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Conceived within a clandestine relationship between a black man and a married white woman, Spain was born (as Larry Michael Armstrong) in Mississippi during the mid-1950s. Spain's life story speaks to the destructive power of racial bias. Even if his mother's husband were willing to accept the boy?which he was not?a mixed-race child inevitably would come to harm in that place and time.
At six years old, already the target of name-calling children and threatening adults, he could...
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Conceived within a clandestine relationship between a black man and a married white woman, Spain was born (as Larry Michael Armstrong) in Mississippi during the mid-1950s. Spain's life story speaks to the destructive power of racial bias. Even if his mother's husband were willing to accept the boy—which he was not—a mixed-race child inevitably would come to harm in that place and time.
At six years old, already the target of name-calling children and threatening adults, he could not attend school with his older brother. Only decades later would he be told why the Armstrongs sent him to live with a black family in Los Angeles. As Johnny came of age, he thought of himself as having been rejected by his white family as well as by his black peers. His erratic, destructive behavior put him on a collision course with the penal system; he was only seventeen when convicted of murder and sent to Soledad.
Drawn into the black power movement and the Black Panther Party by fellow inmate, the charismatic George Jackson, Spain became a dynamic force for uniting prisoners once divided by racial hatred. He committed himself to the cause of prisoners' rights, impressing inmates, prison officials, and politicians with his intelligence and passion. Nevertheless, among the San Quentin Six, only he was convicted of conspiracy after Jackson's failed escape attempt.
Lori Andrews, a professor of law, vividly portrays the dehumanizing conditions in the prisons, the pervasive abuses in the criminal justice system, and the case for overturning Spain's conspiracy conviction. Spain's personal transformation is the heart of the book, but Andrews frames it within an indictment of intolerance and injustice that gives this individual's story broad significance.
Lawyer Andrews (Between Strangers: Surrogate Mothers, Expectant Fathers, Brave New Babies, 1989) chronicles the life and hard times of Johnny Spain, a Black Panther leader most famous for his part in the 1971 San Quentin Prison outbreak in which fellow Panther George Jackson was killed. Spain was the only defendant among the so-called San Quentin Six to be convicted. He had come up a hard road, the product of an affair between a black man and a married white woman in the postwar South, shunted off to live with a black couple in the Los Angeles ghetto. A bright student who "read intensely, though rarely what was assigned in school," Spain fell in with a gang and began to commit ever more serious crimes, finally murdering a victim in a 1966 stick-up. At Soledad he met the charismatic George Jackson, who taught Spain martial arts and revolutionary theory. But Spain recognized Jackson for what he was: "Johnny could read the message in his eyes: The man was a killer." Caught up in Jackson's intransigent politicking—and Andrews is good at translating the Black Panther Party's program for readers now far removed from those tumultuous times—Spain and the other "Soledad Brothers" were moved to San Quentin, where Jackson was gunned down trying to escape. Two guards died as well, for which murders Spain was tried and convicted in a decision overturned years later. He became a model prisoner, mediating racial tensions and negotiating for the rights of his fellow inmates. Released in 1988, Spain now works as a community organizer in San Francisco.
Andrews's prose is steeped in true-crime clichés, and her invented dialogues read as if written for a TV movie. Still, Johnny Spain's life story is so powerful, and so inspirational, that it overcomes its narrator's limitations.