Black History Month • Angela Davis
An American political activist, professor, and author who was an active member in the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party. Most famous for her involvement with the Soledad Brothers, who were accused of killing a prison guard.
Angela Yvonne Davis was born on Jan. 26th, 1944 in Birmingham Alabama, daughter of Alabama school teachers. 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. 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. Here she was recruited by a communist youth group, Advance.
Davis studied at home and abroad before becoming a doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego, under the Marxist professor Herbert Marcuse. Because of her political opinions and despite an excellent record as an instructor at the university’s Los Angeles campus, the California Board of Regents in 1970 refused to renew her appointment as lecturer in philosophy. In 1991, however, Davis became a professor in the field of the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1995, amid much controversy, she was appointed a presidential chair. She became professor emerita in 2008.
Trials & Tribulations
Championing the cause of black prisoners in the 1960s and ’70s, Davis grew particularly attached to a young revolutionary, George Jackson, one of the so-called Soledad Brothers (after Soledad Prison). During George Jackson’s trial in August 1970, an escape attempt was made at gunpoint and several people were killed. Davis was accused of taking part in the event and was charged with murder, evidence showing that the guns were registered to her name. On August 18th was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list by the FBI director at the time J. Edgar Hoover, making her the third woman in history to be put on that list. During that time, Angela later wrote in her autobiography, she hid in friends’ homes and moved at night. On October 13, 1970 Angela was found at Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York. She spent eighteen months in jail, which led to the “Free Angela Davis” campaign and the Angela Davis Legal Defense Committee. In 1972 the state allowed her release on bail from county jail and on February 23rd Rodger McAfee, a dairy farmer from Fresno CA and Steve Sparacino, a wealthy business owner, paid her $100,000 bail. On June 4th, after 13 hours of deliberations an all white jury returned a verdict of not guilty and determined the guns used in the crime, being owned by Davis, was judged insufficient to establish her role in the plot.
After her acquittal, Davis went on an international speaking tour including Cuba. Here she 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 US, her socialist learnings increasingly influenced her understanding of race struggles. Davis would go on to travel and earn many awards and acknowledgment for her work.
In 1975 Davis was a lecturer at the Claremont Black Studies Center at the Claremont Colleges. Attendance at the course she taught was limited to 26 students out of the more than 5,000 on campus forcing her to teach in secret because alumni benefactors didn’t want her to indoctrinate the general student population with communist thought. College trustees consequently minimized her appearance on campus to only Friday and Saturday seminars. Davis faced a lot of challenges during her time teaching at several universities because of what she chose to lecture. Nonetheless she continued teaching and speaking openly on issues she believed in earning her a lot of praise, awards, and acknowledgements.
Davis has continued to tackle oppression faced by the black community, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. After spending time traveling and lecturing, Davis returned to teaching. She served as a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she taught courses on the history of consciousness. Her interests in prisoner rights led her to found Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison-industrial complex. Davis is the author of several books including Women, Race, and Class (1983) and Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003).
From 1980 to 1983, Davis was married to Hilton Braithwaite. In 1997, she came out as a lesbian in an interview with Out magazine. By 2020, Davis was living openly with her partner, the academic Gina Dent, a fellow humanities scholar and intersectional feminist researcher at UC Santa Cruz. They have advocated for the abolition of police and prisons and for the black liberation and Palestinian solidarity together.
Special thanks to the author, Shelby Tyre. For more Black History, click here.