January 26, 1944 – Angela Davis:
We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.
While considering Angela Davis as a #BornThisDay figure, I was momentarily brought back to an era that invigorated me and made me feel that the world really would change. It was Martin Luther King Day and every MLK Holiday, I consider the progress, yet I also get depressed by how America has squandered its promise, especially when it comes to race. I remembered my ”Free Angela” button and wondered whatever happened to it.
Davis was a household name in the early 1970s. A stunning beauty, she was iconic. Davis was a powerful brand for the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Panther Party. She appeared on posters: pop culture posters, Black Panther Party posters, Free Angela posters, but she became infamous for an appearance on FBI wanted posters. She was only the third female on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list.
A revolutionary and sympathizer, she spent 18 months in jail waiting for her trial. Eventually 12 White jurors found her not guilty. Davis was an organizer and leader for the Communist Party of America at that time when the USA was in a nuclear arms race and most citizens felt an obligatory hatred for the USSR. Davis grew up with Communist sympathizers and believed that the party was a viable path to racial equality.
The U.S. Government couldn’t figure out which was more evil: being a Black Panther Party member or a Communist. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and Ronald Reagan, all branded her a radical, an undesirable, and a domestic terrorist.
Her popular counterculture rise to power was at odds with Hoover’s stranglehold on Washington DC and he created a task force that stalked, spied, detained and employed black ops against those who challenged and rattled the majority racist, privileged, white people. A great deal of the Black Panther Party history has been White-washed, labeling them as domestic terrorists. They wore combat fatigues and flaunted open carry of weapons, kind of like White Nationalist groups today.
The Black Panthers formed because they didn’t trust the predominately white police, so they policed and protected their own neighborhoods. Law enforcement in that era was even worse than our own epoch; openly targeting, arresting, harassing and killing black people, especially men, without impunity. Some Black Panther members were executed during the FBI’s raids. Yet history classes rarely mention that it was the Black Panthers which instituted breakfast in schools for students in poor neighborhoods. Theirs is a deeply interesting story; the only reason I know it is because of my research and writing about pop culture and the great African-American artists of the past 150 years.
Davis and the Black Panther Party were there before Black Lives Matter, attempting to fight the cavalier treatment of black lives and black bodies by those in authority. They demanded investigations and exposed racist officers; they outed the government’s introduction of drugs into minority neighborhoods and routinely planted drug evidence, weapons and lies to maintain control over the black people in their jurisdictions. Most whites had a fear of Black men who are viewed as threatening, and a fear of skin color and the mythology of Black inferiority and brute mentality, that goes way, way back in our history.
Davis represents a turbulent time featuring a movement long overdue for African-Americans trying to escape the legacies of slavery. Davis has been an unlikely icon for this gay white guy since the late 1960s; her steadfast courage inspires me.
Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Both of her parents were college graduates who were politically active and involved with community organizing and Communist-affiliated organizations. As a result, Davis’s early influences were activists and organizers. These relationships would later provide the necessary support and mobilization when Davis was imprisoned in connection with the Soledad Brothers trial in 1970.
The Davis family bought a house in the all-white neighborhood. As more black families moved into the neighborhood, the white residents responded with violence. This violence was exacerbated by the police who would announce on the radio that a ”nigger family” had moved on to the street and predicting ”There will be bloodshed tonight”.
In contrast to Davis’s middle-class household, the school available for black children was a just collection of shacks. The ”Negro schools” received the damaged and outdated leftover books and supplies from the all-white schools. As the children of educators and activists, the formal education of the Davis children was done in the home. The tensions of the Civil Rights Movement significantly affected Davis and her schoolmates. Davis:
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 meal-less 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 spent her senior year at a private high school in New York City, through a scholarship she received from the American Friends Southern Negro Student Committee, which placed black students from the South into integrated schools in the North. Hers was Elisabeth Irwin High School, otherwise known at the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, NYC’s first progressive school.
After high school, she went to Brandeis University, majoring in French. In her junior year, she studied in Paris. After returning to the USA, she studied philosophy with the noted left-wing intellectual, Herbert Marcuse, and under his direction, she went to Frankfort to study at the Institute for Social Research.
In 1967, Davis returned to the USA and pursued a doctoral degree at the University of California at San Diego with Marcuse as her adviser. 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. California Governor Ronald Reagan pressured the university to fire her. The regents ultimately succeeded in firing Davis because of her involvement in the Soledad Brothers trial. She was eventually rehired after protests by faculty and students.
The Soledad Brothers were three African-American inmates charged with the murder of a white prison guard at California’s Soledad Prison in January 1970: George Jackson (1941-1971), Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette. They were accused of murdering the guard in retaliation for the shooting deaths of three black prisoners during a prison fight in the exercise yard three days earlier.
While serving his sentence, Jackson published Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, a memoir/manifesto addressed to an African-American audience. The book was a bestseller.
The younger brother of Jackson attempted to free his brother by ”sticking up” the courthouse. Hostages were taken and the event ended with four deaths including Superior Court Judge Harold Haley and Jonathan Jackson, and two prisoners. Davis was the owner of the firearms used in this attempt.
Davis was charged with murder and conspiracy. She went into hiding and was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. In October of 1970, Davis was apprehended in NYC. She spent 18 months in prison. There was an international campaign to free her.
Davis continued to be active in the Communist Party after her release. Her visit to Cuba added to her assertion that socialism would provide a path to freedom for minorities and the working-class. She was the Vice-Presidential Candidate for the Communist Party in 1980 and 1984. In the early 1990s she left the Communist Party. She helped to found Critical Resistance, an organization formed to help end to mass incarceration in the USA.
…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.
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 (1971); Women, Race, And Class (1984); Abolition Democracy (2005); Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003); and Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974).
In 1997, she came out as a lesbian. Davis had been vocal about feminist concerns, particularly those of black women. She was critical of the Million Man March in 1995. She felt the exclusion of women contributed to male chauvinism within the black community. In response, the African-American Agenda, a coalition of Black Feminists, was created.
Davis is now Distinguished Professor Emerita in Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz. In 1994, she was appointed to the University of California Presidential Chair in Africa-American and Feminist Studies. Reagan once vowed that Davis would never again teach in the University of California System.
Rolling Stones‘ song Sweet Black Angel, from Exile On Main Street (1972), is dedicated to Davis. It is one of the band’s few overtly political releases. Bob Dylan‘s George Jackson (1971) is about the Soledad Brothers trial. John Lennon and Yoko Ono‘s Angela from Some Time In New York City (1972) is an ode to Davis and a small photo of her is on the album’s cover.
Jada Pinkett-Smith produced the documentary Free Angela Davis And All Political Prisoners (2013).
Still active, Davis implores the new generation to
…consider the possibility of a future without prisons.