Davis, Angela 1944–
Angela Davis 1944–
Activist, educator, author
Political activist, writer, and public speaker Angela Davis has never wavered in her quest for women’s rights and the eradication of poverty and oppression. The energetic Davis became embroiled in controversy in California at the end of the 1960s and emerged as an international symbol of a proud, defiant African American woman under political siege. Davis was fired from a prestigious professorship because she was a Communist and later was jailed for sixteen months for crimes she did not commit. For a time in the early 1970s she was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Ten Most Wanted List,” a distinction that brought her worldwide recognition as a victim of political repression. As Melba Beals put it in People, “In the idol-seeking rebellion of the American ’60s, Angela Davis became a lightning rod almost in spite of herself.” Subsequent decades have found Davis to be an impassioned worker for the causes of nationalized health care, civil rights, and nuclear disarmament.
“Angela is one of the most well-known women in the United States—and one of the busiest,” wrote Cheryll Y. Greene in Essence magazine.”She is active in five organizations, among them the Communist Party [of the] U.S.A., in which she is the major Black figure and plays a leading role… She travels extensively both in the United States and abroad, lecturing to diverse audiences, from college students to white male union members. In 1980 and 1984 she ran for vice-president of the United States on the Communist Party ticket.”
Davis admitted in Essence that she is “always amazed” that she is invited to give so many speeches even now, decades after young people demonstrated on her behalf with “Free Angela” placards. “I know I wouldn’t have sought this kind of public life—if it had been something that I could have chosen,” she said. “I didn’t choose to be where I am now. I didn’t choose to be the target of the repression at that time. It just happened that way. It was, in a sense, a historical accident that I was the one. But I feel that I should accept that role for what it can accomplish for all of us.”She added: “I try never to take myself for granted as somebody who should be out there speaking. Rather, I’m doing it only because I feel there’s something important that needs to be conveyed.”
Angela Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, one of four children of B. Frank and Sallye E. Davis. Her parents were both schoolteachers, but her father left the profession and bought his own gas station. The family lived in a segregated neighborhood, and Davis attended segregated public schools. As a youngster she had ample opportunity to
Born Angela Yvonne Davis, January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of B. Frank (a teacher and businessman) and Sallye E. (a teacher) Davis. Education: Attended the Sorbonne, University of Paris, 1963–64; Brandeis University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1965; graduate study at University of Frankfurt (Germany), 1965–67; University of California, San Diego, M.A., 1968, doctoral study, 1968–69. Politics: Communist.
University of California, Los Angeles, assistant professor of philosophy, 1969–70; activist and author of books on civil rights, women’s issues, and global policy, 1970—Communist Party candidate for vice-president of the United States, 1980 and 1984. Professor at San Francisco State University, 1979–91, and University of California at Santa Cruz, 1992—.
Member: Communist Party of the U.S.A. (member of Central Committee), National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (founder and co-chairperson), National Political Congress of Black Women (national board member), National Black Women’s Health Project (national board member), Phi Beta Kappa.
Addresses: Office —c/o History of Consciousness, University of California at Santa Cruz, 218 Oakes College, Santa Cruz, CA 95064; or c/o Communist Party of the U.S.A., 235 W. 23rd St., 7th Floor, New York, NY 10011.
observe the effects of racism on the lives of her neighbors and friends.
While she was still a young girl, Davis began to attend civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham with her mother. The white majority responded to the demonstrations with clandestine hostility. So many homes in Davis’s neighborhood were bombed by marauding white supremacists that the area became known as “Dynamite Hill.” Attempts by Davis and some of her friends to conduct interracial study groups were disbanded by police. The racially motivated violence and the unfair laws governing blacks’ behavior in public places helped to instill in Davis a sense of social purpose, as well as a deep resentment of the white power structure.
Davis’s mother spent summers working toward a master’s degree at New York University. Often Davis spent the summers in Manhattan too, and after her sophomore year of high school in Birmingham she earned a scholarship to attend Elizabeth Irwin High, a private school in Greenwich Village. A straight-A student at home in Birmingham, Davis had to struggle to achieve the same grades in New York. She added summer courses to her schedule and repeated some of her hardest classes. In 1961 she graduated and accepted a scholarship to Brandeis University.
At Brandeis, Davis majored in French literature. She spent one school year abroad studying at the Sorbonne. There she met students from Algeria and other African nations who had grown up under colonial rule. Their stories of discriminatory conditions in their homelands deepened her commitment to radical social change. She was further inflamed when news reached her of a bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four children she had known. Davis returned to Brandeis in search of some political philosophy that could mandate changes in the treatment of blacks—not only in America, but on the international level.
Her search brought her to the classroom of Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist professor of philosophy. Marcuse directed Davis to the tenets of socialism and communism. In her autobiography, Angela Davis, the activist wrote: “The Communist Manifesto [by nineteenth-century German philosopher and political economist Karl Marx] hit me like a bolt of lightning. I read it avidly, finding in it answers to many of the seemingly unanswerable dilemmas which had plagued me…. I began to see the problems of Black people within the context of a large working-class movement…. What struck me so emphatically was the idea that once the emancipation of the proletariat became a reality, the foundation was laid for the emancipation of all oppressed groups in society.”
Davis graduated from Brandeis with top honors in 1965 and attended graduate school at the University of Frankfurt in Germany. She continued her studies of philosophy there, mastering the German language as well as the theories of knowledge set forth by German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Although her professors were impressed with her scholarship, they could not persuade her to stay in Germany as the social situation deteriorated in America. In 1967 Davis returned to the United States to finish work on her master’s degree at the University of California, San Diego.
In California Davis finished her master’s degree and began work toward her doctorate. She also joined a number of activist groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers. Her most important affiliation came in June of 1968, when she formally joined the Communist Party and became involved with the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-black Communist collective in Los Angeles. As a member of Che-Lumumba, she helped to organize militant demonstrations and protests designed to focus public attention on the plight of minorities. And thus her troubles began.
The University of California at Los Angeles had hired Davis as an assistant professor of philosophy in 1969. She taught four courses: “Dialectical Materialism,” “Kant,” “Existentialism,” and “Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature.” Quickly she became a popular teacher on the UCLA campus, but an ex-FBI informer leaked the news that Davis was a member of the Communist party. The information made the newspapers, and UCLA’s board of regents—which included then-governor Ronald Reagan—dismissed her from her post. The situation bore an uncanny resemblance to the deplorable “Red Scare” in the 1950s. Fellow faculty members and even the university president overwhelmingly condemned the regents’ action as illegal and an infringement on academic freedom. Davis was reinstated by court order, but when her contract expired the following year she was dismissed again.
By that time Davis had become actively involved in the cause of the Soledad Brothers, a group of inmates at California’s Soledad Prison who were treated especially harshly because they had tried to organize a Marxist group among the prisoners. Davis led demonstrations and gave speeches calling for parole of the young black prisoners. When one of the prisoners was shot by a guard in an incident ruled “justifiable homicide” by the warden, Davis grew even more strident in her demands. Her public exhortations drew anonymous threats by telephone and by mail, so she purchased several weapons and stored them in the headquarters of the Che-Lumumba Club.
On August 7, 1970, a teen-aged sibling of one of the Soledad Brothers used the firearms Davis had purchased to stage a dramatic prisoner rescue and hostage-taking attempt at California’s Marin County Courthouse. The attempt was foiled in a barrage of gunfire that killed a county judge. Quickly the firearms were traced to Davis, and she fled into hiding. The FBI responded by placing her on the “Ten Most Wanted List” and undertaking a massive search for her. Two months later they found her in New York City and extradited her to California, where she was held in prison for over a year.
Once a tireless crusader for the incarcerated, Davis soon found herself behind bars, a victim and—in many minds—a political prisoner. “That period was pivotal for me in many respects,” Davis told Essence. “I came to understand much more concretely many of the realities of the Black struggle of that period.” Davis’s case became an international issue, especially in the Soviet Union, and demonstrations on her behalf were held on both sides of the Atlantic. “Free Angela” picket signs and lapel pins became a catchword for the mistreatment of blacks by an overzealous federal law enforcement system.
Davis was taken to trial on charges of kidnapping, conspiracy, and murder in the spring of 1972. Her defense was able to prove that she did not help to plan or execute the incident at the Marin County Courthouse, and a jury of eleven whites and one Mexican American acquitted her of all charges. Finally free, Davis embarked on a national lecture tour and visited the Soviet Union, where she was accorded a hero’s welcome. As the 1970s progressed, she became a well-known lecturer and writer who demanded a total reassessment of attitudes about the black family, an overhaul of repressive prison systems, and a black-white coalition for the formation of a socialized state.
The Communist Party of the United States has benefitted from Davis’s talents for decades. Her presence in the party helped to change the African American perception of communism and bolster black membership. In 1980 and again in 1984 the party nominated her as its vice-presidential candidate. Progressive magazine contributor Julius Lester has commented that, with Davis, “one is left with the impression of a woman who lives as she thinks it necessary to live and not as she would like to, if she allowed herself to have desires. She seems to be a woman of enormous self-discipline and control, who willed herself to a total political identity. Her will is so strong that, at times, it is frightening.”
The years have not dimmed Davis’s ardor for her causes, nor have they softened her philosophy. As a teacher at such colleges as San Francisco State University and the University of California at Santa Cruz, she has developed courses on women’s issues from a global perspective. Her ideas on the subject are presented in two collections of essays, Women, Race & Class and Women, Culture & Politics. Davis told Essence: “Something happened during the period of my persecution by the government and the FBI and others. When I was underground, enormous numbers of Black women were arrested and harassed. I came to realize the government feared the political potential of Black women—and that that was a manifestation of a larger plan to push us away from political involvement.” Davis said that knowledge helped to empower her and other black women as well. “A new collective consciousness was emerging. I think that during that very compressed historical moment we managed to formulate many of the issues that were of concern to us. And to formulate responses to the propagandistic assault, which are still valid 20 years later. That is what is so fascinating to me, to recognize that 20 years have gone by, yet many of the ideas raised during that period have not become historically obsolete.”
A self-avowed “soldier of freedom,” Davis is encouraged by a strain of militancy she sees in young Americans. She calls for multicultural coalitions and global strategies to achieve equality for all peoples. “It is no longer possible for various groups to live and function and struggle in isolation,” she told Ebony. “While we may specifically be involved in our own particular struggles, our vision has to be that we understand how our own issues relate to the issues of others. My consciousness has grown so that when I speak and write, I make a point of discussing the need for understanding how Native Americans, Latinos, and other people of color are marginalized in this society.”
As the 1990s progressed, Angela Davis remained on the front line, fighting for women’s rights, for a global peace plan including nuclear disarmament, for enhanced opportunities for workers, and especially for affordable health care for all American women. “Black women have no choice but to force the government to take responsibility for all its citizens,” she told Essence. “The budget cutting of the Reagan administration that abolished many programs vital to the poor must be restored. Ultimately, the economic system will have to be changed. I don’t think that under this system we will ever achieve economic power or equality. Some Black people, yes. But the majority still suffer now more than ever before.” Also in Essence , Davis concluded on behalf of women of color everywhere: “It’s about time, the decade of the nineties—as we prepare for a new century—to claim our voice and to demand that our community give us the respect that we have given it for as many decades and centuries as we have been present on this continent.”
(With others) If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance , Third Press, 1971, reprinted, Okpaku Communications, 1992..
Angela Davis: An Autobiography , Random House, 1974, reprinted, International Publications, 1988.
Women, Race & Class , Random House, 1983.
Women, Culture & Politics , Random House, 1989.
Ashman, Charles R., The People vs. Angela Davis , Pinnacle Books, 1972.
Davis, Angela, Angela Davis: An Autobiography , International Publications, 1988.
Davis, Angela, and others, If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance , Okpaku Communications, 1992.
Smith, Nelda J., From Where I Sat , Vantage, 1973.
Ebony , July 1990, p. 56.
Emerge, April 1991, cover story.
Essence, August 1986, p. 62; January 1988, p. 67; June 1989, p. 24; May 1990, p. 92.
New Statesman, August 14, 1987, p. 16.
Newsweek, June 5, 1972, p. 40.
Parade, November 29, 1992, p. 2.
People, January 23, 1978, p. 22.
Progressive, February 1975.
Sepia, December 1970, p. 9.
Time, October 17, 1969, p. 64.
Additional information on Angela Davis is available from the sound recording Angela Davis Speaks, Folkways, 1974; the Oceana microfilm of The Angela Davis Trial, 1974; and the student-produced documentary Portrait of a Revolutionary.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Davis, Angela 1944-
Angela Davis established an early reputation as a scholar who linked race, class, and gender with activism. She became nationally known in 1970 when, after she was indicted for owning guns used in a courtroom shootout in California, she went underground. After a two-month search, the FBI arrested her in New York City. In those politically turbulent years, Davis became a highly visible prisoner, a symbol as an African American woman fighting for justice in prisons, and her imprisonment was protested across the nation and elsewhere in the world. She was acquitted of all charges in 1972.
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 24, 1944; her father was a gas station owner, her mother a schoolteacher. Birmingham was a deeply racist city, referred to as Bombingham in the 1960s because of the many bombings of African American homes, businesses, and churches, but nevertheless even in the 1950s her mother and grandmother took her to protests. She attended segregated schools until high school, when she received a scholarship that allowed her to attend a private school in New York City. That experience provided further support for her developing political views, as she joined a socialist club and interacted with teachers with radical views. After high school she went to Brandeis University and attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she developed a deeper understanding of political oppression in Algeria, which was under French control at the time, and began a political dialogue with Algerian students protesting French colonialism. While at Brandeis she studied with Herbert Marcuse, a radical philosopher. She graduated with honors from Brandeis with a major in French and then went to West Germany to study philosophy with Theodor Adorno, another radical intellectual. She went to Los Angeles in 1967 and began working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the Communist Party of the United States. She earned her master’s degree in philosophy in 1969 after completing all requirements for her doctorate except the dissertation and began teaching philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
In 1970, UCLA fired Davis because of her membership in the Communist Party, but she succeeded in convincing the courts to reinstate her. Soon thereafter she began work on the “Soledad Brothers” cause on behalf of inmates at California’s Soledad prison, which led to her indictment for gun ownership, her decision to go underground, and the FBI labeling her as a most wanted criminal. She returned to Germany to earn her doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and she taught at Stanford University, the Claremont Colleges, the California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Art Institute, and eventually at San Francisco State University from 1979 to 1991. In 1980 and 1984 she ran for vice president for the Communist Party USA. In 1991 she became a faculty member at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and from 1995 to 1997, she held the prestigious appointment of University of California Presidential Chair. She continues to be a tenured full professor in the History of Consciousness program at the university.
Her contributions to political philosophy result from her persistent identification of resistance among groups too commonly assumed to be compliant with authority, such as African American women. She uses the work of Michel Foucault to analyze the intricacies of race and punishment in the United States and how incarceration has colonized many groups such as Native Americans forced onto reservations, acts that reaffirm white norms of not only behavior but also such apparent ideals as freedom. She argues that we should imagine and act toward a social order without prisons and de-incarceration, rather than having a social order that forces large numbers of people, including groups suffering from racism, to spend time in prison. She also argues that privatization of prisons is directly linked to racial, gender, and class oppression, providing profit for corporations while reifying the identity of people of color and the lower classes as problematic.
In her work both as a professor and as a political activist, Angela Davis has articulated the complex relationships among race, class, and gender that result in what she sees as pervasive elements of oppression. Her experience as a political prisoner, which captured international attention, combines with her scholarly work to create an intersection of personal commitment and scholarship, evidencing forms of feminism intertwined with race, ethnicity, and class in an international context. She continues her deep interest in the prison system and the difficult lives of inmates in increasingly privatized prisons in the United States.
Aptheker, Bettina. 1999. The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Davis, Angela Y. 1974. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: Random House.
Davis, Angela Y. 2005. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, Interviews with Angela Y. Davis. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Philo A. Hutcheson
In August 1970 Angela Yvonne Davis was catapulted into the national spotlight when she was put on the list of the ten most wanted criminals in the United States. An armed black man, Jonathan Jackson, entered the Marin County, California, Civic Center on August 7, 1970, with a weapon owned by Davis and attempted, along with three San Quentin prisoners, to take hostages. Jackson's intention was to hold the hostages until several inmates of Soledad Prison, including Jackson's brother, George, were released. During the attempt three of the assailants and the presiding judge were killed and three others wounded. A warrant was issued for Davis's arrest. She fled, eluding the police until October 1970. After a total of 16 months in prison in New York—where she was apprehended—and in California, Davis's trial began.
The prosecutor alleged that Davis engineered the plan to kidnap the judge and jurors because of her love for George Jackson. The prosecution presented witnesses who testified that they had seen Davis with Jonathan Jackson in the days preceding the August 7 incident. Davis and her defense attorneys argued that Davis was a political activist concerned with prison reforms and the oppression of the poor in general and was not moved to a crime of passion because of her feeling for Jackson. The all-white jury, composed of eight women and four men, acquitted Davis on all counts in June 1972.
Davis, a self-avowed Communist, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. Both her parents were college educated. Her mother was a teacher and her father, after teaching for a short time, went into business for himself. The Davises moved into an all-white neighborhood when Angela was very young. Racial antipathy was fomenting in the city and the Davises knew that they were not welcome in the neighborhood. The homes of several black families who moved in after the Davises were bombed, although the Davises' home was not.
Angela Davis encountered segregation in almost every area of her life. In housing, school, stores, church, and social life, the ubiquitous "white only" or "colored only" signs, both visible and invisible, were always there. Because Davis had the opportunity to travel to New York during many of her summer vacations her awareness of the difference in racial attitudes and social classes in the South and the North was heightened. Even as a teenager, Davis later wrote, she developed a desire to alleviate the plight of the black and the poor.
Because of superior achievement during her high school years Davis got the opportunity to study at Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City. There she was regularly exposed to both socialist and communist philosophies and began to develop an interest in these subjects. She was especially interested in mass movements designed to overthrow political domination by elites. Davis's scholastic achievements earned her a scholarship to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she was one of the few blacks on campus. At the university Davis studied French literature but continued to be interested in philosophy. She studied in France during her junior year. While there, she learned of the September 1963 bombing of a church in her hometown, Birmingham, that resulted in the death of four black girls. She knew three of them.
During her senior year at Brandeis, Davis studied philosophy with Herbert Marcuse, who later became her graduate adviser. After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis in 1965, Davis applied for a scholarship to study philosophy at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. After two years she returned to the United States to study for her doctorate with Marcuse, who was then teaching at the University of California at San Diego. While in graduate school she became politically active with groups such as the Black Panthers, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Ron Karenga's US-Organization. In 1968 she became a member of the Communist Party and joined one of its local organs, the Che-Lumumba Club.
As a requirement for her doctorate Davis had to teach for one year and was appointed to the faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her appointment was challenged because she had indicated on her application that she was a Communist. There was a regulation that Communists were not allowed to teach in California state universities. Consequently, the governing body of the university, the Board of Regents, and the governor, Ronald Reagan, attempted to fire Davis. She waged a court battle against her dismissal and won. Later, however, in June 1970, she was fired for her political activity.
After she was acquitted of the charges stemming from the August 7, 1970 incident, she taught black philosophy and women's studies at San Francisco State College. In 1980 and 1984 she ran on the Communist Party ticket for vice president of the United States. By 1983 she was working with the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression and had been awarded an honorary doctorate from Lenin University.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Davis taught courses at several universities, and in 1997 continued to teach at the University of California at Santa Cruz. At the university she acted as presidential chair of a minority women's studies department. She has stated that she hopes young people will continue to seek new solutions. In Essence she said, "History is important, but it also can stifle young people's ability to think in new ways and to present ideas that may sound implausible now but that really may help us develop radical strategies for moving into the next century."
Much has been written about Angela Davis. She is coauthor of a volume entitled If They Come in the Morning (1971) and the author of Angela Davis, An Autobiography (1974), Women, Race and Class (1983), and Women, Culture & Politics (1989). The transcript of the Marin County court case (#52613) is available on microfilm. Several other books discuss the same case. Some of these are Charles R. Ashman, The People vs. Angela Davis (1972); Regina Nadelson, Who is Angela Davis? (1972); J. A. Parker, Angela Davis, the Making of a Revolutionary (1973); and Bettina Aptheker, The Morning Breaks (1975). □
Davis, Angela 1944–
Angela Y. Davis was born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama. An activist and scholar, Davis was appointed a professor in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1991. She is one of the main architects of a global movement to abolish what she has called the “prison-industrial complex” in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Davis has campaigned against all forms of racism since the mid-1960s, publishing numerous articles and essays in both the popular media and scholarly journals, as well as a half dozen books. A sensational trial in which she was charged by the state of California with murder and kidnapping because of her prominence in a movement for prisoners’ rights resulted in her acquittal on all charges in June 1972. As a result of the movement to “Free Angela Davis,” she became an icon of revolutionary movements and national liberation struggles worldwide.
The oldest of four children, Davis’s mother was Sallye B. Davis, an elementary school teacher, and her father, B. Frank Davis, was the owner of a local service station in Birmingham. At the age of four, her family moved to an all-white section of town, which became known as Dynamite Hill because of the number of racist-inspired bombings undertaken to drive out African-American families. Her family however, persevered. Davis went on to attend Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City, and she graduated from Brandeis University in 1965 with a degree in French literature. After two years studying abroad, Davis returned to the United States and resumed her graduate studies at the University of California, San Diego, under the tutelage of the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. She joined the U.S. Communist Party and worked closely with the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, while also writing her dissertation and teaching in the Philosophy Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Her academic career was interrupted by her imprisonment and trial. Davis was charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit both following an attempted escape by prisoners from San Quentin on August 7, 1970. The escape attempt was organized by Jonathan Jackson, the 17-year old brother of George Jackson, one of the Soledad Brothers. Davis knew Jonathan and was involved in the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee. In the attempted escape Jonathan and two prisoners were killed by San Quentin guards, and a judge was also killed. Another prisoner, Ruchell Magee, was badly wounded, and so was a woman juror. Davis was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and was eventually arrested in New York City. She was then extradited to California to stand trial. Her case galvanized a global movement for her freedom, and catapulted her into international fame. Whereas the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, branded her “a terrorist,” the “Free Angela” movement insisted upon her innocence and showed the ways in which a racist criminal justice system was deployed to seek to silence Davis for her radical activism. Her trial began on February 28, 1972, in San Jose, California, and ended in an acquittal on all counts on June 4, 1972. Following her acquittal, she resumed her scholarly work and helped to launch the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression. After some thirty years campaigning to free individual prisoners, Davis helped to initiate a conference at the University of California, Berkeley, in September 2002. This conference launched a new movement called Critical Resistance, which was directed against the prison system itself. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete? (2004), Davis argued that prisons are part of a racist criminal justice system, and she showed how the prison-industrial complex was shaped by slavery and its aftermath.
Angela Davis has been pivotal in developing an anti-racist feminist scholarship. She has been especially attentive to myriad forms of violence against women of color. While in prison she wrote “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” originally published in The Black Scholar in December 1971. This article helped to initiate the field of black women’s studies. A second, very long essay, also written in prison, “Women and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation,” was prepared for a Symposium of the Philosophical Study of Dialectical Materialism in December 1971. (It was subsequently reprinted in the Angela Y. Davis Reader). This work is a detailed theoretical and political critique of the writings of white feminists in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. In addition, Davis published an important collection of essays titled Women, Race, and Class in 1981. In 1998 she wrote Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, a detailed analysis of the feminist consciousness of working-class black women in the 1920s and 1930s. The book includes the lyrics to all the songs of the three singers.
As scholar, teacher, and activist Davis has inspired generations of students, colleagues, and community activists for more than forty years.
SEE ALSO Black Feminism in the United States.
Davis, Angela Y. 1981. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Random House.
———. 1988. An Autobiography. New York: International Publishers. Originally published as With My Mind on Freedom: An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1974).
———. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
James, Joy, ed. 1998. The Angela Y. Davis Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
(b. January 26, 1944) Activist.
Black activist Angela Davis became disillusioned with the progress of civil rights in the 1960s. She joined the Communist Party in 1968, pursuing a militant course against racism and poverty. In a period of Cold War tensions and social unrest produced by opposition to the war in Vietnam, she became a symbol of the radical outlaw—revered by some, reviled by others. Her accusations of injustice leveled against American capitalism and democracy, in part fueled by the antiwar movement, further inflamed public debate and deepened social and racial divisions during the 1960s and 1970s.
Davis was the first of four children in a middle-class African-American family living in a section of Birmingham, Alabama, that had been bombed so often by the Ku Klux Klan that it was known as Dynamite Hill. While in elementary school, Davis stole money from her father to give to the hungry and rationalized the theft as a good deed. She also became aware of the injustices in her own segregated school system—not only outdated texbooks and poor recreation facilities, but a stereotyped predestination to fail.
A scholarship from the American Friends Service Committee allowed Davis to leave in her junior year for Elisabeth Irwine, an integrated private and progressive school in New York City. A number of teachers at Elisabeth Irwine had been blacklisted for their political ideology during the Communist purging by Senator Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s. Still recovering from World War II, the nation was embroiled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the subject of Communism provoked intense emotions. Davis became interested in socialist philosophy at this time and joined Advance, a Marxist-Leninist group.
She entered Brandeis University in Massachusetts in 1961, majoring in French, and spent her junior year at the Sorbonne in Paris. During that time she became further immersed in the struggles of oppressed people as a result of her association with Algerian students. Back at Brandeis, she studied under the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. After graduation with honors in 1965, Davis went to West Germany at the urging of Marcuse to study at the Institute for Social Research. She returned in 1967 and entered the University of California at San Diego, where Marcuse was then teaching, to study for a master's in philosophy. Declaring that black people could
Davis obtained a master's degree in 1969 and joined the UCLA faculty. A popular teacher, she was fired that summer under pressure from then California governor Ronald Reagan because of a published letter that revealed her Communist Party membership. Under pressure from colleagues and students, she was reinstated on the grounds that the dismissal violated her constitutional rights.
Looking for another reason to fire her, the California Board of Regents found it in 1970. Two inmates at Soledad Prison in California, George Jackson and W. L. Nolen, had organized a Black Panther cell. After a fist-fight, Nolen and two other prisoners were killed by guards. Later a white guard was murdered, and Jackson along with two others were indicted for the crime. Davis made speeches in defense of the "Soledad Brothers." She picketed the prison and raised money for their defense. The university dismissed her.
In August 1970 a warrant was issued for her arrest. Guns found in a van driven by Jonathan Jackson, brother of Soledad prisoner George, were registered in her name. Jonathan Jackson had taken hostages in a courtroom, killing a judge and two others before himself being killed. Davis claimed she bought the guns because of threats on her life, but rather than surrender, she went into hiding. She was placed on the FBI's most wanted list.
Davis was arrested on charges of conspiracy, murder, and kidnapping in New York in October 1970, prompting a worldwide "Free Angela" protest. Money was raised for her defense. In a trial that drew international attention, Davis's lawyers argued there was insufficient evidence to involve her in the murders. She was acquitted by an all-white jury and released from a California prison in February 1972.
Davis lectured at a number of colleges in California through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1980 she ran for vice president of the United States on the Communist Party ticket. Since then Davis has been a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she teaches the history of consciousness. She also lectures worldwide on Marxist theory and advocates abolishing all prisons.
Davis, Angela. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: International Publishers, 1988.
Jones, Charles E., ed. The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered). Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1995.
Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time—The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New York: Random House, 1970.
Corinne J. Naden and
January 26, 1944
Political activist Angela Yvonne Davis lived in a section of Birmingham, Alabama, known as "Dynamite Hill" because of the violent attacks by white night riders intent on maintaining the residential demarcation line between blacks and whites. Both of her parents were educators, worked actively for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and taught their children not to accept the socially segregated society that existed at the time. She attended Brandeis University, where she was influenced by the teachings of Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. After graduating in 1961, she spent two years in Europe, where she was exposed to student political radicals. Her own radicalism, however, came into focus with the murder in 1963 of four young black Sunday school children in a Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing. In California, where she went to pursue graduate study with Marcuse (who was now at the University of California at San Diego), Davis began working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panthers, and the Communist Party, of which she became a member in 1968.
Hired in 1969 by UCLA to teach philosophy, Davis not long after was fired by the board of regents and then-governor Ronald Reagan because of her Communist Party affiliation. Ultimately, her case went to the Supreme Court, which overturned the dismissal. By that time, however, Davis herself was in hiding as a result of an incident at the Soledad state prison. In August 1970 George Jackson, a prisoner and member of the Black Panthers, assisted by his brother Jonathan, attempted to escape using smuggled guns. Both brothers were killed and some of the guns were traced to Davis. Fearful for her safety and distrustful of the judicial system, Davis went underground. For two months she was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list before being apprehended and incarcerated. She remained in jail for sixteen months before being tried for murder and conspiracy. In June 1972 she was acquitted of all charges against her.
Davis resumed her academic career at San Francisco State University and again became politically active, running as the Communist Party candidate for vice president in 1980 and 1984. In 1991 she joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz, as professor of the history of consciousness. She left the Communist Party in 1991 but remained politically active. In 1995 she was a prominent feminist critic of the Million Man March. She is the author of several books, including If They Come in the Morning (1971), Women, Race, and Class (1983), Women, Culture, and Politics (1989), and Blues Legends and Black Feminism (1998). In 2003, Davis took a searing look at the prison system in her work, Are Prisons Obsolete? Her autobiography, Angela Davis: An Autobiography, originally published in 1974, was reissued in 1988.
Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.
christine a. lunardini (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005