Angela Davis

Angela Davis

Angela Davis, the daughter of an automobile mechanic and a school teacher, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on 26th January, 1944. The area where the family lived became known as Dynamite Hill because of the large number of African American homes bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Her mother was a civil rights campaigner and had been active in the NAACP before the organization was outlawed in Birmingham.

Davis attended segregated schools in Birmingham before moving to New York with her mother who had decided to study for a M.A. at New York University. Davis attended a progressive school in Greenwich Village where several of the teachers had been blacklisted during the McCarthy Era.

In 1961 Davis went to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts to study French. Her course included a year at the Sorbonne in Paris. Soon after arriving back in the United States she was reminded of the civil rights struggle that was taking place in Birmingham when four girls that she knew were killed in the Baptist Church Bombing in September, 1963.

After graduating from Brandeis University she spent two years at the faculty of philosophy at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt, West Germany before studying under Herbert Marcuse at the University of California. Davis was greatly influenced by Marcuse, especially his idea that it was the duty of the individual to rebel against the system.

In 1967 Davis joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party. The following year she became involved with the American Communist Party.

Davis began working as a lecturer of philosophy at the University of California in Los Angeles. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1970 informed her employers, the California Board of Regents, that Davis was a member of the American Communist Party, they terminated her contract.

Davis was active in the campaign to improve prison conditions. She became particularly interested in the case of George Jackson and W. L. Nolen, two African Americans who had established a chapter of the Black Panthers in California's Soledad Prison. While in California's Soledad Prison Jackson and W. L. Nolen, established a chapter of the Black Panthers. On 13th January 1970, Nolan and two other black prisoners was killed by a prison guard. A few days later the Monterey County Grand Jury ruled that the guard had committed "justifiable homicide."

When a guard was later found murdered, Jackson and two other prisoners, John Cluchette and Fleeta Drumgo, were indicted for his murder. It was claimed that Jackson had sought revenge for the killing of his friend, W. L. Nolan.

On 7th August, 1970, George Jackson's seventeen year old brother, Jonathan, burst into a Marin County courtroom with a machine-gun and after taking Judge Harold Haley as a hostage, demanded that George Jackson, John Cluchette and Fleeta Drumgo, be released from prison. Jonathan Jackson was shot and killed while he was driving away from the courthouse.

Over the next few months Jackson published two books, Letters from Prison and Soledad Brother. On 21st August, 1971, George Jackson was gunned down in the prison yard at San Quentin. He was carrying a 9mm automatic pistol and officials argued he was trying to escape from prison. It was also claimed that the gun had been smuggled into the prison by Davis.

Davis went on the run and the Federal Bureau of Investigation named her as one of its "most wanted criminals". She was arrested two months later in a New York motel but at her trial she was acquitted of all charges. However, because of her militant activities, Ronald Reagan, the Governor of California, urged that Davis should never be allowed to teach in any of the state-supported universities.

Davis worked as a lecturer of African American studies at Claremont College (1975-77) before becoming a lecturer in women's and ethnic studies at San Francisco State University. In 1979 Davis visited the Soviet Union where she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and made a honorary professor at Moscow State University. In 1980 and 1984 Davis was the Communist Party's vice-presidential candidate.

Books published by Davis include If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (1971), Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974), Women, Race and Class (1981) and Women, Culture, and Politics (1989).

Primary Sources

(1) Angela Davis, wrote about visiting George Jackson's mother in her autobiography published in 1974.

When she began to talk about George, a throbbing silence came over the hall. "They took George away from us when he was only eighteen. That was ten years ago." In a voice trembling with emotion, she went on to describe the incident which had robbed him of the little freedom he possessed as a young boy struggling to become a man. He was in a car when its owner - a casual acquaintance of his - had taken seventy dollars from a service station. Mrs. Jackson insisted that he had been totally oblivious of his friend's designs. Nevertheless, thanks to an inept, insensitive public defender, thanks to a system which had long ago stacked the cards against young Black defendants like George, he was pronounced guilty of robbery. The matter of his sentencing was routinely handed over to the Youth Authority.

With angry astonishment I listened to Mrs. Jackson describe the sentence her son had received: One year to life in prison. One to life. And George had already done ten times the minimum. I was paralyzed by the thought of the absolute irreversibility of his last decade. And I was afraid to let my imagination trace out the formidable reality of those ten years in prison.

(2) Angela Davis, interviewed in Spring 1997.

Q: One of the things that struck me as I've gone back and revisited this history - is that Martin Luther King starts this movement for economic justice just before he's assassinated. The Black Panther party is just getting off the ground here in California and in a way there seems like there was a march towards merging these issues of class and race in the late 60s that somehow got derailed.

A: Yes, I think it's really important to acknowledge that Dr. King, precisely at the moment of his assassination, was re-conceptualizing the civil rights movement and moving toward a sort of coalitional relationship with the trade union movement. It's I think quite significant that he was in Memphis to participate in a demonstration by sanitation workers who had gone out on strike. Now, if we look at the way in which the labor movement itself has evolved over the last couple of decades, we see increasing numbers of black people who are in the leadership of the labor movement and this is true today.

Q: At least from my vantage point, back then it seemed we were attacking structures and institutions and after a certain point it began to feel like it wasn't possible. Our leaders were assassinated, one of the things I was reading today was - 28 Panthers were killed by the police but 300 Black Panthers were killed by other Panthers just within - internecine warfare. It just began to seem like we were in an impossible task given what we were facing. How do we reawaken that sense that one person can really make that difference again now? And kids these days are kind of going back to Tupac and Snoop Doggy Dogg as examples of people that stand for something.

A: It's true that it's within the realm of cultural politics that young people tend to work through political issues, which I think is good, although it's not going to solve the problems. I guess I would say first of all that we tend to go back to the 60s and we tend to see these struggles and these goals in a relatively static way. The fact is important gains were made and those gains are still visible today. For example, the number of African-American studies programs that are on college campuses today. Those institutional changes are inconceivable outside of that development within - related to the Black Panther party and other organizations. Young people began to take those struggles onto the campuses.