Angela Davis - Influential Black Leaders
Angela Yvonne Davis (born January 26, 1944) is an American political activist, philosopher, academic, and author. She is a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Ideologically a Marxist, Davis was a longtime member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and is a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). She is the author of over ten books on class, feminism, race, and the U.S. prison system.
Born to an African American family in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis studied French at Brandeis University and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in West Germany. Studying under the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a prominent figure in the Frankfurt School, Davis became increasingly engaged in far-left politics. Returning to the United States, she studied at the University of California, San Diego before moving to East Germany, where she completed a doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin. After returning to the United States, she joined the Communist Party and became involved in numerous causes, including the second-wave feminist movement, the Black Panther Party, and the campaign against the Vietnam War. In 1969 she was hired as an acting assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). UCLA's governing Board of Regents soon fired her due to her Communist Party membership; after a court ruled this illegal, the university fired her again, this time for her use of inflammatory language.
In 1970, guns belonging to Davis were used in an armed takeover of a courtroom in Marin County, California, in which four people were killed. Prosecuted for three capital felonies, including conspiracy to murder, and held in jail for over a year, she was ultimately acquitted of all charges in 1972. She visited Eastern Bloc countries in the 1970s and during the 1980s was twice the Communist Party's candidate for Vice President; at this time, she also held the position of professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University. Much of her work focused on the abolition of prisons and in 1997 she co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison–industrial complex. In 1991, amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she helped start the CCDS, a platform initially operating inside the CPUSA seeking to reorient the party's ideology away from orthodox communism. When the majority of party members voted against CCDS proposals, along with CCDS colleagues, she left the CPUSA. Also in 1991, she joined the Feminist Studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she became department director before retiring in 2008. Since then she has continued to write and remained active in movements such as Occupy and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
Davis has received various awards, including the Soviet Union's Lenin Peace Prize. Accused of supporting political violence, she has sustained criticism from the highest levels of the US government. She has also been criticized for supporting the Soviet Union and its satellites. Davis has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 2020 she was listed as the 1971 "Woman of the Year" in Time magazine's "100 Women of the Year" edition, which covered the 100 years that began with women's suffrage in 1920.
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her family lived in the "Dynamite Hill" neighborhood, which was marked in the 1950s by the bombings of houses in an attempt to intimidate and drive out middle-class blacks who had moved there. Davis occasionally spent time on her uncle's farm and with friends in New York City. She had two brothers, Ben and Reginald, and a sister, Fania. Ben played defensive back for the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Davis attended Carrie A. Tuggle School, a segregated black elementary school, and later, Parker Annex, a middle-school branch of Parker High School in Birmingham. During this time, Davis's mother, Sallye Bell Davis, was a national officer and leading organizer of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization influenced by the Communist Party aimed at building alliances among African Americans in the South. Davis grew up surrounded by communist organizers and thinkers, who significantly influenced her intellectual development.
Davis was involved in her church youth group as a child, and attended Sunday school regularly. She attributes much of her political involvement to her involvement with the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. She also participated in the Girl Scouts 1959 national roundup in Colorado. As a Girl Scout, she marched and picketed to protest racial segregation in Birmingham.
By her junior year of high school, Davis had been accepted by an American Friends Service Committee (Quaker) program that placed black students from the South in integrated schools in the North. She chose Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village. There she was recruited by a Communist youth group, Advance.
Professor at University of California, Los Angeles, 1969–70
Davis (center, without glasses) enters Royce Hall at UCLA in October 1969 to give her first lecture.
Beginning in 1969, Davis was an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Although both Princeton and Swarthmore had tried to recruit her, she opted for UCLA because of its urban location. At that time she was known as a radical feminist and activist, a member of the Communist Party USA, and an affiliate of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
In 1949, the University of California initiated a policy against hiring Communists. At their September 19, 1969, meeting, the Board of Regents fired Davis from her $10,000-a-year post because of her membership in the Communist Party, urged on by California Governor Ronald Reagan. Judge Jerry Pacht ruled the Regents could not fire Davis solely because of her affiliation with the Communist Party, and she resumed her post. The Regents fired Davis again on June 20, 1970, for the "inflammatory language" she had used in four different speeches. The report stated, "We deem particularly offensive 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'". The American Association of University Professors censured the Board for this action.
On August 7, 1970, heavily armed 17-year-old African-American high-school student Jonathan Jackson, whose brother was George Jackson, one of the three Soledad Brothers, gained control of a courtroom in Marin County, California. He 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 and the three black men were killed in the melee; one of the jurors and the prosecutor were injured. Although the judge was shot in the head with a blast from a shotgun, he also suffered a chest wound from a bullet that may have been fired from outside the van. Evidence during the trial showed that either could have been fatal. Davis had purchased several of the firearms Jackson used in the attack, including the shotgun used to shoot Haley, which she bought at a San Francisco pawn shop two days before the incident. She was also found to have been corresponding with one of the inmates involved.
Protest against the Vietnam War, 1970
As 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", Davis was charged with "aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley", and Marin County Superior Court Judge Peter Allen Smith issued a warrant for her arrest. Hours after the judge issued the warrant on August 14, 1970, a massive attempt to find and arrest Davis began. On August 18, four days after the warrant was issued, the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover listed Davis on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List; she was the third woman and the 309th person to be listed.
Soon after, Davis became a fugitive and fled California. According to her autobiography, during this time she hid in friends' homes and moved at night. On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found her at a 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, Davis appeared at 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, Davis was initially segregated from other prisoners, in solitary confinement. With the help of her legal team, she obtained a federal court order to get out of the segregated area.
Across the nation, thousands of people began organizing a movement to gain her release. 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 free Davis from prison. John Lennon and Yoko Ono contributed to this campaign with the song "Angela". In 1972, after a 16-month incarceration, the state allowed her release on bail from county jail. On February 23, 1972, Rodger McAfee, a dairy farmer from Fresno, California, paid her $100,000 bail with the help of Steve Sparacino, a wealthy business owner. The United Presbyterian Church paid some of her legal defense expenses.
A defense motion for a change of venue was granted, and the trial was moved to Santa Clara County. On June 4, 1972, after 13 hours of deliberations, the all-white jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The fact that she owned the guns used in the crime was judged insufficient to establish her role in the plot. She was represented by Leo Branton Jr., who hired psychologists to help the defense determine who in the jury pool might favor their arguments, a technique that has since become more common. He hired experts to discredit the reliability of eyewitness accounts.
Other activities in the 1970s
After her acquittal, Davis went on an international speaking tour in 1972 and the tour included Cuba, where she had previously been received by Fidel Castro in 1969 as a member of a Communist Party delegation. Robert F. Williams, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael had also visited Cuba, and Assata Shakur later moved there after escaping from a U.S. prison. Her reception by Afro-Cubans at a mass rally was so enthusiastic that she was reportedly barely able to speak. Davis perceived Cuba as a racism-free country, which led her to believe that "only under socialism could the fight against racism be successfully executed." When she returned to the United States, her socialist leanings increasingly influenced her understanding of race struggles. In 1974, she attended the Second Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women.
In 1971 the CIA estimated that five percent of Soviet propaganda efforts were directed towards the Angela Davis campaign. In August 1972, Davis visited the USSR at the invitation of the Central Committee, and received an honorary doctorate from Moscow State University.
On May 1, 1979, she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union. She visited Moscow later that month to accept the prize, where she praised "the glorious name" of Lenin and the "great October Revolution".
The East German government organized an extensive campaign on behalf of Davis. In September 1972, Davis visited East Germany, where she met Erich Honecker, received an honorary degree from the University of Leipzig and the Star of People's Friendship from Walter Ulbricht. On September 11 in East Berlin she delivered a speech, "Not Only My Victory", praising the GDR and USSR and denouncing American racism, and visited the Berlin Wall, where she laid flowers at the Reinhold Huhn Memorial (Huhn was an East German guard who was killed by a man who was trying to escape with his family across the border in 1962). Davis said "We mourn the deaths of the border guards who sacrificed their lives for the protection of their socialist homeland" and "When we return to the USA, we shall undertake to tell our people the truth about the true function of this border."In 1973 she returned to East Berlin leading the U.S. delegation to the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students.
Jonestown and Peoples Temple
In the mid-1970s, Jim Jones, who developed the cult Peoples Temple, initiated friendships with progressive leaders in the San Francisco area including Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement AIM and Davis. On September 10, 1977, 14 months before the Temple's mass murder-suicide, Davis spoke via amateur radio telephone "patch" to members of his Peoples Temple living in Jonestown in Guyana. In her statement during the "Six Day Siege", she expressed support for the People's Temple anti-racism efforts and told members there was a conspiracy against them. She said, "When you are attacked, it is because of your progressive stand, and we feel that it is directly an attack against us as well."
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and political prisoners in Socialist countries
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 having failed to support prisoners in various socialist countries around the world, given her strong opposition to the US prison system. He claimed a group of Czech prisoners had appealed to Davis for support, which Solzhenitsyn said she had declined. In fact, Jiří Pelikán wrote an open letter asking her to support Czech prisoners, which Davis refused, believing that the Czech prisoners were undermining the Husák government and that Pelikán, in exile in Italy, was attacking his own country. Regarding Czech prisoners being "persecuted by the state", Solzhenitsyn claimed Davis responded, "They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison." Alan Dershowitz, who also asked Davis for support for imprisoned refuseniks in the USSR, said that a "secretary" of Davis told him "they are all Zionist fascists and opponents of socialism."