“Revolutionaries must be realists”
Born Angela Yvonne Davis on January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Davis is an African American political activist, scholar, and author. Davis emerged as a nationally prominent activist and radical in the 1960s, as a leader of the Communist Party USA and Black Panther Party, as well as through her association with the Civil Rights Movement. Prisoner rights have since been among her continuing interests. She is the founder of Critical Resistance, an organization which works to abolish the prison-industrial complex. She is a retired professor with the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is the former director of the university's Feminist Studies department. Her research interests are in feminism, African American studies, critical theory, Marxism, popular music and social consciousness, and the philosophy and history of punishment and prisons.
Angela Davis, Time Magazine, Most Influential Women
Her membership in the Communist Party led to Ronald Reagan's request in 1969 to have her barred from teaching at any university in the State of California. She was tried and acquitted of suspected involvement in the Soledad brothers' August 1970 abduction and murder of Judge Harold Haley in Marin County, California. She was twice a candidate for Vice President on the Communist Party USA ticket during the 1980s.
Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, Frank Davis, was a graduate of St. Augustine's College, a historically black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, and was briefly a high school history teacher. Davis later owned and operated a service station in the black section of Birmingham. Her mother, Sallye Davis, a graduate of Miles College in Birmingham, was an elementary school teacher.
The family lived in the Dynamite Hill neighborhood, which was marked by racial conflict. Davis was occasionally able to spend time on her uncle's farm and with friends in New York City. Her brother, Ben Davis, played defensive back for the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Davis also has another brother, Reginald Davis, and sister, Fania Davis Jordan.
As a child, Davis attended Carrie A. Tuggle School, a black elementary school. Later she attended Parker Annex, a middle-school branch of Parker High School in Birmingham. During this time Davis’ mother was a national officer and leading organizer of the Southern Negro Congress, an organization heavily influenced by the Communist Party. Consequently Davis grew up surrounded by communist organizers and thinkers who significantly influenced her intellectual development growing up. By her junior year, she had applied to and was accepted at an American Friends Service Committee program that placed black students from the South in integrated schools in the North. She chose Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village in New York City. There she was introduced to socialism and communism and was recruited by a Communist youth group, Advance. She also met children of some of the leaders of the Communist Party USA, including her lifelong friend, Bettina Aptheker.
Davis was awarded a scholarship to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she was one of three black students in her freshman class. She initially felt alienated by the isolation of the campus (at that time she was interested in Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre), but she soon made friends with foreign students. She encountered the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse at a rally during the Cuban Missile Crisis and then became his student. In a television interview, she said "Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary." She worked part time to earn enough money to travel to France and Switzerland before she went on to attend the eighth World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki, Finland. She returned home in 1963 to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interview about her attendance at the Communist-sponsored festival.
During her second year at Brandeis, she decided to major in French and continued her intensive study of Sartre. Davis was accepted by the Hamilton College Junior Year in France Program and she wrote in her autobiography that she managed to talk Brandeis into extending financial support via her scholarship. In Paris, she and other students lived with a French family. It was there that she received news of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, committed by the members of the Ku Klux Klan, an occasion that deeply affected her, because, she as wrote, she was personally acquainted with the young victims.
Nearing completion of her degree in French, Davis realized her major interest was in philosophy. She became particularly interested in the ideas of Herbert Marcuse and on her return to Brandeis she sat in on his course. Marcuse, she wrote, turned out to be approachable and helpful. Davis then made plans to attend the University of Frankfurt for graduate work in philosophy. In 1965 she graduated magna cum laude, a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
University of Frankfurt
In Germany, with a stipend of just $100 a month, she first lived with a German family. Later, she moved with a group of students into a loft in an old factory. After visiting East Berlin during the annual May Day celebration, she felt that the East German government was dealing better with the residual effects of fascism than were the West Germans. Many of her roommates were active in the radical Socialist German Student Union (SDS), and Davis participated in SDS actions, but events unfolding in the United States — the formation of the Black Panther Party and transformation of SNCC, for example — impelled her to return to the US.
Marcuse, in the meantime, had moved to the University of California, San Diego, and Davis followed him there after her two years in Frankfurt. Returning to the United States, Davis stopped in London to attend a conference on “The Dialectics of Liberation”. The black contingent at the conference included American Stokely Carmichael and British Michael X. Although moved by Carmichael's fiery rhetoric, she was disappointed by her colleagues' black nationalist sentiments and their rejection of communism as a "white man's thing." She held the view that any nationalism was a barrier to grappling with the underlying issue which was capitalist domination of working people of all races. Davis earned her master's degree from the San Diego campus and her doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University in East Berlin.
Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale
University of California, Los Angeles
Davis was an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), beginning in 1969. Though she had been pursued with positions at Princeton and Swarthmore, she chose UCLA for its urban location. At that time, she also was known as a radical feminist and activist, a member of the Communist Party USA, and an associate of the Black Panther Party.
The Board of Regents of the University of California, urged by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, fired her from her $10,000 a year post in 1969 because of her membership in the Communist Party. Black students and several professors, however, claimed that they fired her because of her race. The Board of Regents was censured by the American Association of University Professors for their failure to reappoint Davis after her teaching contract expired. On October 20 when California judge, Perry Pacht, ruled that the Regents could not fire Davis because of her affiliation with the Communist Party, Davis resumed her post at the University. The Regents, unhappy with the decision, continued to search for ways to release Davis from her position at UCLA. They finally accomplished this on June 20, 1970 when they fired Davis on account of the “inflammatory language” she had used on four different speeches. “We deem particularly offensive,” the report said, “such utterances as her statement that the regents ‘killed, brutalized (and) murdered the People’s Park demonstrators, and her repeated characterizations of the police as ‘pigs.”
Arrest and trial
On August 7, 1970 Jonathan Jackson, a heavily armed, 17-year-old African American high school student, gained control over a courtroom in Marin County, California. Once in the courtroom, Jackson armed the black defendants and took Judge Harold Haley, the prosecutor, and three female jurors as hostages. As Jackson transported the hostages and two black convicts away from the courtroom, the police began shooting at the vehicle. The judge, one of the jurors, the prosecutor, and the three black men were killed in the melee.
Angela Davis made the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted List in 1970 before she was arrested, tried, and found innocent
Davis had purchased the firearms used in the attack, including the shotgun used to kill Haley, which had been purchased two days prior and sawed off. She had also written numerous letters found in the prison cell of one of the murderers. Since California considers “all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense… principals in any crime so committed,” San Marin County Superior Judge Peter Allen Smith charged Davis with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley” and issued a warrant for her arrest. Hours after the judge issued the warrant on August 14, 1970 a massive attempt to arrest Angela Davis began. On August 18, 1970, four days after the initial warrant was issued, the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made Angela Davis the third woman and the 309th person to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List.
Soon after, Davis became a fugitive and fled California. According to her autobiography, during this time she hid in friends’ homes and moved from place to place at night. On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found her at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City. President Richard M. Nixon congratulated the FBI on its “capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis." On January 5, 1971, after several months in jail, Angela Davis appeared at the Marin County Superior Court and declared her innocence before the court and nation: "I now declare publicly before the court, before the people of this country that I am innocent of all charges which have been leveled against me by the state of California." John Abt, general counsel of the Communist Party USA, was one of the first attorneys to represent Davis for her alleged involvement in the shootings. While being held in the Women's Detention Center there, she was initially segregated from the general population, but with the help of her legal team soon obtained a federal court order to get out of the segregated area.
Across the nation, the thousands of people who agreed with her declaration began organizing a liberation movement. In New York City, black writers formed a committee called the Black People in Defense of Angela Davis. By February 1971 more than 200 local committees in the United States, and 67 in foreign countries worked to liberate Angela Davis from prison. Thanks, in part, to this support, in 1972 the state released her from prison.
Angela Davis Acquitted Of Charges In 'Soledad Brothers' Case
After spending 18 months behind bars, Davis was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury in 1972. On February 23, 1972, Rodger McAfee, a dairy farmer from Caruthers, California with the help of Steve Sparacino, a wealthy business owner, paid her $100,000 bail. Portions of her legal defense expenses were paid for by the Presbyterian Church (UPCNA).
The fact that she owned the guns used in the crime was judged not sufficient to establish her responsibility for the plot. Her experience as a prisoner in the US played a key role in convincing her to fight against the “prison industrial complex” that she claims exists in the US. John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded their song "Angela" on their 1972 album Some Time in New York City in support. The Jazz musician Todd Cochran, also known as Bayete, recorded his song "Free Angela” (Thoughts...and all I've got to say) that same year. The Rolling Stones recorded the song "Sweet Black Angel" on their 1972 album Exile on Main Street.
After her release, Davis visited Cuba following her fellow activists Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and Assata Shakur. Her reception by Afro-Cubans at a mass rally was so enthusiastic that she was reportedly barely able to speak.
Angela Davis and Huey Newton
During this visit she also became convinced that “only under socialism could the fight against racism be successfully executed.” During her stay in Cuba, Davis witnessed what she perceived to be a racism-free country which led her to believe that blacks could only achieve racial equality in a socialist society. When she returned to the United States, her socialist leanings increasingly influenced the ways she looked at race struggles within the US.
Criticism by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
In a New York City speech on July 9, 1975, Russian dissident and Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told an AFL-CIO meeting that Davis was derelict in supporting prisoners in various socialist countries around the world, given her stark opposition to the U.S. prison system. In particular, Solzhenitsyn claimed that a group of Czech prisoners appealed to Davis for support, which he said she refused to offer.
Specifically Solzhenitsyn stated, "Little children in school were told to sign petitions in defense of Angela Davis. Although she didn’t have too difficult a time in this country’s jails, she came to recuperate in Soviet resorts. Some Soviet dissidents– but more important, a group of Czech dissidents–addressed an appeal to her: `Comrade Davis, you were in prison. You know how unpleasant it is to sit in prison, especially when you consider yourself innocent. You have such great authority now. Could you help our Czech prisoners? Could you stand up for those people in Czechoslovakia who are being persecuted by the state?’ Angela Davis answered: `They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.’ That is the face of Communism. That is the heart of Communism for you.” In a speech at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, Davis denied Solzhenitsyn's claim.
In 1980 and 1984, Angela Davis ran for Vice-President along with the veteran party leader of the Communist Party, Gus Hall. However, given that the Communist Party lacked support within the US, Davis urged radicals to amass support for the Democratic Party. “Revolutionaries must be realists”, said Davis in a telephone interview from San Francisco where she was campaigning. During both of the campaigns she was Professor of Ethnic Studies at the San Francisco State University. In 1979 she was also awarded with the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union for her civil rights activism. She visited Moscow in July of that year to collect the prize.
Davis has continued a career of activism, and has written several books. A principal focus of her current activism is the state of prisons within the United States. She considers herself an abolitionist, not a 'prison reformer', and has referred to the United States prison system as the "Prison-Industrial Complex". Davis suggested focusing social efforts on education and building 'engaged communities' to solve various social problems now handled through state punishment. Hence, she became one of the primary founders of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to building a movement to abolish the prison system.
In recent work, Angela Davis argues that the prison system in the United States more closely resembles a new form of slavery than a criminal justice system. According to Davis, between the late 19th century and the mid-20th century the number of prisons in the US sharply increased while crime rates continued to rise. During this time, the African American population also became disproportionally represented in prisons. "What is effective or just about this 'justice' system?" she urged people to question. To encourage people to critically think about the criminal justice system and its racist history, Davis has also spent years lecturing in schools, parks, and other public places to the American public.
She has lectured at San Francisco State University, Stanford University, Bryn Mawr College, Brown University, Syracuse University, and other schools. She states that in her teaching, which is mostly at the graduate level, she concentrates more on posing questions that encourage development of critical thinking than on imparting knowledge. In 1997, she declared herself to be a lesbian in Out magazine.
As early as 1969 Davis began publicly speaking, voicing her opposition to the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and the prison industrial complex, and her support of gay rights and other social justice movements. In 1969 she blamed imperialism for the troubles suffered by oppressed populations. Davis declared “We are facing a common enemy and that enemy is Yankee Imperialism, which is killing us both here and abroad. Now I think anyone who would try to separate those struggles, anyone who would say that in order to consolidate an anti-war movement, we have to leave all of these other outlying issues out of the picture, is playing right into the hands of the enemy.”
In 2001 she publicly spoke against the war on terror, the Prison Industrial Complex, and the broken immigration system and told people that if they wanted to solve social justice issues they had to “hone their critical skills, develop them and implement them." Later, after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she declared, the “horrendous situation in New Orleans,” is due to the structures of racism, capitalism, and imperialism with which our leaders run this country.
Davis spoke out against the 1995 Million Man March, arguing that the exclusion of women from this event necessarily promoted male chauvinism and that the organizers, including Louis Farrakhan, preferred women to take subordinate roles in society. Together with Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, she formed the African American Agenda 2000, an alliance of Black feminists.
Davis is no longer a member of the Communist Party, leaving it to help found the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, which broke from the Communist Party USA because of the latter's support of the Soviet coup attempt of 1991. She remains on the Advisory Board of the Committees.
Davis at the University of Alberta, March 28, 2006.
Davis continues to speak out against the death penalty. In 2003, she lectured at Agnes Scott College, a liberal arts women's college in Atlanta, on prison reform, minority issues, and the ills of the criminal justice system. At the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz), she participated in a 2004 panel concerning Kevin Cooper. She also spoke in defense of Stanley "Tookie" Williams on another panel in 2005, and 2009. As of February 2007, Davis was teaching in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In addition to being the commencement speaker at Grinnell College in 2007, in October of that year, Davis was the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Practical Activism Conference at UC Santa Cruz.
On February 8, 2008, Davis spoke on the campus of Howard University at the invitation of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. On February 24, 2008, she was featured as the closing keynote speaker for the 2008 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference. On April 14, 2008, she spoke at the College of Charleston as a guest of the Women's and Gender Studies Program. On January 23, 2009, she was the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Commemorative Celebration on the campus of Louisiana State University.
On April 16, 2009, she was the keynote speaker at the University of Virginia Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies symposium on “The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequity, and Justice”. On January 20, 2010, Davis was the keynote speaker in San Antonio, Texas, at Trinity University's MLK Day Celebration held in Laurie Auditorium. On January 21, 2011, Davis was the keynote speaker in Salem, OR at Willamette University's MLK Week Celebration held in Smith Auditorium where she declared that her biggest goal for the coming years is to shut down prisons. During her remarks, she also noted that while she supports some of President Barack Obama's positions, she feels he is too conservative. On January 27, 2011, Davis was the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration speaker at Georgia Southern University's Performing Arts Center (PAC) in Statesboro, Georgia. On June 10, 2011, Davis delivered the Graduation Address at the Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington. On May 12, 2012, Davis delivered a Commencement Address at Pitzer College, in Claremont. On 31 October 2011, Davis spoke at the Philadelphia and Washington Square Occupy Wall Street assemblies where, due to restrictions on electronic amplification, her words were human microphoned.
Davis was a professor in the History of Consciousness and the Feminist Studies Departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 1991 to 2008 and is now Distinguished Professor Emerita. Davis was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Syracuse University in Spring 1992 and October 2010. She was hosted by the Women's and Gender Studies Department and the Department of African American studies.
Real Revolutionary Angela Davis, brought to you by Paris-based American artist Ealy Mays
REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS
- Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire, Seven Stories Press (October 1, 2005),ISBN 1-58322-695-8.
- Are Prisons Obsolete?, Open Media, (April 2003),ISBN 1-58322-581-1
- Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Vintage Books, (January 26, 1999),ISBN 0-679-77126-3
- Women, Culture & Politics, Vintage, (February 19, 1990),ISBN 0-679-72487-7.
- The Angela Y. Davis Reader, (Joy James, Ed.), Wiley-Blackwell (December 11, 1998),ISBN 0-631-20361-3.
- Women, Race, & Class, (February 12, 1983)
- Angela Davis: An Autobiography, Random House, (September 1974),ISBN 0-394-48978-0
- If They Come in the Morning: voices of Resistance (New York: Third Press, 1971)
- 1970's-Joan Little: The Dialectics of Rape(New York: Lang Communications, 1975)
- The Meaning of Freedom(City Lights, 2012)
- See also: Marin County courthouse incident
Interviews and appearances in audiovisual materials
- Davis, Angela Y. An Interview with Angela Davis. Cassette. Radio Free People, New York, 1971.
- Myerson, M. "Angela Davis in Prison." Ramparts Magazine March 1971: 20-21.
- Seigner, Art. Angela Davis: Soul and Soledad. Phonodisc. Flying Dutchman, New York, 1971.
- Interview with Angela Davis in San Francisco on June 1970
- Walker, Joe. Angela Davis Speaks. Phonodisc. Folkways Records, New York, 1971.
- "Angela Davis Talks about her Future and her Freedom." Jet July 27, 1972: 54- 57.
- Davis, Angela Y. I am a Black Revolutionary Woman (1971). Phonodisc. Folkways, New York, 1977
- Phillips, Esther. Angela Davis Interviews Esther Phillips. Cassette. Pacifica Tape Library, Los Angeles, 1977.
- Cudjoe, Selwyn. In Conversation with Angela Davis. Videocassette. ETV Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1985. 21 minute interview with Angela Davis.
- Davis, Angela Y. "Women on the Move: Travel Themes in Ma Rainey's Blues" in Borders/diasporas. Sound Recording. University of California, Santa Cruz: Center for Cultural Studies, Santa Cruz, 1992.
- Davis, Angela Y. The Prison Industrial Complex and its Impact on Communities of Color. Videocassette. University of Wisconsin - Madison, Madison, WI, 2000.
- Barsamian, D. "Angela Davis: African American Activist on Prison-Industrial Complex." Progressive 65.2 (2001): 33-38.
- September 11 America: an Interview with Angela Davis." Policing the National Body: Sex, Race, and Criminalization”. Cambridge, Ma.: South End Press, 2002.
- The National United Committee to Free Angela Davis is at the Main Library at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California (A collection of thousands of letters received by the Committee and Davis from people in the US and other countries.)
- The complete transcript of her trial, including all appeals and legal memorandum, have been preserved in the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Library in Berkeley, California.
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