[Ppnews] Remembering Geronimo Pratt

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 7 17:51:57 EDT 2011

Remembering Geronimo Pratt

Written by 
<http://newsone.com/author/jothomas/>Johan Thomas on June 7, 2011 2:31 pm

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 Jones­all 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.


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 South­New 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 Islam­but 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 separate­that’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 dynamic­he 
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 Soldier­the 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 
Diop­He 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 man­Maat. We also studied those 
meditations that were developed by all of our 
ancestors­the Natives, the Hispanics, the 
Irish­not 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 slavery­hence 
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 
living­94 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 Mama­this 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 
Vietnam­throughout 1966­I 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.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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