by Kali Henderson
Angela Y. Davis is a retired professor, political activist, author, and revolutionary whose early activism landed her on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. Her prior involvement with Communist organizations led her to be harassed and persecuted by government agencies. In spite of this, she has continued to organize, speak out and be active in movements of social change nationally and internationally.
The oldest of Sallye and Frank Davis’ four children, Angela was born January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. Both of her parents were college graduates who were politically active and involved with Communist-affiliated organizations. As a result, Davis’ early influences were activists and organizers. These relationships would later provide the necessary support and mobilization when Davis was falsely accused and imprisoned in connection with the Soledad Brothers’ trial in 1970.
“Dynamite Hill” was named so because of the racial antagonism that took place after the Davis’ bought a house in the all-white neighborhood. As the name indicates, bombings were frequent. As more black families moved into the neighborhood, the white residents responded with violence. This violence was exacerbated by “Police Chief Bull Conner [who] would announce on the radio that a ‘nigger family’ had moved in on the white side of the street…[predicting] ‘There will be bloodshed tonight” (Davis, 95).
In contrast to Davis’ middle-class household, the school available for black children was so threadbare that the students called the buildings “Shack I, Shack II…” As was typical of the time, the Negro schools received the damaged and outdated leftover books and supplies from the all-white schools, which yielded subpar education for most black students. As the children of educators and activists, the formal education of the Davis children was supplemented in the home. The tensions of the Civil Rights Movement significantly affected Angela and her schoolmates, causing frustration and senseless violence. In her autobiography, Davis pointed out the impact it had on her peers.
“The children fought over nothing—over being bumped, over having toes stepped on, over being called a name, over being the target of real or imagined gossip. They fought over everything—split shoes, and cement yards, thin coats and mealless days. They fought the meanness of Birmingham while they sliced the air with knives and punched Black faces because they could not reach white ones” (Davis, 94).
For her last year of high school, Angela left Birmingham to attend Elizabeth Irvine, a private high school in New York City, through a scholarship she received from the American Friends Southern Negro Student Committee. After high school, she attended Brandeis University as a French major. During her junior year, she studied abroad in Paris. After returning to the U.S., she began studying philosophy with the well-known left-wing intellectual, Herbert Marcuse. Under his tutelage, she went to Frankfort to study at the Institute for Social Research.
Upon her return to the U.S. in 1967, Davis pursued her doctoral degree at the University of California at San Diego with Marcuse as her advisor. She was hired as faculty at the university while she completed her studies. During that time, she joined the Communist Party and began working with the Che Lumumba Club, the all-black unit of the Party. Due to her membership, then-California governor Ronald Reagan pressured the university’s Regents to fire her. The Regents ultimately succeeded in firing Davis due to her involvement in the “Soledad Brothers” trial. She was eventually rehired after the protests of faculty and students.
The “Soledad Brothers” were standing trial in connection with the death of a prison guard. The younger brother of George Jackson, one of the accused, attempted to free his brother by “sticking up” the courthouse. Hostages were taken and the attempt ended with four deaths including that of the Superior Court Judge Harold Haley and Jonathan Jackson, and two prisoners. Angela Davis purchased the firearms used in this attempt.
Davis was accused of murder and conspiracy. She went into hiding and at this time was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. In October of 1970, Davis was apprehended in New York. She spent more than a year in prison during which time an international campaign to free her was undertaken. Childhood friends, colleagues and activists worked together to publicize the liberation effort. On June 4, 1972, Angela Y. Davis was acquitted of all of the charges against her.
Davis continued to be active in the Communist Party after her release. Her visit to Cuba added to her assertion that socialism could provide a path to freedom for minorities and the working classes. She was the Vice-Presidential Candidate for the Communist Party in 1980 and 1984. In the early 1990’s she left the Communist Party after it supported an attempted coup in the Soviet Union. Later, she helped to found Critical Resistance, an organization whose mission is to put an end to mass incarceration in the United States and its “prison industrial complex.”
Davis stated that “nothing in the world made me angrier than inaction, than silence. The refusal or inability to do something, say something when a thing needed doing or saying, was unbearable” (94). Her life has been the actualization of this point-of-view. Constantly speaking out against racism, sexism, the prison industrial complex, war, and the death penalty among other issues, Davis has written books addressing these concerns such as If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance; Women, Race, and Class; Abolition Democracy; and Are Prisons Obsolete?.
In her autobiography, Davis expressed the view that the same-sex relationships that she witnessed while imprisoned were an intricately constructed distraction. She suggested that the “family” networks of the inmates were a diversion from work that needed to be done to reform the prison system. It isn’t clear whether her critique was of the relationships or the intense focus on those relationships instead of the corrupt prison structure.
In 1997, she “came out” as a lesbian. Prior to that time, Davis had been vocal about feminist concerns particularly those of black women. She was critical of the Million Man March that took place in 1995, as she felt the exclusion of women contributed to male chauvinism within the black community. As a response to this slight, the African American Agenda 2000, a coalition of Black Feminists, was created.
Angela Yvonne Davis is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Former California Governor Ronald Reagan once vowed that Angela Davis would never again teach in the University of California System…In 1994, she received the distinguished honor of an appointment to the University of California Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies” (UCSC.edu, 2012). Davis is honored and celebrated in popular culture as well. In 2013, Jada Pinkett-Smith produced a film titled Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners. Her activism around prisoner’s rights, race and gender justice, and the prison industrial complex has inspired a new generation. She implores this new generation to “consider the possibility of a future without prisons.”
Davis, Angela Yvonne: Angela Davis - An Autobiography. New York, Random House, 1974.
“Angela Davis.” 2002. Retrieved on December 7, 2013. (http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/scholaractivists/AngDavisBioBib88.htm).
“Angela Davis.” N.D. Retrieved on January 3, 2014. (http://histcon.ucsc.edu/faculty/singleton.php?&singleton=true&cruz_id=aydavis)