I can’t imagine what the racial environment in America was like in the early 70s. By that I don’t mean the disingenuous cliché that really means, “I actually can imagine, and I imagine it to be pretty bad.” No, by that I mean the literal truth of it: I can’t imagine. I’m not qualified. I’m a 31 year-old white guy living in rural Massachusetts, and not in anywhere near a position to be judging how it was for a black person in California in 1970. It would be arrogant, disrespectful and presumptuous to even try.

That eliminated, all I can do is read about it. Being the scholar of music history that I am, my investigation of the Rolling Stones and Exile On Main St. lead me to the Soledad Brothers, the San Quentin Six, and Angela Davis.

Angela Davis

In 1969, Angela Davis was an assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA, a radical feminist, a member of the Communist Party USA, and a known associate of the Black Panther Party. Also in that year, Ronald Reagan tried to get her fired from UCLA because she’s a communist, and maybe because she’s black. By August of 1970, she was a fugitive and only the third woman on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

That’s quite a change of circumstances, to go from in the classroom to on the lam. The trouble started when Jonathan Jackson brought three guns into the Marin County Courthouse where James McClain was on trial for a stabbing and robbery incident. He took several hostages, and recruited McClain and two others as accomplices in the kidnapping. His terms: the immediate release of his brother George and the other Soledad Brothers, so named for their conviction of the brutal murder of a Soledad prison guard.

The guns Jonathan brought to the courtroom were registered to Angela Davis two days beforehand, including one carbine sawed-off shotgun. When the investigation went in her direction, she took off. Why did she run if not because of guilt? Maybe because she thought if she was arrested, she wouldn’t get a fair trial being a black woman, two strikes against her. Maybe she feared the police; she called them “pigs” in public on numerous occasions before, and that kind of thing has a tendency to make one a bit ornery, which is especially bad if you have a gun. Maybe she had lost faith in the colorblindness of the judicial system… Scratch that – maybe she thought that system was rife with racism and needed to be destroyed.

Whatever. She was eventually captured in New York City, spent 18 months in prison, stood trial in California for conspiracy and murder, and was acquitted by an all white jury in 1972. But it wasn’t purely because the system worked, or even that murder weapons being registered to you isn’t nearly enough to pin the murder on you. It was thanks to the overwhelming support Angela got from many, many, many famous people committed to her self-proclaimed innocence. Celebrity after celebrity showed their support, so much that it became “cool” to do so, and those who didn’t jump right on the bandwagon were criticized or had their morals called into question. It reminds me of the Mumia thing, or the Kony thing, or the Susan G. Komen thing, or the Chick-fil-A thing. The moral outrage was barreling out of control.

The Rolling Stones lent a hand as well by releasing “Sweet Black Angel,” one of their only overtly (or even semi-overtly) political songs. But even as such, it’s couched in a musical motif and a dialect that are difficult to penetrate. It’s a down-home, born-on-the-bayou country-blues song, complete with harmonica and washboard, as well as muddy and minimal production courtesy of Jimmy Miller. Mick uses not only a particular accent in this song, as he’s wont to do, but he also employs a voice and lyrical style used by poor, southern blacks.

There are many remarkable things about “Sweet Black Angel,” but the biggest is the grand naivety on display. In its discourse about Angela Davis and her plight, it ends with these lyrics:

She’s a sweet black angel / Not a gun-toting teacher / Not a Red-loving schoolmarm

I hear the reference to communism, and I’m going, “But… she IS a Red-loving schoolmarm! She SAYS she is! It’s not even a secret! She’s a member of the Communist Party USA. So that’s not even spin, or your perspective; that’s just… incorrect!”

What’s the interest for the Rolling Stones pairing Angela Davis’ innocence with her not being “Red?” Are the two logically connected? If you’re a communist, are you also a murderer? It seems ridiculous and reprehensible to think so to us in our modernity, but back then it might still have made sense to some people. I’m sure a few of them would have liked to of seen Angela locked up just for being a communist, regardless of this whole Soledad Brothers thing.  “Is she guilty? Who cares!?! She’s a communist!”

But the bottom line is this: there’s a world of difference between being something and doing something. Being a communist doesn’t make you a murderer; murdering someone does. Being Irish doesn’t mean you drink a lot; drinking a lot does. Being black doesn’t mean you like rap; liking rap does. Being a Christian doesn’t make you a Republican; voting Republican does. Saying you love someone doesn’t mean you love them… you need to do a thing to be a thing.

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