Angela Davis- Black History Month
For this week’s feature for Black History Month, we are talking about educator and activist Angela Davis who gained her international reputation in the early 1970s, when she was tried for conspiracy and imprisoned, and later fully acquitted, after being implicated in a shootout in front of a California courthouse. As a member of the Advisory Board of the Prison Activist Resource Center, Davis focused on exposing racism that is endemic to the US prison system and exploring new ways to de-construct oppression and race hatred.
Angela Yvonne Davis was born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama. Davis knew about racial prejudice from a young age; her neighborhood in Birmingham was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill” for the number of homes targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. As a teenager, Davis organized interracial study groups, which were broken up by the police. She also knew several of the young African American girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963.
Angela Davis later moved north and went to Brandeis University in Massachusetts where she studied philosophy, and as a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, in the late 1960s, she joined several groups. Influenced by her segregated upbringing, one of the groups she joined were the Black Panthers, whose original purpose was to patrol African American neighborhoods to protect residents from acts of police brutality. It was also a group notable for its various social programs, such as free breakfasts for children, and medical clinics. The Black Panthers’ campaign for African American equality had a lasting impact on Black empowerment and its influence continues to be felt in social movements like Black Lives Matter. This group inspired other minority groups worldwide to pursue their own causes. She also joined an all-black branch of the Communist Party.
In 1969, Angela Davis was known as a radical feminist and activist and was working as an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at UCLA. When the FBI informed the California Board of Regents that Davis was a member of the American Communist Party, they terminated her contract in 1970.
Outside of academia, she 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. In January 1970, Nolan and two other black prisoners were 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 were indicted for his murder. It was claimed that Jackson had sought revenge for the killing of his friend, W. L. Nolan. Some thought these prisoners were being used as scapegoats because of the political work within the prison.
During Jackson’s trial in August 1970, an escape attempt was made when Jackson’s brother, Jonathan, entered the courtroom to claim hostages he could exchange for his brother. Jonathan Jackson, Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, and two inmates were killed in the ensuing shoot-out.
Angela Davis was brought up on several charges for her alleged part in the event, including murder. The firearms used in the attack were purchased by her, and numerous letters written by her were found in the prison cell of George Jackson as well. The California warrant issued for Davis charged her as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. In August 1970, Davis became the third woman to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List. Her case drew the attention of the international press and after spending roughly 18 months in jail, Davis was acquitted in June 1972.
In one particular interview, she talked about violence and revolution, and also the bombing of the Birmingham Church Bombing which killed four 14-year-old girls; 2 of them being her friends.
She said quote,
“You ask me whether I approve of violence? That just doesn’t make any sense at all. Whether I approve of guns? I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs – bombs that were planted by racists. I remember, from the time I was very small, the sound of bombs exploding across the street and the house shaking … That’s why, when someone asks me about violence, I find it incredible because it means the person asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through and experienced in this country from the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
Now 77 years old, Angela Davis is someone who has inspired so many people and still continues to do so; fighting for civil rights and other social issues for the 5 decades.
In her message from 1972, she says that a major problem we are confronting today…is the problem of racism. It was and still is a powerful reminder that we still have a big problem with racism today.
Another quote of hers that resonates with me deeply is quote, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Unquote.
I’d like to thank blackhistory.net for some of the information used in this story.
For AMR News, I’m Abby Dufour