Angela Davis

Angela Davis

Political Activist and Author

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The socialist and former communist political activist and intellectual Angela Davis has addressed civil and women’s rights, poverty and peace, health care and prison reform since she first came dramatically into the public eye in 1970, when her activism in prisoners’ rights led to her arrest and trial on charges of kidnapping, conspiracy and murder. Davis’ imprisonment for over a year inspired the international “Free Angela” movement; her case became a symbol of the abusive power of the criminal justice system against minorities. Acquitted in 1972, Davis has had a long career as a popular lecturer and professor, writing and fighting for revolutionary social and political reform in the interests of the repressed.

The roots of her passion for social reform extend to her early youth in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1940s and 50s, a troubled time for blacks in the southern United States. The oldest of four children, Davis was raised by her college-educated parents in a segregated neighborhood that suffered such frequent bombings by the Ku Klux Klan that it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill.” (Condoleezza Rice and Alma Johnson, wife of Colin Powell, were from the same Birmingham neighborhood.) Angela’s grandmother instilled in her a strong sense of her history as an African American, and she attended various civil-rights activities and demonstrations in Birmingham with her activist mother. When Davis tried to start an interracial study group in high school, it was harassed, then disbanded by the police.

Young Davis saw the potential of a more integrated society when she moved to New York City in 1956 to attend a progressive high school on scholarship. It was at this time that she first became acquainted with socialism and communism, joining a Marxist-Leninist group in New York. Attending Brandeis University on a scholarship as one of very few African Americans, she graduated magna cum laude in French literature in 1965. She had spent 1963-64 studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, where her ideas for radical political change progressed through her exposure to the experiences of students from African colonialist nations. And back at Brandeis, she attended classes in her final year with Marxist political philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who considered her the best student he had ever had.

Davis pursued graduate study of philosophy in Frankfurt between 1965-67. The bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls whom Davis knew intensified her desire for political change at this time, and she returned to the United States to participate actively in the struggle for civil rights. After earning a Masters Degree in Philosophy with Marcuse at the University of California at San Diego, she began teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1969 as an assistant professor of philosophy. By 1970, Davis had achieved all but the dissertation in her doctoral study of philosophy. At this point her political activism propelled her dramatically into the public eye.

While a student in San Diego, Davis had become more active in the civil rights movement, joining SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the Black Panthers. Then, objecting to the male chauvinism she observed in these organizations, she pursued her activism as a member of the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-black faction of the Communist Party in Los Angeles. In 1969 the California Board of Regents and Governor Reagan fired her from the faculty of the University of Los Angeles because of her Communist affiliation, despite the fact that Davis was evaluated as an unbiased and popular teacher. After strong protest from students, faculty and administration she was reinstated by court order. Nonetheless, the Board did not renew her contract in 1970, claiming her unfinished dissertation and her radical political activism with the “Soledad Brothers” as their reasons.

On behalf of three prisoners at Soledad prison, who had tried to organize a Marxist group among fellow prisoners and were often abused by the prison officials, Davis began to organize protests, raise funds for their defense, and speak publicly calling for their release. She had received threats by phone and mail, and so she purchased guns for her protection. The guns were used by the brother of one of the “Soledad brothers” in a court-room rescue attempt in 1970. In the shoot-out, a judge and others were killed, and Davis was implicated by the guns. When she fled into hiding, the FBI placed her on the “Ten Most Wanted List.” Found in New York, she was held in prison for over a year, while a huge “Free Angela” movement began to grow internationally, protesting the abusive power of the criminal justice system. The Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Yoko Ono and German Franz Josef Degenhardt dedicated songs to Davis. Defining herself as a political prisoner, she later referred to her time in prison as a pivotal period for the development of her political theory. “I came to understand much more concretely many of the realities of the Black struggle of that period.”

At her trial in 1972, Davis was acquitted of all the charges. Following her acquittal she began a national lecture tour, speaking and writing about civil rights, prison reform, and social change. Her case had drawn particular attention in the Soviet Union, which awarded her the Lenin Peace Prize in 1979. She also received honorary doctorates from Lenin University and the University of Leipzig in the GDR.

Running as Vice Presidential candidate for the Communist Party in both 1980 and 1984, Davis helped to raise awareness of the Communist Party within the African American community. Though her affiliation with the party continued to hinder her teaching career for some years after her acquittal, since 1979 she has taught at San Francisco State University, and since 1992 she has been a tenured professor of the history of consciousness at University of California at Santa Cruz. She founded the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression, which grew out of the Free Angela movement. Since the mid-1980s she has been on the National Political Congress of Black Women and on the board for the National Black Women’s Health Project. In 1997 Davis came out as a lesbian in Out magazine. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union Davis and others formed a dissenting wing of the U.S. Communist Party and challenged the party to reject Leninism and take a more moderate stance; when it failed to do so they split from the CPUSA, defining themselves as democratic socialists and taking the name Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism in 2000.

Davis has published numerous articles, essays, and books, including her autobiography, several books on women and feminism (most notably Women, Race & Class, 1981) and on radical prison reform. Nationally and internationally Davis has been a popular lecturer on the necessity for social change, whether women’s rights, global peace and disarmament, improved opportunities for workers, affordable health care, prison abolition, or the need for and encouragement of youth activism today. In order to achieve social change Davis argues for politically based coalitions that organize beyond race and ethnic group to include differences in class, culture, gender, and sexual orientation. “We have to recognize the intersectionality, the interconnectedness of all of these institutions and attitudes.”

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