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Angela Davis

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Angela Davis in the 1970s
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Angela Davis in the 1970s

Angela Yvonne Davis (born January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama) is an African American radical activist and philosopher who was associated with the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s. She first achieved nationwide notoriety when she was linked to the murder of judge Harold Haley during an attempted Black Panther prison break; she fled underground, and was the subject of an intense manhunt. After 18 months as a fugitive, she was captured, arrested, tried, and eventually acquitted in one of the most famous trials in recent U.S. history. She is currently 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 prison abolition. Davis is a founder of Critical Resistance.

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[edit] Childhood

Angela Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, in the midst of Jim Crow laws. Her father, a graduate of St. Augustine's College, a traditional black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, was briefly a high school history teacher. 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. Using their 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 1960's and early 1970's.

During her childhood, Angela 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. Angela read voraciously. By her junior year, at 14, she applied for and was accepted to a program of the American Friends Service Committee which placed Black students from the South in integrated schools in the north. She chose to attend high school at Elizabeth Irwin High School, also known as the Little Red School House, in Greenwich Village in New York City a small private school favored by the radical community. There Angela was exposed to study of socialism and communism and recruited to the Communist youth group, Advance, where she became acquainted with children of the leaders of the Communist Party including her lifelong friend, Bettina Aptheker.

[edit] Education and early career

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 into Camus and Sartre), she soon made friends with the foreign students on campus. She first encountered Herbert Marcuse at a rally during the Cuban Missile Crisis and later became his student. She worked at part-time jobs earning money to spend her 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 Festival which the government considered communist sponsored.

During her second year, she decided to major in French and continued her intensive study of Sartre. Davis was accepted for the Hamilton College Junior Year in France Program and managed to talk Brandeis into extending support with her scholarship to cover the expenses. Classes were initially at Biarritz and later at the Sorbonne. In Paris, she lived together with other students 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. Again, as at Brandeis, she was socially isolated; all the other students were Whites who could offer sympathy but did not share her grief. That year President Kennedy was assassinated and there were two Têt, Vietnamese New Year, festivals in Paris, one sponsored by supporters of the South, one 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 language, she realized her major interest was philosophy. She became interested in the ideas of Herbert Marcuse. On 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.

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 moving with a group of students into a sort of loft in an old factory building. At the University, weak in German, she had great difficulty following the lectures of Adorno but soon found that her fellow students, native Germans, 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 German Socialist Student League, SDS, a radical student group. Davis participated in actions with them; but things were happening back in the United States, for example, the Black Panther Party, and she was eager to get back. Marcuse in the meantime had moved to the University of California at 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 centered on the theme of "The Dialectics of Liberation." The small Black contingent included Stokely Carmichael and Michael X, a local West Indian activist. Davis was sporting her trademark 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 contingent 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 a philosophy lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, during the 1960s, during which 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, led by Ronald Reagan, fired her from her job in 1969 because of her membership in the Communist Party. She was later rehired after community uproar over the decision. Davis ran for Vice President on the Communist ticket in 1980 and 1984 along with Gus Hall.

[edit] Notoriety

Cambridge Common demonstration, Boston, 1970
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Cambridge Common demonstration, Boston, 1970
Cuban poster saying: "Freedom for Angela Davis.", 1971
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Cuban poster saying: "Freedom for Angela Davis.", 1971

On August 18, 1970, Davis became the third woman and the 309th individual to appear on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List when she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide, due to her alleged participation in an escape attempt from Marin County Hall of Justice.

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". On August 7, George's brother, 17-year-old Jonathon Jackson, along with two others, disrupted the trial proceedings in an attempt to assist the escape of friend James McClain. McClain was on trial for an alleged attempt to stab an officer. In the courthouse the three stood up from their seats, directed everyone to freeze at gunpoint, and led the judge, prosecuting lawyer, 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 the 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 .38 caliber revolver was found in the possession of the dead George Jackson at the crime scene. [1] The gun was registered in Davis's name, and she was soon wanted by the FBI for conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. The guns used in the kidnapping were traced to Davis, implicating her in the escape attempt. A California warrant was issued for Davis' arrest in which she was charged as an accomplice to murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy.[1]

[edit] Detention

Davis fled California and evaded the police for over two months before being captured in New York City. She was tried and acquitted of all charges eighteen months after her capture. Her bail was posted by Rodger McAfee, a farmer from Caruthers, California.

While being held in the Women's Detention Center in New York City, Davis got on well with other inmates and with the help of her outside supporters was able to mobilize the prisoners, in particular, helping to initiate a bail program for indigent prisoners. Initially, she was segregated from the general population, but with the help of her excellent legal team was able in short order to obtain a Federal court order to get out of the segregated area. In 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released the song "Angela" about her and Rolling Stones released "Sweet Black Angel" which chronicled her legal problems and advocated for her release. The same year, she was exonerated on all charges.

[edit] 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.[2] Davis's visit had a significant impact on Afro-Cubans at a time when expressions of black identity were rare on the island. Her revolutionary credentials allowed admirers to identify with her without fear of being labelled counter-revolutionary by their peers. [3]

Russian dissident and Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn criticized Davis' sympathy for the Soviet Union in a speech he delivered to the AFL-CIO on July 9, 1975 in New York City, claiming hypocrisy in her attitude toward prisoners under Communist governments: as noted by 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.' That is the face of Communism. That is the heart of Communism for you.”[4]

[edit] Later career

Speaking at the University of Alberta, March 28, 2006
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Speaking at the University of Alberta, March 28, 2006

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 [2].

Davis was one of the primary founders of Critical Resistance, a national, grassroots organization dedicated to building a movement to abolish what she perceives to be 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. [3]

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

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. [5] She remains on the Advisory Board of the Committees. [4] 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 in panels against the death penalty. She spoke at a panel in the University of California, Santa Cruz to free Kevin Cooper in 2004. She also spoke at another panel in 2005 in defense of Stanley Williams. Angela Davis remains as a prominent figure in the abolitionist struggle against the death penalty in California.

[edit] Quotes

  • "Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation."
  • "Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of our social problems."
  • "It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo."[6]

[edit] List of books

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ SOLEDAD BROTHER' AND 5 ARE KILLED : SOLEDAD BROTHER' AND 5 ARE KILLED IN PRISON BATTLE; George Jackson Attempts to Flee From San Quentin -3 Guards Are Slain Wallace Turner, the New York Times, 22 August 1971, Sunday, Page 52
  2. ^ Richard Gott : Cuba a new history p.230
  3. ^ Carlos Moore : Castro, the Blacks, and Africa - Afro-American Culture and Society p.302
  4. ^ "Solzhenitsyn's Warning to the West". New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976, pp. 60-1.
  5. ^ Committees of Correspondence. Corresponder. New York, NY: The Committees, 1992.
  6. ^ "Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia" Critical Inquiry. Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 37-39, 41-43 and 45.

[edit] External links

About Angela Davis

Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement

Related Links

Preceded by:
Jarvis Tyner
Communist Party USA Vice Presidential candidate
1980 (lost), 1984 (lost)
Succeeded by:
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