Davis, Angela Yvonne
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."
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.
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).
Davis, Angela Yvonne
DAVIS, Angela Yvonne
Born 26 January 1944, Birmingham, Alabama
Daughter of Nebjamin F. and Sallye Bell Davis
Born to a middle-class African-American family whose social circle included Communist Party members, Angela Davis became one of the most prominent political activists of the 1960s and 1970s. An American Friends Service Committee scholarship allowed her to leave Birmingham to attend the progressive Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City, where she became active in a Marxist-Leninist youth group and supported the antinuclear and civil rights movements. Later, at Brandeis University she became a student of Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Davis spent her junior year in Paris at the Sorbonne and returned to Europe after graduation from Brandeis (B.A. 1965) to continue her education at the University of Frankfurt (1965-67). Davis received a master's degree in philosophy from the University of California at San Diego in 1968, working again with Marcuse. She has held faculty positions in a number of universities in the U.S. and abroad.
By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement was in full swing. Davis joined several activist groups, including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Communist Party of the United States, and the Black Panthers. While working on her doctoral dissertation, she was hired to teach philosophy at UCLA. Then Governor Ronald Reagan, citing a law that banned Communist Party members from teaching at state universities, protested her appointment and Davis was dismissed. The law was ultimately declared unconstitutional, while the ensuing controversy propelled Davis into the political spotlight.
As a champion of the work of the Black Panthers, Davis became involved with the plight of black prison inmates. She was an especially strong advocate of a group called the Soledad Brothers and of their leader, George Jackson. In August 1970 Jackson's younger brother, Jonathan, sought to force his release by taking hostages at gunpoint in a California courthouse. During the shootout that followed, the judge and several others were killed. Police accused Davis of purchasing the guns used in the shooting and charged her with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. Fleeing underground, Davis was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List for several months until her capture. With the rallying cry, "Free Angela," the civil rights movement and the activist left rallied to her defense through her imprisonment and a lengthy court trial. If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (1971) collects Davis' prison writings and those of other black activists, including Erika Huggins, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, and George Jackson. It is a firsthand account of political, racial, class, and economic oppression focusing primarily on the plight of African Americans in the U.S. prison system in the 1960s.
Davis was acquitted of all charges in 1972. Angela Davis, an Autobiography (1974; reprinted as Angela Davis: With My Mind on Freedom, 1974), written in the wake of her exoneration, is a compelling book that chronicles her life as it intersected with the emergence of the civil rights movement. The book also details the rise of the Black Panther party and Davis' involvement with the group.
Davis continued her activist work on behalf of black prisoners and against racism. Remaining in the Communist Party, she ran for vice president on the party ticket in 1980. Davis's groundbreaking feminist analysis of the intersecting oppressions of race, class, and gender in American culture, Women, Race, and Class appeared in 1982. The book provides an overview of oppression as it is constructed, conducted, and institutionalized by the dominant majority. Women, Culture, and Politics (1988) is a collection of Davis' lectures, essays, and commentary on the changing social order in the 1980s. Her topics include violence against women, nuclear disarmament, apartheid in South Africa, health care, and the role of black artists.
In the 1990s, Davis persevered as an ardent voice of social and cultural critique. A tenured professor of the history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Davis lectures widely and continues to write with radical, scholarly vision. In 1995, amid controversy, she was appointed a presidential chair.
Her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1998) argues a new understanding of the singers' music and its effects on the black middle class and on U.S. culture more widely. Davis' analysis is informed by social commentators like Carl Van Vechten, Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and by feminist writers and jazz critics.
Her work on oppression, racism, and the prison system continues, with a focus on the privatization of prisons, prison populations as a growing source of cheap labor without rights or unions, and the preponderance of African-American men as the main source of prison labor "raw material." In numerous articles she addresses and delineates the invisible experiences of black inmates and the workings of the prison system's entrenched racist structure.
The Angela Y. Davis Reader (1998), a collected works that brings together excerpts of Davis' writings from 1971 through 1998, provides an impressive documentation of Davis' unfailing courage and analytical rigor as a radical intellectual, whether she is writing of prisoners' rights, Marxism and antiracist feminism, or culture. Her articles have appeared in scholarly journals and popular press, and her writing, which sometimes analyzes and sometimes agitates, has pushed the boundaries and redefined the compass of social philosophy and political theory.
Davis is a passionate social and cultural critic whose writing is consistently informed by a black, radical, and feminist consciousness. In addition to her writing and teaching, Davis lectures widely in the U.S. and abroad on numerous progressive issues ranging from antiapartheid efforts to reproductive rights.
Women & Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation (1971). Violence Against Women and the Ongoing Challenge to Racism (1985).
Aptheker, B., The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis (1975). Ashman, C., The People vs. Angela Davis (1972). David, J., ed., Growing Up Black: From the Slave Days to the Present—25 African-Americans Reveal the Trials and Triumphs of Their Childhoods (1968). Dicks, V. I., "A Rhetorical Analysis of the Forensic and Deliberative Issues and Strategies in the Angela Davis Trial" (thesis, 1976). Finke, B. F., Angela Davis: Traitor or Martyr of the Freedom of Expression (1972). Lanker, B., I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America (1989). Major, R., Justice in the Round: The Trial of Angela Davis (1973). Nelson, R., Who is Angela Davis?: The Biography of a Revolutionary (1972). O'Connor, M., "The Reardon Standards and the Angela Davis Trial" (thesis, 1973). Olden, M., Angela Davis (1973). Parker, J. A., Angela Davis: The Making of a Revolutionary (1973). Smith, N. J., From Where I Sat (1973). Smith, J. C., ed., Epic Lives : One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference (1993). Smith, R. A., "The Angela Davis Case and Public Opinion" (thesis, 1971). Timothy, M., Jury Woman: The Story of the Trial of Angela Y. Davis, Written by a Member of the Jury (1974).
African-American Orators : A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (1996). Afro-American Encyclopedia (1974). Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century (1991). Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1991). CA 57-60 (1976). CA Online (1999). CANR (1983). Contemporary Black Biography (1994). Encyclopedia of the American Left (1990). Encyclopedia of World Biography: 20th Century Supplement (1987). FC (1990). NBAW (1992). Newsmakers, 1998 Cumulation: The People Behind Today's Headlines (1999). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Essence (Aug. 1986). Feminist Review (Spring 1989). New Moon (July/Aug. 1995). New Statesman (14 Aug. 1987). New York Magazine (31 Jan. 1993).
—EVELYN C. WHITE
UPDATED BY JESSICA REISMAN
Davis, Angela Yvonne
DAVIS, Angela Yvonne
(b. 26 January 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama), activist within the Black Liberation Movement during the 1960s, and an establishment triple threat: a black woman espousing Communism.
Davis was the eldest of four children of B. Frank and Sally E. Davis, both of whom had been teachers. Her father also owned a service station. Both the era and the area in which Davis grew up were hotbeds in the civil rights movement; homes were being bombed and violence was commonplace. When Davis was offered a scholarship by the American Friends Service Committee to study at Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City, she accepted. She joined Advance, a Communist youth group, while living there.
Davis attended the Sorbonne, University of Paris in her junior year of college. She graduated magna cum laude with a degree in French literature from Brandeis University in 1965. During her final year Davis studied with Herbert Marcuse, and the noted left-wing political philosopher became her mentor. She began graduate studies in philosophy in Germany between 1965 and 1967, but elected to return home to attempt to help in the growing Black Liberation Movement. By then Marcuse had moved to the University of California, San Diego, and Davis continued her doctoral studies there.
While attending UCSD Davis became active in various political organizations. She helped to found the Black Students Council on campus. She also worked with groups in Los Angeles. Davis became a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in July 1968. She allied with the Che-Lumumba Club, an African-American section of the Los Angeles party named for Che Guevara, the Marxist intellectual pivotal in the Cuban revolution, and Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Republic of Congo. Davis accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), as assistant professor of philosophy, thinking it the perfect job to hold while she finished her dissertation. She was soon revealed as a Communist, generating calls for her dismissal.
Davis had become interested in the plight of a group of African-American prisoners known as the Soledad Brothers. George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo were incarcerated in California's Soledad Prison, and had been charged with the murder of a white guard and were facing the death penalty. Supposedly framed for the killing because they were militants, they were considered emblematic of all that was wrong with treatment of African Americans in the justice system. Davis corresponded with Jackson and eventually became close to his family, but it was while working on behalf of the Soledad Brothers that she heard of the decision to dismiss her from her post at UCLA. Davis was finally dismissed from teaching in 1969. The board of regents pointed to Davis's political activities as "unbecoming" conduct. Then governor Ronald Reagan, well known for his hatred for Communists, instigated her firing. A court reinstated her briefly, but her contract expired and was not renewed in 1970. Davis had reportedly achieved an "excellent" rating as a teacher, and the American Association of University Professors censured the university.
While Davis was involved with the Soledad Brothers and busy with her research, her seventeen-year-old brother Jonathan decided to draw attention to the plight of African Americans in prison by attempting to take over a courtroom in Marin County on 7 August 1970, where a prisoner was being tried for the assault of a prison guard. Guns supposedly registered in Davis's name were used in a misguided attempt to free the man on trial and two of his inmate witnesses, and to draw attention to their cause. As the men attempted to flee with hostages, a San Quentin guard opened fire. Jonathan Jackson, Judge Harold Haley, and two prisoners were killed.
Davis was charged with kidnapping, conspiracy, and murder. She evaded arrest, and went underground. Davis was placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Davis was arrested in New York City on 13 October 1970. With these capital charges, there was a possibility that, if convicted, she might be given the death penalty. Her attorneys fought extradition, but Davis was moved to California in December 1970 to stand trial. After her arrest, Davis was incarcerated for about sixteen months. She told Essence, "there were many, many times when I was scared to death.… When I first got arrested, they wouldn't let me see a lawyer, and I thought they were going to kill me."
A "Free Angela Davis" campaign was mounted with support from clergy prominent in the civil rights movement, such as the reverends Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, as well as political leaders such as Congressman Ronald Dellums, who represented California's Oakland Congressional District from 1970 to 1998. Singer Aretha Franklin also announced her support, saying she would provide bail for Davis. She was, however, out of the country at the time and unable to provide her signature in person. The support for Davis extended abroad. However, Davis was keen to use her notoriety to draw attention to other political prisoners. She spoke frequently about Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins and others. By the time of her trial in San Jose, supporters from around the world were writing the judge and holding events in her behalf. Immediately before her trial, the California Supreme Court abolished the death penalty. Davis was acquitted on 4 June 1972.
"They were the most painful years of my life," Davis told Essence magazine of that turbulent period of her life. She said she was radicalized "mainly because of what was happening to other people. It seemed before we had the chance to mourn the death of one of us, another was killed." Davis said she had support from her entire family during this period, including from her mother. "She never thought about not supporting me. She started speaking out all over the country."
The UCLA philosophy department unsuccessfully attempted to bring Davis back on the faculty in 1972. At the time of her dismissal Ronald Reagan swore Davis would never again teach at a University of California campus, but Davis has taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz since 1992 and is a tenured professor within the history of consciousness department. She received an appointment as the University of California Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies, an honor she held between 1994 and 1997. She lectures frequently and remains a vocal critic of racism in the criminal justice system. Among the books Davis has written are If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (1971), and The Angela Y. Davis Reader, a collection of her writings edited by Joy James (1998). Ralph Abernathy calls Davis "one intellectual who did not hide out in a library or behind a desk. She transformed her mental principles into an active commitment of struggle against injustice."
For information about Davis, see her autobiography, Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974). Information about her trial is in Reginald Major, Justice in the Round: The Trial of Angela Davis (1973). Articles that contain biographical information about Davis include: "Angela Davis' Firing: An Evil Act," The Sun-Reporter (27 July 1970); "Attack Against Angela: An Attack Against All," The Sun-Reporter (17 Oct. 1970); "Angela Free," The Sun-Reporter (10 June 1972); "The Case Of Angela," Sacramento Observer (26 Feb. 1975); "Angela Davis—Profiled by Maya Aneglou (sic)," Sacramento Observer (26 Feb. 1975); "Angela Davis Tells of Her Life," Portland Skanner (13 Nov. 1975); John Christopher Kim Fisher, "Angela Davis Today: Brutal Beginnings in the South," The Sun-Reporter (24 May 1979), and "Last of a Series: Angela Davis, The Person," The Sun-Reporter (7 June 1979); Paula Giddings, "Angela Davis," Essence (June 1989); and Kevin Chappell, "Where Are the Civil Rights Icons of the '60s?" Ebony (Aug. 1996).
Linda Dailey Paulson