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The Transformation of Johnny Spain
By Chip Brown

Esquire
January 1988

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 with whites.

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 white.

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.

“Larry… Armstrong?”

The name doesn’t seem to ring a bell.

“Your son…”

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 gotten married.”

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, he skipped.”

“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 blind.

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 with Ann.

“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 the Scripture.

“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 situation.”

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 my kids.”

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 dad.

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 him.

“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 away.

“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 to unravel.

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,” Brody said.

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 not white.”

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 to scream.

“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 gone out.

“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 somebody.’”

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 Long.

“Thank you.”

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 the killing.

“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 count.

“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 communicate today.

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 it.”

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 coffee.

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 and overweight.

“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 and overawed.

“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 material.”

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 5.

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 game.

Sixteen years and more than twenty-five thousand pages of testimony later, it is still not clear what happened on the afternoon George Jackson died.

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,” he said.

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 at him.

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 the yard.

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 Jackson’s funeral.

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 deepened.

“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 others.”

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.

Dear Cathy,

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 Ann replied.

6-3-74
5A.M.

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 you…

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 his jacket.

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 the description.

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.”

Dear Arthur,

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,
Best Regards,
John Spain

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 you understand.”

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.

Dear Arthur,

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 know.

…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 up…

…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,
John

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 history.”

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 a legend.

“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 to memory.