Production Team: X
Interview Date: December 22, 1988
Camera Rolls: 2074-2077
Sound Rolls: 234-235
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Herbert X. Blyden, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 22, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Brother Herb, could you tell me about the conditions, what the conditions were like in Attica?
Well, the conditions in Attica at the time of the uprising was such that the, ah, majority of the inmates, of whom there were over two thousand, got concerned with the one shower per week, one roll of toilet paper per month, the tampering of the mail, and I say tampering in terms of excising portions of a magazine or letters from home, ah, the salary or wages per day in the metal plant was like 80 cents, ah, and the overall harassment by the guards of the inmates most of whom were from the metropolitan areas of New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse. The guards for the most part were from rural Attica, the village in Wyoming County, County and they were underpaid, grossly underpaid, seven thousand, six thousand, seven thousand dollars a year. So naturally they couldn't relate to the urban-type inmate that were brought to Attica. And as result that created a lot of conflict between the rural and urban, ah, guards and inmates. That's the gist of the problems that we had.
What were some of the things that were raising the consciousness of the brothers before the uprising?
For the most part, the consciousness of the brothers in Attica, their level was raised, ah, once they'd gotten into the writings of Malcolm X, the uprising in Watts, and definitely the Soledad brothers struggle and, ah, that in turn affected conditions in "The Tombs" Prison in New York City in 1970. So from '67 through '70 there was this uprising throughout America's prisons, from West Coast to East Coast to the South, you know, with Folsom and all the rest of the other prisons thrown in. And what we found in Attica in 1971 was the influx of prisoners from other outlying New York institutions confined in Attica themselves. There was the Young Lords, the Panthers, the Five Percenters, the Weathermen, the Muslims, and for the most part, all these diverse groups and the Five Percenters, I'm sorry.
Let's try it again.
Yeah, because I want to make sure that I give you those groups because it's important.
Brother Herb, tell me what was raising the consciousness of the brothers in Attica around that time?
Well for the most part, most of the brothers in the institution in 1971 was raised by the uprisings throughout America from '67, '68, '69, the split I think in the party, West Coast and the East Coast fraction of the Panthers, the Malcolm's teachings, ah, the diverse militant groups that was set up, the Weathermen, the Young Lords, the Five Percenters and, of course, the Nation of Islam's contingent. All of these elements had their consciousness level raised, ah, relative to the well being of their folk as they saw it. So that to confine two thousand men in this small setting, in one institution, with that type of conscious level raising, raised, would, I think, was what I think created the conditions for the rebellion in Attica in 1971.
Sort of describe for me, if you could, the day of the rebellion, the day of the takeover, where you were.
In 1971 when the uprising occurred, we had, ah, two-thirds of the men working in their shops, industry, making cabinets, ah, chairs, lockers, etc. But I think to all fairness to the viewing audience, I should say that the evening before it was an altercation, and an inmate was dragged out of his cell in A block and the officials at that time were told that if anything happened to that inmate the next day when the inmates were let out there would be some reprisals. And as a result of them not taking that statement seriously, there was a spontaneous uprising in A block which filtered out over to the remainder of the prison.
Stop a second. We're going to--
If you could describe where you were the day of the rebellion and how you ended in up in D-yard.
At about eight o'clock on the morning of the 9th of September I was in the metal shops in B block, and there was a lot of running around and milling around by inmates, and the guards started to run around as if they didn't know what was happening, 'cause evidently they didn't have contingency plans for some emergency. It occurred to me that indeed there was an emergency. I left the metal plant with a group of inmates and we proceeded through B block where we met inmates coming from other blocks and correction officers following those inmates. We went out into D-yard and inmates closed the door behind them and the guards, at that point, stopped coming because there were 1,200 and some odd inmates confined in that yard at that point.
What was the atmosphere like in the yard the first few minutes of the take--of the rebellion?
For the most part right after entering D-yard the milling about and the confusion of these diverse groups from four prison blocks created what we would call pandemonium, because you had 40 or 50 correction officers who no longer, it appeared, had control of the institution. So order had to be made out of this disorder and at that point, ah, the Muslim contingent in the yard, I think there were 35 Muslim brothers saw to it that there was no further injuries to the hostages, at that point they were called hostages, which were correction officers.
What was your role in the yard at the time? Describe how you got selected as one of the leaders.
As a result of the Tombs uprising in 1970 and my 72-count indictment for the Tombs uprising, a lot of the inmates from the Weather faction, the Muslim, the Young Lords, the Panthers and the Five Percenters, suggested that there be a 15 member committee set up to negotiate with the outside officials, and I was selected unanimously by that group to chair the inmate negotiating team.
OK, let's cut a second.
Before the rebellion you had sent some demands to Commissioner Oswald and he had responded with a tape recorded message. How did you feel when you got that?
Well after we sent the 28 demands to Commissioner Oswald, ah, he came to the prison and he sat with five inmates, not five signatories to the demands, only one of the five was in the group that he sat with. He in turn spoke not to the demands but to correcting such things as the toilet paper issue and the soap issue. But we, we made, ah, a request for 28 specific demands relative to adequate salary for a hard days work in the metal plants, and he didn't even address those. And once he played the tape over the inmate air phone, the institution it seemed, you know, to a man, was booing him. That should have been, I think, the sign that there were grave concerns about the sincerity of Commissioner Oswald and no one really looked at that.
Let's just cut a second.
Would you describe to me how the inmates observed George Jackson's death and then how you felt that day, what you saw?
What was interesting was the reaction I think of the majority of Attica's population.
Could you say, "What was the reaction, what was interesting to the reaction of George Jackson's death?"
When George Jackson died we heard it on the radio and, you know, we had the prison grapevine. The very next morning, it was interesting, because everyone was locked into their cells when we heard the news so no one had time to actually say, "Tomorrow morning at breakfast we will go in with Black shoestrings as arm bands in mourning and do not partake of breakfast." And literally every man in Attica walked into the mess hall the next morning for breakfast with a Black arm band and did not eat breakfast and that was out of respect and mourning for George Jackson. It affected us immensely.
And now, what was your personal feelings, you personally?
Personally, I don't know that I can describe in words how it affected me, because George was in effect my mentor. I loved the brother, you know. I've been fortunate to actually meet Mrs. Georgia and at that time one of his best friends was Angela, and I'd met Angela Davis, and I loved little baby brother Jonathan. So it affected me as if, you know, indeed someone from my, like my family had died. And I didn't know that the emotional affect it would have on the rest of the inmates was in effect basically the same as it had on me. So George touched all of us very deeply.
Now, Herb, if you could sort of tell me how you felt when you heard George's, heard about George Jackson's death.
When I heard about George Jackson's death it impacted on me in such a way that it had a devastating effect, really. To this very day it affects me.
No, you can't put it to this very day.
But it's the truth.
No, you've got to keep it in the past.
Oh, see, that's the--
How did you react when you heard, personally, how did you react personally when you heard about George Jackson's death?
Well, with anger.
--when I heard about George Jackson's death.
Because of the George Jackson's death, you know, the anger had built up in me to the point where I was ready to explode myself. But after having considered the turmoils and the trials and tribulation that this strong brother had gone through only to be murdered in the manner in which he was he murdered, I said if he can endure and still be able to reach out even in death as he had, ah, we could take it from that point ah, and proceed to try to bring some other diverse elements together. But at first my reaction was, you know, an eye for an eye, much as, ah, the bible had spoken of. But I maintained my calm for the most part, but George, I think his overall demeanor affected me to the point where I was able to carry on and help to bring some people, some people together to deal with some issues.
Could you just give it to me one more time because I sort of jumped on top of your question, answer. How did you react to George's death?
George Jackson's death I think created anger, frustration, and it, for a moment, wanted me to actually lash out at something or someone, ah, preferably to society and those forces that be that had taken his life from us. But in realizing that the brother had not died in vain and he would have wanted us to continue with the work that he had tried to do from behind the prison walls, ah, we maintain our cool and I maintained mine and tried to, ah, continue to struggle to bring the forces together and move on for betterment of the society from within the walls and from without the walls.
Good. Fine. Let's cut a second.
So, what was it about George that, I mean, that you remembered as you thought about his death?
George Jackson's death, I think, impacted on me in such a way that, ah, even Mar--Dr. King's death did not impact on me because while Dr. King strived for something from a religious perspective, George Jackson came from something which had an inner and yet an outer. I remember his going to court in shackles, and the brother would stand erect, you know, proud Black man that he was. And they had not broken his spirit, and these are things that Dr. King and Malcolm talked about, the breaking down of, of the Black man's spirit. I remember his "in-cell" program, with the exercising, the push ups, and then when he comes out it was like he was in another world while he was still in the confines of the belly of the monster. So, I think what I had to do at that point was to show that we can be strong even during trials and tribulations, much as George was strong to the death. So, as a result of them taking George away from us, it made us that much stronger, I think.
Good, good. Sto--
I'll tell you what, I want to ask you again and I want to get some, some more feelings out of you. What it was like when you first went to that D-yard the first day of that takeover, of the uprising. What was it like in there among the inmates? How did you feel being among all these, the 1,200, the 1,200-something men?
What did you see?
The first day of the uprising out in D-yard with 1,280 some odd men running around, whipping people, I'm talking about literally, physically, assaulting people whom they had not seen because of the diverse laws they've got in Attica about blocks. You've got four different prisons in one, and finally they, they contacted someone who they hadn't seen for some time. We had a, another group running around, and the prison hospital, ah, was overtaken so they had now had access to drugs, so the drug element was there and would have OD had we not stopped them from abusing drugs. We had younger inmates, that was one of the concern we had raised, and some of the older inmates who had been incarcerated for 15 or 20 years were actually physically abusing the younger inmates. I'm talking about raping these younger kids. So that had to be stopped. And, ah for the most part the pandemonium had to be stopped. And that's where, you know, in looking at this madhouse, we had to put an end to it by bringing the Muslim piece into play and, setting up the negotiating team with, ah, clearer heads. But, ah, the general chaos was such that even I was taken aback. I was amazed at how serious a situation it was. I mean, was it not taken into hand, put in check right away, ah, a great deal of harm could have occurred.
OK. Let's cut a second.
Amnesty seemed to be one of the main issues among the inmates. Why was it important to you, specifically?
Amnesty was very important among the inmates in D-yard if only because with the death of Quinn the 600 inmates of the 1,200 who were doing life sentence at that time was facing the electric chair because of the law in the book at the time. The follow-up question to amnesty was then transferred to a non-imperialist country. If we could not get amnesty we just wanted to leave. And, ah, some of us who were granted amnesty by then Mayor Lindsay of New York City for the Tombs uprising, understood full well what it meant to not be charged with a crime after a paper amnesty was granted. We were charged with a crime in New York City because we were not given amnesty in writing. So we wanted the alternative to an amnesty in writing granted by the Governor or transfer to a non-imperialist country. But it was very, very important because we had 600 men who were facing the electric chair at that point.
Why was it important to you specifically. What did you feel when dealing with this issue of amnesty.
Personally I didn't up for amnesty. I wanted transfer to a non-imperialist county because I had had experience in the Tombs and I knew that amnesty on its face meant no more than the emancipation of slaves during Lincoln's days. Just mere words by the White man.
OK, let's cut there.
This is directed right to you personally. How did you feel about this issue of amnesty in terms of you?
In terms of me and amnesty in 1971 in Attica I did not relate to the terminology. So much so that we included in the five final demands, ah, a clause that specifically addressed itself to transfer to a non-imperialist country. Because having been brought up in America, realizing its laws mean nothing, ah, the man's word mean nothing. Having had the experience only a year prior in the Tombs uprising where Mayor Lindsay granted amnesty, we knew full well that, ah, the fork town would stick us. So, amnesty per se, ah, meant nothing. I wanted out.
Fine. Let's cut.
OK, Brother Herb, the inmates and you, and the other inmates have found out about the death of, of William Quinn. What was the reaction to Quinn's death from you and the reaction of the other inmates?
Upon finding out that William Quinn had died, the correction officer, there were approximately 600 inmates who, ah, were affected immensely because they were doing life sentences, at that time the death of a correction officer by an inmate in any of the state prisons, could place that inmate in the electric chair. So that solidified the position of those inmates, who for whatever reason, may not have wanted to be a part of the uprising. And that now made a hardcore element in the yard for whatever demands were put forth for amnesty from prosecution for the death of Mr. Quinn. So, what you had now is 600, quote-unquote, hardened criminals dealing the situation in D-yard, instead of, ah, 1,281 just inmates out in the yard. That position solidified, ah, for those men once deaths, the death of Quinn was known, made known.
Did you, what did you tell the inmates about what was going to happen in their yard?
I told the inmates at that point that there will be a turkey shoot. It was interesting because there was a turkey shoot on the morning of the 13th of September.
Tell me what you told those brothers after you heard about Quinn's death.
Upon hearing of the demise of William Quinn the correction officer, we realized how serious a situation it was for the 600 plus inmates who were doing a life sentence. Because based on the existing law at the time the death of an inmate, the death of a correction officer at the hands of an inmate, ah, made you eligible, if you will, for electric chair. So that solidified the position of the inmates in the yard who were doing a life sentence. I, upon hearing of the death of Quinn, took to the podium and I informed the--
Let's cut a second. I want you to do it like--
What did you tell those guys after you all heard about the death of Quinn?
Well once we found out that William Quinn had died, the correction officer, it behooved me to then tell these brothers, you, know that straight up, they're in trouble. And the 600 plus inmates who were out in the yard, you know, upon hearing what I was saying to them, the, the death of Quinn, it solidified their position and now they became the key element in the yard. And, ah, I informed them that, you know, all hell is going to break loose because another correction officer is dead and their position was then, "Come on with it!" And I think as a result of us looking at, ah, Quinn's demise and the solidification of their position, you know, we had that cadre of solid fighting force that we need to stay in the yard for additional time.
OK, let's stop a second.
OK, what did you tell these brothers after they had heard, after y'all heard about Quinn's death?
As a result of receiving word that William Quinn the correction officer had died, the information was conveyed by me to the inmates in the yard, and, ah, the 600 plus lifers gathered around, I'll never, you know, forget their reaction once I told them "You niggers are going to die." I said, "All you brothers are going to be slaughtered in this yard." And, you know, they were like, "Come on with it!" But, ah, the position was excellent because it then created a solid core for us to be able to deal with the madness we had to deal with, with the negotiating, and, you know, but, ah, we told them straight up, these were serious times and that they were going to die.
Somebody name a book _A Time to Die_.
Brother Herb, if you could just go back to that day, that Monday, what happened that morning, what you saw and what you felt as the state troopers came in and correction officers came in to retake the yard?
Monday, September 13, 1971 was indeed a blue Monday. It was a cloudy, overcast day and we remember clearly addressing the crowd and apprising them of the urgency of the situation at hand. And, ah, to a man, with one exception, everybody decided to stay in the yard. I'll never forget this one White guy came up to me and said "I don't want to be out here." And I told him then, "Stand behind me." And he was the only one of 1,281 men who said they didn't want to be in the yard on September 13th. Fifteen minutes after that man said that, the helicopters came over and asked us to surrender, place our hands on our heads, we will not be hurt. And some of the men started to do that only to hear tear gas, pepper gas, shotguns, rifles. And it was a--again pandemonium broke out because some of them were indeed surrendering. And the chaos that was created as a result of this mass shooting into the yard I think to this, to me created the pandemonium that led to the massacre in the yard.
See, I can't--
OK, Brother Herb, I want you to go back to that, that morning, that Monday morning and describe what happened before the assault and then the assault on the yard when they took it over.
Well we had the regular morning meeting on September 13, 1971 in the yard. We call it blue Monday. It was a rainy, overcast, damp, just a weird day, like one of those days you see in London with the fog, right. And the helicopters came over right after our regular morning rap session with the inmates in the yard and they announced a surrender order.
I want to stop for a second, I want to try it, I want you to tell me a story--
OK, once again, if you could describe that early morning before the assault and then the assault itself.
September 13, 1971 stands out. It was a blue Monday, storm clouds on the horizon, fog, hazy, looked like one of those London City movies that you look at, you know. And, ah, we had our regular morning briefing, the 1,281 inmates and myself. As the Chair I had addressed from standing on top of a platform they had put there and we were told, or they were told by me after the committee had instructed me to tell them, to make up their mind whether they wanted to end the uprising now and go back to their cells or stay out in the yard. And 1,280 of 1,281 men in D-yard decided they would stay. I remember this one White guy in the audience, said he wanted to be in his cell. He was standing in the middle of the yard and for a moment it appeared that they would engulf him with their anger. And I hollered, "No, don't touch him. Let him come up here." And he took his time and he came up to where I was. And I asked him to stand behind me. And, ah, he had more courage, seriously, than any one of us in the yard. But, ah, he stayed there until 15 minutes later, the helicopter started to drop the tear gas and the wanton shooting began by the guards who were on the towers and this is all the while they're saying to us, "Put your hands on your head. You will not be harmed. Surrender to the nearest officer." They were shooting all the while. And, ah, the pandemonium that broke out as a result of the dropping of the tear gas and the CM gas and the, ah, shooting with the 270s and the 12 gauge shotguns, I think, created mass hysteria and, ah, additional injury to untold hundreds of men in D-yard.
The yard has been taken, retaken what happened to you when the state troopers and the guards came in, were you hurt?
When the state troopers and the guards came in, ah, to immediately take the inmates now out of the yard to their cells, we were made to strip, lay in the mud face down and crawl to a guard 10 to 20 feet away from the guard that had you stripped. At that point that guard would mark an X with White chalk on the back of select inmates who were then removed from the mud physically by two additional guards, placed in a line to run a gauntlet of correction officers to be beaten all the way to another cell block for housing. You ran over glass and bottle or whatever you had because you were stripped naked with your hands on your head and you were beaten with the batons all the way to the cells. In the trek to the cell we could see some of the other brothers laying there getting their X placed on them or just singled out for special treatment, as they called it. I remember L.D. Barkley was one. He was still alive and well when we left the yard and there was no additional shooting wantonly. Ah, as it turned out, he was selected, I guess for murder. How do you deal with that without--
You see? You see what I'm saying? You can't--
Brother Herb, I want you to tell me again what happened after that yard was retaken with the state troopers and the guards, what did they do to, to, to you and the other inmates?
When the state troopers and the guards came in upon the immediate retaking of the yard, September 13th, ah, certain inmates were singled out for special treatment. The majority of those for special treatment were Xed on their back with chalk, as they were made to lie in the mud naked. I think there were 15 or 20 from the immediate negotiating table of which, of whom I was one. We were then removed to run a gauntlet to A block housing unit which is "the box." That's what they call it, "the box," where you're segregated from the rest of the population. But in proceeding along the gauntlet route we saw several of the other brothers, ah, who were still alive, singled out for special treatment, who never did show up in our housing unit. Upon entering the cells, where they had selected for us, we were made to stay in those cells, in the nude, ah, with no running water and for three days we were constantly abused, physically slapped around, not, ah truncheon beatings, not like the gauntlet, but the guards would open the cells at random. Two and three of them would go into the cells at night and punch a guy around, or slap him around, or kick him around. And for three days they would bring the food up to your cells, cereal, milk, cornflake, coffee, and tell you straight up, that "I wouldn't eat this if I was you, we did, whatever in it." You know, so for three days the men were not eating in those cells, even though there were food readily available. But the guards would, in some cases, physically spit in the food and show you he's spitting in it, and then pass it through the bars to you. So, those of us who knew how to fast, I guess, had to fast for three days.
OK, the impact of Angela Davis had on you brother Herb when you were in Attica and in the Tombs in '70, '71.
Angela Davis had an impact on me that was immense because, ah, back in those days, we didn't have, it seemed, too many strong Black women, ah, speaking out to some of the issues of the day. And Angela Davis' voice I think was one of the most profound voice for change at that time and I admired here immensely and she affected me greatly.