” that we can go on from
there… There has never been a feeling of rejection on my part
– every act of mine toward you – as any of my children,
and you are all the same – has always been out of total love
for you and anything I’ve ever done has been with the feeling
in my heart that this was right for whichever one was involved for
the moment – This includes letting you go to Helen to live
when you were six. I sent all the love in this mother’s heart
with you and kept the tears and agony for myself.
I’ve made many mistakes, one of my biggest, I suppose, is
loving too well and not wisely enough…
I finally told Nancy [Johnny’s half sister] the whole story.
All of them feel that you are their brother and that they’d
like to write you and place the love we have for one another with
Please do not wait years and years to write again – even
though I’m slow answering I do care – maybe next time
will be easier for both of us.
Love, always, Mama
At San Quentin Ann was reunited with her son. The sight of seeing
him, fetched to the visiting room in chains, left her badly shaken.
He had dropped forty pounds, lost some teeth, and was suffering
from hemorrhoids and severe headaches. The hair that had betrayed
him as a child was coming out in his comb.
Spain’s trial lasted eighteen months. He threw a manila file
at the jury and rattled the shackles during the recitation of the
charges. Outraged by the chains, Spain refused to testify. Despite
the testimony of Ann, Howard Lambert, and Ulis Williams, a youth
counselor and Olympic track star, the jury convicted Spain in August
1976 on two counts of murder and one count of conspiracy. While
never accused of killing anyone, he was found guilty under the legal
theory of “vicious liability,” the youngest and only
defendant convicted of murder. Two more life terms were added to
If anything, prison taught him forbearance. The year that followed
as his appeals crept through state and federal courts were marked
by periods of hope and of disappointment. In 1977 Spain was finally
returned to the general prison population. In 1982 the San Quentin
convictions were thrown out by a federal judge, then reinstated
by the U.S. Supreme Court. Three years later, they were again vacated
by a federal judge who ruled that the chains had prevented Spain
from receiving a fair trial.
During this period, Spain became an exemplary inmate. He married
Pinkey Miller and was eventually permitted conjugal visits. Their
first son, Michael, was born in 1983.
Spain had continued to correspond with Ann, but soon the question
of his father became more critical. Faced with the possibility that
the state might retry Spain on the original charges, Kornblith,
Spain’s new attorney, Dennis Riordan, and Spain himself discussed
whether it would be useful, if even possible, to find the man Spain
had never met, who had disappeared thirty-seven years ago.
His advocates’ legal interests in Arthur jibed with an emotional
urgency burgeoning in Spain himself. Over the years curiosity had
ripened into obsession. There were a million questions Spain had
for this man – the sort of questions of origin and identity
for which there are few satisfactory answers but which sons need
to ask nonetheless.
In 1983 Kornblith got the go-ahead from Riordan to start looking
for Arthur. Ann had told her Arthur’s name, and she knew that
Arthur had repaired brakes at a tractor-trailer company in Jackson,
and that he had been born in D’Lo. Kornblith figured she was
looking for a man now in his late sixties. She didn’t have
much luck until she hired another private eye in Jackson, who managed
to locate an Arthur Cummings in New Orleans. The man seemed to match
That summer, Kornblith handed Spain a slip of paper with Arthur’s
name and address. Spain pleaded with her to write him herself, but
she refused. “It was his personal journey,” she recalled.
“I wasn’t going to take it for him.”
“I used every excuse I could think of not to write,”
Spain said. “I had to go to school, I had to go to court,
I had to read a motion, I was frightened. All of a sudden here was
Arthur, here was my father, here was a part of me – a part
of what I might have been, things I secretly dreamed about. I didn’t
want to face that part in my life where I would have to confront
him and the possibility that he might not accept who I was.”
Writing this letter has been one of the really difficult tasks
in my life. My name is John Spain. My mother’s name in 1948
was Ann Armstrong. I was born July 30, 1949 in Jackson, Mississippi.
I don’t know that any of this means anything to you. What
I do know is that writing to you, if you are my father, has taken
many long years of painful searching, not only to find you, but
searching within myself for the courage to touch a part of my past
that proved to be one of the most damaging of my life. If you want
to confirm whether or not I’m correct about you being my father,
I would suggest that you call my mother. She has expressed a desire
to talk with you, and for what it might be worth, I think you could
bring some comfort in her life with a phone call.
I have a 35-year-old need to know who my father is. The knowledge
would help calm some of the deep, pounding storms within me. I could
finally have a piece of the connection I’ve longed for my
whole life. That is important to me. I also have a 9-month-old son,
Michael, who needs to have some roots of his own. I want to be able
to tell him who his grandfather is. There is much I still want to
say, but I think it is necessary (that it could be necessary) for
you to inform me of how my presence might influence your life. I
have no wish to bring problems to your life. I will send my mother’s
phone number if you wish me to. If you are my father but do not
want to establish communication on an ongoing basis, please inform
me of that fact. I am reaching to you, or rather to my father, because
I want to know my father. I will not attempt to press for communication
if you wish otherwise.
Thank you for listening, reading this,
The letter, dated July 19, 1984, made no mention that Spain was
incarcerated in the California state prison at Vacaville, serving
three life sentences for murder.
Arthur Cummings routinely stopped by his post-office box. The mail
brought little but bills and the weekly copy of Time magazine. He
was seventy years old and ill and had retired from the tractor-trailer
business in Jackson. One day he found a letter from a man who claimed
to be his son.
“It was clear out of the blue,” he recalled.
“The name didn’t ring a bell. I opened it, I went over
it, I sat there, I read it again. I thought, ‘What the hell
is going on?’ He had the dates, the times, the names correct.
“I always remembered Ann. I always assumed she was just living
her life. There used to be a lady in the diplomatic corps –
Kennedy or someone appointed her – her name was Ann Armstrong,
too. When I’d read her name in the paper, naturally I’d
thin of Ann.
Arthur wrote back, coincidentally on his son’s birthday,
July 30, 1984. “I was greatly surprised and overwhelmed receiving
a letter from someone I did not know,” he wrote. “Your
concern about your roots is understandable. I am very sorry to hear
of your painful searching. Evidently you believe I am your father,
therefore, you believe your information is correct. Correct or incorrect
there is no problem. It is very awkward for me to write you. I hope
In a subsequent letter Spain told his father the whole story and
included a prison psychiatric summary. They corresponded fitfully,
venturing cautiously into each other’s experience. Spain learned,
for instance, that he was part of a big family – he had five
half brothers and half sisters. But after thirty-five years he wanted
more than Arthur could give – maybe more than a man who discovers
a son late in life can give. His frustration and hope had coalesced
finally in January 1986 in a letter Spain’s whole life had
been aiming toward.
Being in prison may well have written off any chance I might have
had of really knowing one of my parents. There is Ann, you say?
Yes, there is Ann. She has enough of a time of things just staying
about the surface of her own life… I will never come to know
Ann, or for that matter and of my brothers or my sister in Mississippi.
Those people I can recognize as my family, love to the bitter end,
but they cannot escape the harsh, cruel, southern conditioning that
will not allow them to embrace any real measure of the child who
was sent away thirty years ago. Hell, I can live well enough with
that. Although it hurts like you could not imagine sometimes, I
can live with that…
You were the only real chance I had. You might not be able to understand
what it means to me, what hideous creatures loom about me with the
threat of you and I never meeting. What happened to you? What was
your life like? What forces brought you to this point? I don’t
…All and all, I really may have been the very best high school
athlete in Los Angeles. Those were my greatest years Arthur. My
greatest moments in my youth and you don’t even know about
them. You don’t know that I cracked a bone in my leg and was
told that I would not play for six months – but played in
three weeks because sports was my only valid world when I was growing
…Anything that amounted to good in the Los Angeles years
became a threat of some sort to me. I was a good kid in heart, though
perhaps too angry at the many things I did not understand. About
life. About myself. I was running away from something – that
awesome, fleeting, intangible something. I had no idea what it was
or where to escape from “it.” All I knew was that I
had to keep running, faster, farther, and longer. There was no safety
for me, no matter how/where I ran. There was only pain and running.
Now having gone through so many changes, having been through such
an amazing sort of metamorphosis – namely, having grown up
– I find myself squarely facing another terrible pain. I know
who I am. I want to know who you are. If we don’t meet…
It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.
Please be well,
Now it is the fall of 1987 and freedom tantalizes Johnny Spain.
He has served twenty-one years in jail on a single conviction for
a murder committed when he was seventeen – nearly twice the
average sentence for that crime. He has been denied parole twice,
but another parole hearing was scheduled for this December. The
prosecution theory that Spain was part of a conspiracy to escape
– never very credible among many lawyers and authors of books
about the case – was further eroded when Stephen Bingham,
the lawyer who had been a fugitive for thirteen years, returned
to face trial and was acquitted of charges that he had joined the
escape conspiracy by smuggling a gun to Jackson in San Quentin.
Spain today is an accomplished electrician. His work has earned
parole recommendations and letters of support from ninety three
guards – the very men he had scorned as pigs a decade ago.
Nevertheless, the Marin County district attorney plans to retry
him on the original San Quentin charges if those convictions are
not reinstated. Parole may well be denied again: there are many
who agree with David Ross, of the L.A. County D.A.’s office,
when he says, “There’s no question he’s not the
black-hearted ogre that he was when he came here, but he’s
not Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, either.”
On East Twenty-Third Street, El Santo Niño is closed. Bus
benches on the corner of Hill and Venice are covered with the cyrillic
scrawl of L.A. gangs. Under the interstate, some partisan, now no
doubt in business school, stopped long enough to write, LONG LIVE
THE GREAT PROLETARIAN REVOLUTION.
After a decade of marriage, Pinkey Spain has consented to a divorce.
“Johnny is a humanist, he believes in what man can do for
man,” she says. “I’m a Christian. I believe in
God, life after death, and heaven and hell.” Ann saw her son
last spring. She and Arthur sometimes talk on the telephone. Arthur
writes to Johnny now and then, but they have not yet met –
airfares are expensive and Arthur is a man who stays on the periphery
of his children’s lives, not wanting to be a bother. When
he was hospitalized with a heart condition some years ago, he left
blank the lines of the admittance form that asked for next of kin.
Cathy Kornblith talks to Spain at least once a week by telephone.
She has traced the outmost branches of his family tree, and her
conclusion is, “Lots of relatives, no family.” The word
struggle still pops up in her speech, with an odd and anachronistic
ring. But the struggle boils down to one man’s freedom.
That man – the product of an interracial union when such
affairs were felonies in Mississippi, punishable by ten years in
jail – never sought to be a symbol. If Johnny Spain has put
aside the grander aspirations of his militant youth, he now yearns
as intensely for the consolations of ordinary life. He wants to
meet his father before his father dies and play with is children
before they grow up. He wants to put his hands on a dog, feel the
bark of a tree, make a sentimental journey home.
“I don’t want to complain,” Spain told me. “I
believe I have already participated in the biggest revolution in
my life, and that is my life. But it’s necessary to go beyond
Late in the day at Vacaville, I asked him to draw a map of the
childhood house on Stokes Robertson Road in Jackson, but he remembered
nothing of it, not even the name of the road, and instead drew a
map of the house he did remember, on East Twenty-Third Street. After
he finished the sketch, he ripped a fresh sheet from his legal pad
and began again, this time to get the scale right. He drew meticulously,
from the mind’s eye: front yard, back yard, kitchen, stairs,
his room, the small garage where grandmother lived. Up welled the
past. Once he had tied his grandmother’s apron strings to
her rocking chair as she sat dozing. There had been an orchard of
trees in the yard – limes, oranges, avocados. He circled the
spots where the trees had stood, assigned them numbers, and compiled
“I don’t know if they’re still there,”
he said, gazing at the map.
I saw the yard later. Like so much else in his life, they belonged