Davis, Angela Yvonne

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Davis, Angela Yvonne

Angela Yvonne Davis, political activist, author, professor, and Communist party member, was an international symbol of the black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 26, 1944, the eldest of four children. Her family was relatively well-off among the blacks in the city. Her father and mother were teachers in the Birmingham school system, and her father later purchased and operated a service station.

When Davis was four years old, the family moved out of the Birmingham projects and bought a large wooden house in a nearby neighborhood. Other black families soon followed. Incensed white neighbors drew a dividing line between the white and black sections and began trying to drive the black families out by bombing their homes. The area soon was nicknamed Dynamite Hill. Davis's mother had in college been involved in antiracism movements that had brought her into contact with sympathetic whites. She and Davis's father tried to teach their daughter that this hostility between blacks and whites was not preordained.

All of Birmingham was segregated during Davis's childhood. She attended blacks-only schools and theaters and was relegated to the back of city buses and the back doors of shops, which rankled her. On one occasion, as teenagers, Davis and her sister Fania entered a Birmingham shoe store and pretended to be non-English-speaking French visitors. After receiving deferential treatment by the salesmen and other customers, Davis announced in English that black people only had to pretend to be from another country to be treated like dignitaries.

Davis later wrote that although the black schools she attended were much poorer than the white schools in Birmingham, her studies of black historical and contemporary figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman helped her develop a strong positive identification with black history.

"We have accumulated a wealth of historical experience which confirms our belief that the scales of justice are out of balance."
—Angela Davis

The Civil Rights Movement was beginning to touch Birmingham at the time Davis entered high school. Her parents were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In her junior year of high school, Davis decided to leave what she considered to be the provincialism of Birmingham. She applied for an early entrance program at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, and an experimental program developed by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) through which black students from the South could attend integrated high schools in the North. Although Davis was admitted to Fisk—which she viewed as a stepping-stone to medical school, where she could pursue a childhood dream of becoming a pediatrician—she chose the AFSC program.

At age 15, she boarded a train for New York City. There, she lived with a white family headed by an Episcopalian minister who had been forced from his church after speaking out against Senator joseph r. mccarthy's anti-Communist witch-hunts. Davis attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, located on the edge of Greenwich Village. The school originally had been a public school experiment in progressive education; when funding was cut off, the teachers turned it into a private school. Here, Davis learned about Socialism and avidly studied the Communist Manifesto. She also joined a Marxist-Leninist youth organization called Advance, which had ties to the Communist Party.

In September 1961, Davis entered Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, on a full scholarship. One of only three black first-year students, she felt alienated and alone. The following summer, eager to meet revolutionary young people from other countries, Davis attended a gathering of communist youth from around the world in Helsinki, Finland. Here, she was particularly struck by the cultural presentations put on by the Cuban delegation. She also found that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had stationed agents and informers throughout the festival. Upon her return to the United States, Davis was met by an investigator from the Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI), who questioned her about her participation in a communist event.

Meeting people from around the world convinced Davis of the importance of tearing down cultural barriers like language, and she decided to major in French at Brandeis. She was accepted in the Hamilton College Junior Year in France Program, and studied contemporary French literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris. Upon her return to Brandeis, Davis, who had always had an interest in philosophy, studied with the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The following year, she received a scholarship to study philosophy in Frankfurt, Germany, where she focused on the works of the Germans Immanuel Kant, georg hegel, and karl marx.

During the two years Davis spent in Germany, the black liberation and black power movements were emerging in the United States. The black panther party for self-defense had been formed in Oakland to protect the black community from police brutality. In the summer of 1967, Davis decided to return home to join these movements.

Back in Los Angeles, Davis worked with various academic and community organizations to build a coalition to address issues of concern to the African American community. Among these groups was the Black Panther Political Party (unrelated to huey newton and Bobby Seale's Black Panther Party for Self-Defense). During this period, Davis was heavily criticized by black male activists for doing what they considered to be men's work. Women should not assume leadership roles, they claimed, but should educate children and should support men so that they could direct the struggle for black liberation. Davis was to encounter this attitude in many of her political activities.

By 1968, Davis had decided to join a collective organization in order to achieve her goal of organizing people for political action. She first considered joining the Communist Party. But because she related more to Marxist groups, she decided instead to join the Black Panther Political Party, which later became the Los Angeles branch of the student nonviolent coordinating committee (SNCC). SNCC was soon embroiled in internal disputes. After her longtime friend Franklin Kenard was expelled from his leadership position in the group because of his Communist Party membership, Davis resigned from the organization. In July 1968, she joined the Che-Lumumba Club, the black cell of the Communist Party in Los Angeles.

In 1969, Davis was hired as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles. In July 1969, Davis joined a delegation of Communist Party members who had been invited to spend a month in Cuba. There, she worked in coffee and sugarcane fields, and visited schools, hospitals, and historical sites. Davis remarked that everywhere she went in Cuba, she was immensely impressed with the gains that had been made against racism. She saw blacks in leadership positions throughout the country, and she concluded that only under a socialist system such as that established by Cuban leader Fidel Castro could the fight against racism have been so successful.

When she returned to the United States, she discovered that several newspaper articles had been published detailing her membership in the Communist Party and accusing her of activities such as gunrunning for the Black Panther party. Governor ronald reagan, of California, invoked a regulation in the handbook of the regents of the University of California that prohibited the hiring of communists. Davis responded by affirming her membership in the Communist Party, and she began to receive hate mail and threatening phone calls. After she obtained an Injunction prohibiting the regents from firing her, the threats multiplied. Soon, she was receiving so many bomb threats that the campus police stopped checking her car for explosives, forcing her to learn the procedure for doing so herself. By the end of the year, the courts had ruled that the regulation prohibiting the hiring of communists was unconstitutional. However, in June 1970, the regents announced that Davis would not be rehired the following year, on the grounds that her political speeches outside the classroom were unbefitting a university professor.

During this time, Davis became involved with the movement to free three black inmates of Soledad Prison in California: George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo. The men, known as the Soledad Brothers, had been indicted for the murder of a prison guard. The guard had been pushed over a prison railing when he inadvertently stumbled into a rebellion among black prisoners caused by the killing of three black prisoners by another prison guard. Although Jackson, Clutchette, and Drumgo claimed there was no evidence that they had killed the guard, they were charged with his murder. Davis began corresponding with Jackson and soon developed a personal relationship with him. She attended all the court hearings relating to the Soledad Brothers' indictment, along with many other supporters, including Jackson's younger brother, Jonathon Jackson, who was committed to freeing his brother and the other inmates. On August 7, 1970, using guns registered to Davis, Jonathon attempted to free his brother in a shoot-out at the Marin County Courthouse. Four people were killed, including Jonathon and superior court judge Harold Haley.

Davis was charged with Kidnapping, conspiracy, and murder, which was punishable in California by death. She fled, traveling in disguise from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Miami, and finally back to New York. In October 1970, she was arrested by the FBI, which had placed her on its most wanted list. In December, after two months in jail, Davis was extradited to California, where she spent the next 14 months in jail. She later said that this period was pivotal to her under-standing of the black political struggle in the United States. Having worked to organize people in communities and on campuses against political repression, Davis now found herself a victim of that repression. In August 1971, while incarcerated in the Marin County Jail, she was devastated to learn that George Jackson had been killed by a guard in San Quentin Prison, allegedly while trying to escape.

In February 1972, Davis was released on bail following the California Supreme Court's decision to abolish the death penalty (People v. Anderson, 6 Cal. 3d 628, 100 Cal. Rptr. 152, 493 P. 2d 880). Previously, bail had not been available to persons accused of crimes punishable by death. Her trial began a few days later, and lasted until early June 1972, when a jury acquitted her of all charges.

After her acquittal, Davis resumed her teaching career, at San Francisco State University. She continued her affiliation with the Communist Party, receiving the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1979 and running for vice president of the United States on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. Davis is also a founder and cochair of the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression, and is on the national board of the National Political Congress of Black Women and on the board of the Atlanta-based National Black Women's Health Project. She has authored several books, including Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974), Women, Race, and Class (1983), Women, Culture, and Politics (1989), and Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998). In 1980, she married Hilton Braithwaite, a photographer and faculty colleague at San Francisco State. The marriage ended in Divorce several years later.

In 1991, Davis began teaching an interdisciplinary graduate program titled the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1994, she found herself again surrounded by controversy when she was awarded a prestigious University of California President's Chair by university president Jack Peltason. The appointment provides $75,000 over several years to develop new ethnic studies courses. Some state lawmakers were outraged over the award and unsuccessfully demanded that Peltason rescind the appointment. Davis held the position until 1997.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Davis was still speaking out against and writing about the plight of persons she considered to be political prisoners, such as Indian activist Leonard Pelletier and ex-Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, both convicted of killing law enforcement officers. She has continued to call for the decriminalization of prostitution on the basis that it would greatly reduce the number of women in prison. And she has lectured on what she calls the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), positing that imprisonment has become the most common answer to societal problems and that corporations are profiting from prison labor thereby weakening the chances of prison reform. In 1997, Davis helped found Critical Resistance, an organization that seeks to build an international movement dedicated to dismantling the PIC.

Since the late 1970s, Davis has lectured throughout the United States and in countries in Africa, Europe, and Asia. She also remains a prolific author, producing numerous articles and essays. In 2003, in addition to writing and traveling for speaking engagements, Davis continued her work as tenured professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Further readings

Davis, Angela. 1974. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: International Publishers.

James, Joy, ed. 1998. The Angela Y. Davis Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

"The Two Nations of Black America: Interview with Angela Davis." 1998. PBS: Frontline. Available online at <www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/interviews/davis.html> (accessed June 30, 2003).


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