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Angela Yvonne Davis (born January 26, 1944) is an American political activist, academic scholar, and author. She emerged as a prominent counterculture activist and radical in the 1960s as a leader of the Communist Party USA, and had close relations with the Black Panther Party through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Her interests include prisoner rights; she co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison-industrial complex. She was a professor (now retired) at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in its History of Consciousness Department and a former director of the university’s Feminist Studies department.
Davis was prosecuted for conspiracy involving the 1970 armed take-over of a Marin County, California, courtroom, in which four persons were killed. She was acquitted in a federal trial.
Her research interests are feminism, African-American studies, critical theory, Marxism, popular music, social consciousness, and the philosophy and history of punishment and prisons. Her membership in the Communist Party led to California Governor Ronald Reagan’s request in 1969 to have her barred from teaching at any university in the State of California. During the 1980s, she was twice a candidate for Vice President on the Communist Party USA ticket.[6
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her family lived in the “Dynamite Hill” neighborhood, which was marked in the 1950s by the bombings of houses of middle-class blacks who had moved into the area, in an attempt to intimidate them and drive them out. Davis occasionally spent time on her uncle’s farm and with friends in New York City. Her family included brothers Ben and Reginald and sister Fania. Ben played defensive back for the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Davis attended Carrie A. Tuggle School, a segregated black elementary school; later she attended Parker Annex, a middle-school branch of Parker High School in Birmingham. During this time Davis’ mother, Sallye Bell Davis, was a national officer and leading organizer of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization influenced by the Communist Party. It was trying to build alliances among African Americans in the South. Consequently, Davis grew up surrounded by communist organizers and thinkers who significantly influenced her intellectual development.
Davis was involved in her church as a child; she was an active member in her church youth group and attended Sunday school regularly. Davis attributes much of her political involvement to her involvement as a young girl in Birmingham with the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. She earned many badges and certificates; she also participated in Girl Scouts 1959 national roundup in Colorado. As a Girl Scout she marched and picketed to protest racial segregation in Birmingham.
By her junior year in high school, Davis had applied to and was accepted at an American Friends Service Committee (Quaker) program that placed black students from the South in integrated schools in the North. She chose Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village. There she was introduced to socialism and communism, and recruited by a Communist youth group, Advance.
Davis was awarded a scholarship to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she was one of three black students in her freshman class. She initially felt alienated by the isolation of the campus, but she soon made friends with foreign students. She encountered the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse at a rally during the Cuban Missile Crisis and became his student. In a 2007 television interview, she said, “Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary.” She worked part-time to earn enough money to travel to France and Switzerland before she attended the eighth World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki, Finland. She returned home in 1963 to a Federal Bureau of Investigation interview about her attendance at the Communist-sponsored festival.
During her second year at Brandeis, Davis decided to major in French and continued her intensive study of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Davis was accepted by the Hamilton College Junior Year in France Program. Classes were initially at Biarritz and later at the Sorbonne. In Paris, she and other students lived with a French family. She was in Biarritz when she learned of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, in which four black girls were killed. She grieved deeply as she was personally acquainted with the young victims.
Nearing completion of her degree in French, Davis realized her major interest was in philosophy instead. She became particularly interested in the ideas of Herbert Marcuse. On her return to Brandeis, she sat in on his course. Marcuse, she wrote, turned out to be approachable and helpful. She 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.
University of Frankfurt
In Germany, with a stipend of $100 a month, she first lived with a German family. Later, she moved with a group of students into a loft in an old factory. After visiting East Berlin during the annual May Day celebration, she felt that the East German government was dealing better with the residual effects of fascism than were the West Germans. Many of her roommates were active in the radical Socialist German Student Union (SDS), and Davis participated in some SDS actions. Events in the United States, including the formation of the Black Panther Party and the transformation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to an all-black organization, made her ready to return there.
Marcuse had moved to a position at the University of California, San Diego, and Davis followed him there after her two years in Frankfurt. On her way back, Davis stopped in London to attend a conference on “The Dialectics of Liberation.” The black contingent at the conference included the Trinidadian-American Stokely Carmichael and the British Michael X. Although moved by Carmichael’s rhetoric, she was reportedly disappointed by her colleagues’ black nationalist sentiments and their rejection of communism as a “white man’s thing.”
She joined the Che-Lumumba Club (an all-black branch of the Communist Party USA), named for international Communist sympathizers and leaders Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba, of Cuba and the Congo, respectively.
Davis earned her master’s degree from University of California-San Diego. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the Humboldt University in East Berlin.
Professor at University of California, Los Angeles, 1969–70
Beginning in 1969, Davis was an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Although both Princeton and Swarthmore had tried to recruit her, she opted for UCLA because of its urban location. At that time, she was known as a radical feminist and activist, a member of the Communist Party USA, and an associate of the Black Panther Party.
Angela Davis (center, no glasses) enters Royce Hall at UCLA in October 1969 to give her first lecture.
The Board of Regents of the University of California, urged by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, fired her from her $10,000 a year post in 1969 because of her membership in the Communist Party. The Board of Regents was censured by the American Association of University Professors for their failure to reappoint Davis after her teaching contract expired. On October 20, when Judge Jerry Pacht ruled the Regents could not fire Davis solely because of her affiliation with the Communist Party, Davis resumed her post.
The Regents released Davis again, on June 20, 1970, for the “inflammatory language” she had used in four different speeches. “We deem particularly offensive”, the report said, “such utterances as her statement that the regents ‘killed, brutalized (and) murdered’ the People’s Park demonstrators, and her repeated characterizations of the police as ‘pigs'”.
Arrest and trial
See also: Marin County courthouse incident
Davis was a supporter of the Soledad Brothers, three inmates accused of killing a prison guard at Soledad Prison.
On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson, a heavily armed, 17-year-old African-American high-school student, gained control over a courtroom in Marin County, California. Once in the courtroom, Jackson armed the black defendants and took Judge Harold Haley, the prosecutor, and three female jurors as hostages. As Jackson transported the hostages and two black convicts away from the courtroom, the police began shooting at the vehicle. The judge and the three black men were killed in the melee; one of the jurors and the prosecutor were injured. The firearms which Jackson used in the attack, including the shotgun used to kill Judge Haley, had been purchased by Davis two days prior, and the barrel of the shotgun had been sawn off. Davis was found to have been corresponding with one of the inmates involved.
As California considers “all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense… principals in any crime so committed”, Marin County Superior Judge Peter Allen Smith charged Davis with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley” and issued a warrant for her arrest. Hours after the judge issued the warrant on August 14, 1970, a massive attempt to locate and arrest Angela Davis began. On August 18, 1970, four days after the initial warrant was issued, the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover listed Davis on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List; she was the third woman and the 309th person to be listed.
Soon after, Davis became a fugitive and fled California. According to her autobiography, during this time she hid in friends’ homes and moved at night. On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found her at a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City. President Richard M. Nixon congratulated the FBI on its “capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis.”
Angela Davis with Valentina Tereshkova, 1972
On January 5, 1971, Davis appeared at the Marin County Superior Court and declared her innocence before the court and nation: “I now declare publicly before the court, before the people of this country that I am innocent of all charges which have been leveled against me by the state of California.” John Abt, general counsel of the Communist Party USA, was one of the first attorneys to represent Davis for her alleged involvement in the shootings.
While being held in the Women’s Detention Center, Davis was initially segregated from other prisoners, in what she referred to as solitary confinement. With the help of her legal team, she obtained a federal court order to get out of the segregated area.
Angela Davis and Erich Honecker in GDR, 1972
Across the nation, thousands of people began organizing a movement to gain her release. In New York City, black writers formed a committee called the Black People in Defense of Angela Davis. By February 1971 more than 200 local committees in the United States, and 67 in foreign countries, worked to free Davis from prison. John Lennon and Yoko Ono contributed to this campaign with the song: “Angela”. In 1972, after a sixteen-month incarceration, the state allowed her release on bail from county jail. On February 23, 1972, Rodger McAfee, a dairy farmer from Fresno, California, paid her $100,000 bail with the help of Steve Sparacino, a wealthy business owner. Portions of her legal defense expenses were paid for by the United Presbyterian Church.
A defense motion for a change of venue was granted, and the trial was moved to Santa Clara County. On June 4, 1972, after three days of deliberations, the all-white jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The fact that she owned the guns used in the crime was judged insufficient to establish her responsibility in the plot. She was represented by Leo Branton Jr., who hired psychologists to help the defense determine who in the jury pool might favor their arguments, a technique that has since become more common. He hired experts to discredit the reliability of eyewitness accounts.
Representation in other media
The first song released in favor of Davis was “Angela” (1971), written by Italian singer-songwriter and musician Virgilio Savona with his group (Quartetto Cetra). He received some anonymous threats.
The Rolling Stones song “Sweet Black Angel,” recorded in 1970 and released on their album Exile on Main Street (1972), is dedicated to Davis. It is one of the band’s few overtly political releases.
Bob Dylan’s song “George Jackson” (1971) is concerned with the events of the case.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded their song “Angela” on their album Some Time in New York City (1972) in support.
The jazz musician Todd Cochran, also known as Bayete, recorded his song “Free Angela (Thoughts…and all I’ve got to say)” that same year.
Tribe Records co-founder Phil Ranelin released a song dedicated to Davis, titled “Angela’s Dilemma,” on Message From The Tribe (1972), a spiritual jazz collectable.
References in other venues
On January 28, 1972, Garrett Brock Trapnell hijacked TWA Flight 2. One of his demands was Davis’ release.
Other activities in the 1970s
After her acquittal, Davis visited Cuba. Fellow activists Robert F. Williams, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and Assata Shakur had also visited there, and Shakur lives there in exile. Her reception by Afro-Cubans at a mass rally was so enthusiastic that she was reportedly barely able to speak. Davis perceived Cuba to be a racism-free country, which led her to believe that “only under socialism could the fight against racism be successfully executed.” When she returned to the United States, her socialist leanings increasingly influenced her understanding of race struggles.
In 1979, Davis was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union. She visited Moscow in July of that year to accept the prize.
Jonestown and Peoples Temple
In the mid-1970s, Jim Jones, who developed the cult Peoples Temple, initiated friendships with progressive leaders in the San Francisco area including Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement AIM and Davis. On September 10, 1977, 14 months prior to the Temple’s mass murder-suicide, Davis spoke via radio-phone dispatch to members of his Peoples Temple living in Guyana within Jonestown. In her statement during the “Six Day Siege”, she expressed support for the People’s Temple anti-racism efforts and told members there was a conspiracy against them. She said that “when you are attacked, it is because of your progressive stand, and we feel that it is directly an attack against us as well.”
In a New York City speech on July 9, 1975, Russian dissident and Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told an AFL-CIO meeting that Davis was derelict in having failed to support prisoners in various socialist countries around the world, given her strong opposition to the US prison system. He claimed a group of Czech prisoners had appealed to Davis for support, which Solzhenitsyn said she had declined.
Later academic career
Davis was Professor of Ethnic Studies at the San Francisco State University from at least 1980 to 1984.
Davis was a professor in the History of Consciousness and the Feminist Studies Departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Rutgers University from 1991 to 2008. Since then, she is Distinguished Professor Emerita.
Davis was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Syracuse University in Spring 1992 and October 2010.
In 2014, Davis returned to UCLA as a Regents’ Lecturer. She delivered a public lecture on May 8 in Royce Hall, where she had given her first lecture 45 years earlier.
On May 22, 2016, Davis was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters in Healing and Social Justice from California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco during its 48th annual commencement ceremony.
Political activism and speeches
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Davis left the Communist Party in 1991, founding the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Her group broke from the Communist Party USA because of the latter’s support of the Soviet coup attempt of 1991 following the fall of the Soviet Union and tearing down of the Berlin Wall. She continues to serve on the Advisory Board of the Committees.
Davis 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.” She has referred to the United States prison system as the “Prison-industrial complex,” aggravated by the establishment of privately owned and run prisons. Davis suggests focusing social efforts on education and building “engaged communities” to solve various social problems now handled through state punishment.
Davis was one of the founders of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to building a movement to abolish the prison-industrial complex. In recent works, she has argued that the prison system in the United States more closely resembles a new form of slavery than a criminal justice system. According to Davis, between the late 19th century and the mid-20th century, the number of prisons in the United States sharply increased but crime rates continued to rise. During this time, the racism in American society is demonstrated by the disproportionate share of the African-American population who are incarcerated. “What is effective or just about this “justice” system?” she urged people to question.
Davis has lectured at Rutgers University, San Francisco State University, Stanford University, Smith College, Bryn Mawr College, Brown University, Syracuse University, and other schools. As most of her teaching is at the graduate level, she says that she concentrates more on posing questions that encourage development of critical thinking than on imparting knowledge. In 1997, she identified as a lesbian in Out magazine.
As early as 1969, Davis began public speaking engagements. She expressed her opposition to the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and the prison-industrial complex, and her support of gay rights and other social justice movements. In 1969, she blamed imperialism for the troubles suffered by oppressed populations:
“We are facing a common enemy and that enemy is Yankee Imperialism, which is killing us both here and abroad. Now I think anyone who would try to separate those struggles, anyone who would say that in order to consolidate an anti-war movement, we have to leave all of these other outlying issues out of the picture, is playing right into the hands of the enemy”, she declared.
More than a generation later, in 2001 she publicly spoke against the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks, continued to criticize the prison-industrial complex, and discussed the broken immigration system. She said that if people wanted to solve social justice issues, they had to “hone their critical skills, develop them and implement them.” Later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she declared that the “horrendous situation in New Orleans” was due to the structures of racism, capitalism, and imperialism with which our leaders ran this country.
Davis opposed the 1995 Million Man March, arguing that the exclusion of women from this event necessarily promoted male chauvinism. She said that Louis Farrakhan and other organizers appeared to prefer that women take subordinate roles in society. Together with Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, she formed the African American Agenda 2000, an alliance of Black feminists.
Davis at the University of Alberta, March 28, 2006.
Davis has continued to oppose the death penalty. In 2003, she lectured at Agnes Scott College, a liberal arts women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia, on prison reform, minority issues, and the ills of the criminal justice system.
At the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC 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, and 2009.
In 2008, Davis participated as a keynote speaker at Vanderbilt University’s conference, “Who Speaks for the Negro?”. She has visited the University twice since then; most recently she gave the Commemorative Murray Lecture on February 25, 2015, to talk with students in a fireside chat on college activism.
On April 16, 2009, she was the keynote speaker at the University of Virginia Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies symposium on The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequity, and Justice.
On October 31, 2011, Davis spoke at the Philadelphia and Washington Square Occupy Wall Street assemblies. Due to restrictions on electronic amplification, her words were human microphoned. In 2012 Davis was awarded the 2011 Blue Planet Award, an award given for contributions to humanity and the planet.
At the 27th Empowering Women of Color Conference in 2012, Davis mentioned that she was a vegan. Davis has called for the release of Rasmea Odeh, associate director at the Arab American Action Network, who was convicted of immigration fraud.
On January 23, 2012, Davis was the Rhode Island School of Design’s MLK Celebration Series keynote speaker and 2012 Honoree.
Davis was an honorary co-chair of the January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington, which occurred the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President.
Representation in other media
In Renato Guttuso’s painting, The Funerals of Togliatti (1972) by Renato Guttuso, Davis is depicted, among other figures of communism; she’s in the left framework, near the author’s self-portrait, Elio Vittorini, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In the movie Network (1976), Marlene Warfield’s character Laureen Hobbs seems to be modelled after Davis.
If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (New York: Third Press, 1971), ISBN 0-893-88022-1.
Angela Davis: An Autobiography, Random House (September 1974), ISBN 0-394-48978-0.
Joan Little: The Dialectics of Rape (New York: Lang Communications, 1975) http://www.msmagazine.com/spring2002/davis.asp
Women, Race, & Class (February 12, 1983), ISBN 0-394-71351-6.
Women, Culture & Politics, Vintage (February 19, 1990), ISBN 0-679-72487-7.
The Angela Y. Davis Reader (ed. Joy James), Wiley-Blackwell (December 11, 1998), ISBN 0-631-20361-3.
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Vintage Books (January 26, 1999), ISBN 0-679-77126-3.
Are Prisons Obsolete?, Seven Stories Press (April 2003), ISBN 1-58322-581-1.
Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire, Seven Stories Press (October 1, 2005), ISBN 1-58322-695-8.
The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues (City Lights, 2012), ISBN 978-0872865808.
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, Haymarket Books (2015), ISBN 978-1-60846-564-4.
Interview Angela Davis (Public Broadcasting Service, Spring 1997) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/interviews/davis.html
Angela Davis interviews and appearances in audiovisual materials
An Interview with Angela Davis. Cassette. Radio Free People, New York, 1971.
Myerson, M. “Angela Davis in Prison.” Ramparts Magazine, March 1971: 20–21.
Seigner, Art. Angela Davis: Soul and Soledad. Phonodisc. Flying Dutchman, New York, 1971.
Interview with Angela Davis in San Francisco on June 1970
Walker, Joe. Angela Davis Speaks. Phonodisc. Folkways Records, New York, 1971.
“Angela Davis Talks about her Future and her Freedom.” Jet, July 27, 1972: 54–57.
Davis, Angela Y. I am a Black Revolutionary Woman (1971). Phonodisc. Folkways, New York, 1977.
Phillips, Esther. Angela Davis Interviews Esther Phillips. Cassette. Pacifica Tape Library, Los Angeles, 1977.
Cudjoe, Selwyn. In Conversation with Angela Davis. Videocassette. ETV Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1985. 21-minute interview.
Davis, Angela Y. “Women on the Move: Travel Themes in Ma Rainey’s Blues” in Borders/diasporas. Sound Recording. University of California, Santa Cruz: Center for Cultural Studies, Santa Cruz, 1992.
Davis, Angela Y. The Prison Industrial Complex and its Impact on Communities of Color. Videocassette. University of Wisconsin – Madison, Madison, WI, 2000.
Barsamian, D. “Angela Davis: African American Activist on Prison-Industrial Complex.” Progressive 65.2 (2001): 33–38.
“September 11 America: an Interview with Angela Davis.” Policing the National Body: Sex, Race, and Criminalization. Cambridge, Ma.: South End Press, 2002.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975; a (2011) film prominently featuring Davis in a number of rarely seen Swedish interviews.
Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, December 3, 2014.
13th (film), about the 13th Amendment and history of the civil rights movement, 2016
The National United Committee to Free Angela Davis is at the Main Library at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California (A collection of thousands of letters received by the Committee and Davis from people in the US and other countries.) 
The complete transcript of her trial, including all appeals and legal memoranda, has been preserved in the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Library in Berkeley, California.