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Angela Davis

Angela Yvonne Davis (born, January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama) is an American political activist and university professor who was associated with the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Davis was also a notable activist during the Civil Rights Movement, and a prominent member and political candidate of the Communist Party USA. In recent years, she no longer identifies as a communist, but rather a democratic socialist, and is currently a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

She first achieved nationwide notoriety when a weapon registered in her name was linked to the murder of Judge Harold Haley during an effort to free a black convict who was being tried for the attempted retaliatory murder of a white prison guard who killed three unarmed black inmates. Davis fled underground and was the subject of an intense manhunt. Davis was eventually captured, arrested, tried, and then acquitted in one of the most famous trials in recent U.S. history.

Davis is currently a graduate studies Professor of History of Consciousness at the University of California and Presidential Chair at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She works for racial and gender equality, and for gay rights and prison abolition. She is a popular public speaker, nationally and internationally, as well as a founder of the grassroots prison abolition organization Critical Resistance.


Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the midst of Jim Crow laws. Her father was a graduate of St. Augustine's College, a traditionally black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, and was briefly a high school history teacher. After leaving teaching due to the low salary, he owned and operated a service station in the black section of Birmingham. Her mother, also college-educated, was an elementary school teacher with a history of political activism. Despite a modest income, the family purchased a large home in a mixed neighborhood where Angela spent most of her youth. The neighborhood, called "Dynamite Hill" locally, was marked by racial conflict. She was occasionally able to spend time on her uncle's farm and with friends in New York City. Her brother, Ben Davis, played defensive back for the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

During her childhood, Davis experienced the humiliations of racial segregation. She was bright and begged to enter school early, attending Carrie A. Tuggle School, a black elementary school in dilapidated facilities and later Parker Annex, a similarly dilapidated annex of Parker High School devoted to middle school education. Davis read voraciously. By her junior year, she applied to and was accepted by an American Friends Service Committee program that placed Black students from the South in integrated schools in the North. She chose to attend the Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village, New York City; a small private school favored by the radical community. There, Davis became acquainted with socialism and communism and was recruited by the communist youth group, Advance. She also met children of the leaders of the Communist Party, including her lifelong friend, Bettina Aptheker.

Education and early career

Undergraduate work at Brandeis University

Upon graduation from high school, Davis was awarded a full scholarship to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she was one of three black students in her freshman class. Initially alienated by the isolation of the campus (at that time she was interested in Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre), she soon made friends with the foreign students. She first encountered Herbert Marcuse at a rally during the Cuban Missile Crisis and later became his student. She worked part-time jobs earning money to spend the summer in Europe and attend the eighth World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki. That summer, she spent time in Paris and Switzerland before going on to the Festival in Finland, where she and the other young people were strongly impressed by the energetic Cuban delegation. She returned home to an FBI interview about her attendance at the communist-sponsored festival.

During her second year at Brandeis, she decided to major in French and continued her intensive study of Sartre. Davis was accepted by the Hamilton College Junior Year in France Program and managed to talk Brandeis into extending financial support via her scholarship. Classes were initially at Biarritz and later at the Sorbonne. In Paris, she and other students lived with a French family. It was at Biarritz that she received news of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, committed by the KKK, which deeply affected her as she was personally acquainted with the four young victims. That year, there were two Têt (Vietnamese New Year) festivals in Paris, one sponsored by supporters of the South, the other by supporters of the North. Davis attended the festival sponsored by the North which featured a clown dressed as an American GI.

Nearing completion of her degree in French, Davis realized her major interest was philosophy. She became particularly interested in the ideas of Herbert Marcuse and on her return to Brandeis, she audited his course (required French courses precluded enrollment). Marcuse turned out to be approachable and helpful. Davis began making plans to attend the University of Frankfurt for graduate work in philosophy. In 1965 she graduated magna cum laude, a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Frankfurt, Germany

In Germany, having only a stipend of $100 a month to work with, she had great difficulty finding lodging, but after much looking finally found a place with a sympathetic family. Later, she moved with a group of students into a sort of loft in an old factory building. At the University, she had great difficulty following the lectures of philosopher, sociologist and social critic Theodor Adorno but soon found that her fellow students, native German speakers, shared her difficulty. Visiting East Berlin during the May Day celebration, she felt that the East German government was dealing better with the residual effects of fascism than the West Germans. Many of her roommates were active in the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund (SDS), a radical student group. Davis participated in actions with them, but as things were happening back in the United States—the formation of the Black Panther Party and transformation of SNCC, for example—she was eager to return.

San Diego, California

Marcuse, in the meantime, had moved to the University of California, San Diego. With the permission of Adorno, she followed him there after two years in Frankfurt.

On her way to California, she stopped off in London to attend a conference on "The Dialectics of Liberation." The small Black contingent included Stokely Carmichael and Michael X, a local Black British activist. Davis was wearing her trademark afro hairstyle by then and was thus identifiable as a sympathizer with the Black Power movement. Although moved by Stokely Carmichael's fiery rhetoric, she was disappointed by the Black nationalist sentiments of the Black group and their rejection of Communism as a "white man's thing." She held the view that nationalism was a barrier to grappling with the underlying issue, capitalist domination of working people of all races.

Once in San Diego, she earned a master's degree from the University of California, San Diego, returning to Germany for her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Humboldt University of Berlin, GDR.


Davis worked as an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles, beginning in 1969. At that time, she also was a radical feminist and activist, a member of the Communist Party USA and associated with the Black Panther Party.

In a controversial decision, the Board of Regents of the University of California, urged by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, fired her from her job in 1969 because of her membership in the Communist Party. She was later rehired after a community uproar.


During the summer of 1970, Davis had become involved in Black Panther efforts to garner support for the imprisoned George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette, known as the "Soledad brothers" (after Soledad Prison, where they were incarcerated). On August 7, George's brother, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, along with two others, disrupted trial proceedings in an attempt to assist the escape of friend James McClain from the Marin County Hall of Justice. McClain was on trial for an alleged attempt to stab an officer. In the courthouse, the three stood up from their seats and, at gunpoint, directed everyone to freeze. They then led the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and several jurors into a van parked outside. As the hostages entered the van, Jackson and the others were reported to have shouted, "We want the Soledad Brothers freed by 12:30 today!". During the escape attempt, Jackson and accomplice William Christmas were killed in a shootout with police. Judge Harold Haley was killed by his captors with a shotgun taped to his throat inside the van. Prosecutor Gary Thomas was paralyzed by a police bullet during the incident.

A shotgun used by the escapees was registered in Davis's name, implicating her in the escape attempt. The California warrant issued for Davis charged her as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. On August 18, 1970, Davis became the third woman and the 309th individual to appear on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List.


Davis fled California and evaded the police for over two months before being captured in New York City. While being held in the Women's Detention Center in New York City, she was initially segregated from the general population, but with the help of her legal team soon obtained a Federal court order to get out of the segregated area.

Davis got on well with other inmates, and with the help of her outside supporters was able to initiate a bail program for indigent prisoners. Her own bail was posted by Rodger McAfee, a farmer from Caruthers, California.

In 1972, eighteen months after her capture, she was tried and acquitted of all charges; the mere fact that she owned one of the guns used in the crime was not sufficient to establish her responsibility for the plot.

Following release

Following her release, Davis temporarily relocated to Cuba following in the footsteps of fellow radicals Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael. Her reception by Afro-Cubans at a mass rally was so enthusiastic that she was reportedly barely able to speak.

Support for the Peoples Temple

Angela Davis was an ally of the Peoples Temple, led by controversial political figure Jim Jones, and she attended Jones' speeches at the Temple. Between 1975 and 1977, Davis participated in Temple rallies, convened privately with Jones and the Temple, which promoted apostolic socialism, and was considered to be the Temple's favorite African American communist. Most notably, during one of the Temple's "White Nights" in Jonestown in September of 1977, Davis addressed 1,000 Temple members via radio relay, urging her support and agreeing with Jones' assessment that "there is a conspiracy designed to destroy the contributions which you have made to the struggle.

Jonestown later became the site of the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the incidents of September 11, 2001 and the only murder of a Congressman in the line of duty in U.S. history.

Later career

Davis ran for Vice President on the Communist ticket in 1980 and 1984 along with Gus Hall. She has continued a career of activism, and has written several books. A principal focus of her current activism is the state of prisons within the United States. She considers herself an abolitionist, not a "prison reformer," and refers to the United States prison system as the "prison-industrial complex." Her solutions include abolishing prisons and addressing the class, race, and gender factors that have led to large numbers of blacks and Latinos being incarcerated.

Davis was one of the primary founders of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to building a movement to abolish the prison-industrial complex.

She has lectured at San Francisco State University, Stanford University and other schools. She is currently the Presidential Chair and Professor with the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and director of the Feminist Studies department. She states that in her teaching, which is mostly at the graduate level, she concentrates more on posing questions which encourage development of critical thinking than on imparting knowledge. In 1997, she came out as a lesbian in Out magazine.

Davis spoke out against the 1995 Million Man March, arguing that the exclusion of women from this event necessarily promoted male chauvinism and that the organizers, including Louis Farrakhan, preferred women to take subordinate roles in society. In response to the March, and together with Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, she formed the African American Agenda 2000, a small alliance of Black feminists.

Davis is no longer a member of the Communist Party, leaving to help found the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, which broke from the CPUSA due to the latter body's support of the Soviet coup attempt of 1991 and the communist parties of the Warsaw Pact. She remains on the Advisory Board of the Committees. Davis points to Cuba as an example of a country which successfully addresses social and economic problems. In her view democracy and socialism are more compatible than democracy and capitalism.

In recent years, Angela Davis has spoken out against the death penalty. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, she participated in a 2004 panel concerning Kevin Cooper. She also spoke in defense of Stanley "Tookie" Williams on another panel in 2005. Davis remains a prominent figure in the struggle against the death penalty in California.

She was the commencement speaker at Grinnell College in May, 2007. On October 27, Davis was the keynote speaker at the 5th annual Practical Activism Conference at UC Santa Cruz.

On February 08, 2008, she spoke on the campus of Howard University on behalf of the invitation of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. Alpha Chapter. On February 24, 2008, she was featured as the closing keynote speaker for the 2008 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference. On April 14, 2008, she spoke at The College of Charleston as a guest of the Women's and Gender Studies Program.

Cultural references

The first of the three tracks on Herbie Hancock's 1970 album Mwandishi pays tribute to Angela Davis. The track itself is titled Ostinato (Suite for Angela).

In 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released the song "Angela" about her and the Rolling Stones released "Sweet Black Angel," both of which chronicled her legal problems and advocated for her release. The 1976 film Network features a parody of her in its character Laureen Hobbs.

Performance artist Vaginal Davis, active since the early 1970s, took her name as an homage to Angela Davis.

Cuban musician Pablo Milanes wrote "Cancion para Angela Davis" for her in 1984.

The last track on Sun Ra's 1984 album The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab in Egypt is titled "Music for Angela Davis".

In the 1987 Eddie Murphy film Raw, Murphy makes a reference to Angela Davis' afro.

Davis appears as a minor character in American Pastoral by Philip Roth.

An audio clip of Angela Davis is used in a song by underground Virginia rapper Dicap the Emcee.

The Swedish artist Turid starts the song "Visa om imperialismens taktik" with the words "Åh, Angela Davis, det var natt när dom hämtade dej..." (Oh, Angela Davis, they came for you in the night...)

In the 2001 movie "How High", Redman makes reference to Angela Davis while making fun of a professor. He says "You Angela Davis mustache havin mothafuka" and goes on with other black panther and racial segregation references.

During a Black History Month episode of the Proud Family, Penny Proud had to play the role of Angela Davis for her history project.

Davis appears in the 2006 documentary film "The U.S. Vs. John Lennon" in both the archive footage and in interview segments as Dr. Angela Davis.

Davis's presentation forms a major part of the book and video of the 1996 Feminist Family Values Forum presented by the Foundation for a Compassionate Society in Austin, Texas.

On March 8th 2008 Davis attended the Capital Woman event in London, England. Where she spoke about current prison issues and answered various question put to her by the audience.

Angela is mentioned in Le Tigre's song Hot Topic, among other inspirational women.

In the popular 1999 German film "Sonnenallee," members of a communist youth organization in the GDR write letters in support of Davis during her imprisonment.

A recording of Angela Davis appears on the song "Hot Night" from Me'shell Nedegocello's 2001 album Cooki.

The 2008 film The Bank Job includes a poster saying "Free Angela Davis"

In the first season, 16 episode of Friday Night Lights, Smash Williams calls his friend "Angela Davis" for encouraging him in his walk-out against his football team.

In the early 1990s, Angela Davis was mentioned as a friend of Philip and Vivian Banks on the show Fresh Prince of Bel Air

Angela Davis is mentioned in the song "Crooklyn Dogders" by the group of the same name assembled for Spike Lee's film Crooklyn.

Angela Davis in Russian culture

Thousands of Soviet citizens signed letters demanding the release of Angela Davis, and in Russian the phrase "Freedom to Angela Davis!" (Свободу Анджеле Дэвис !) became a synonym for fighting against certain problems abroad, refusing to see problems in one's own country. Also an Afro haircut sometimes in Russian is called "Angela Davis". In 2003 the Russian rock band "Neprikasaemye" (The Untouchables) recorded a song called "Freedom to Angela Davis!" (Свободу Анджеле Дэвис !), referring both to an "Angela Davis" haircut and her imprisonment, with the widely quoted refrain "Дайте ей свободу, суки !" (Free her, bastards ! (literally -Give her freedom, bitches)).

Russian dissident and Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn criticized Davis's sympathy for the Soviet Union in a speech he delivered to the AFL-CIO on July 9, 1975 in New York City, pointing out hypocrisy in her attitude toward prisoners under Communist governments. According to Solzhenitsyn, a group of Czech dissidents “addressed an appeal to her: `Comrade Davis, you were in prison. You know how unpleasant it is to sit in prison, especially when you consider yourself innocent. You have such great authority now. Could you help our Czech prisoners? Could you stand up for those people in Czechoslovakia who are being persecuted by the state?' Angela Davis answered: 'They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.'”


See also

List of African American philosophers
Critical Resistance


External links

About Angela Davis

Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement

Related Links

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