Angela Davis

Born 1944

By Jone Johnson Lewis

Davis was hired as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she taught Kant, Marxism, and philosophy in Black literature. As a teacher, Davis was popular with both students and faculty members – her first lecture drew well over 1,000 people – but a leak identifying her as a member of the Communist Party, led the UCLA Board of Regents, headed then by Ronald Reagan, to dismiss her. 

Superior Court Judge Jerry Pacht ordered her reinstatement, ruling that the university could not fire Davis simply because she was a member of the Communist Party, but she was fired again the following year, on June 20, 1970, for what the regents said were her incendiary statements, including charges that the regents:

“…killed, brutalized [and] murdered’ the People’s Park demonstrators, and her repeated characterization of the police as ‘pigs,” according to a 1970 story in the New York Times. (One person had been killed and dozens injured during a demonstration at People’s Park in Berkeley on May 15, 1969.) The American Association of University Professors later, in 1972, censured the Board of Regents for Davis’ firings.

Activism

After her dismissal from UCLA, Davis became involved in the case of the Soledad Brothers, a group of Black prisoners at Soledad Prison—George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette—who were charged with the murder of a guard at the prison. Davis and a number of others formed the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, a group that worked to try to free the prisoners. She soon became the leader of the group.

Angela Davis on a Soledad Brother Demonstration

On Aug. 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson, the 17-year-old brother of George Jackson, kidnapped Marin County Superior Court Judge Harold Haley in an attempt to negotiate the release of the Soledad Brothers. (Haley was presiding over the trial of prisoner James McClain, who was charged in an unrelated incident—the attempted stabbing of a prison guard.) Haley was killed in the failed attempt, but the guns Jonathan Jackson used were registered to Davis, who had purchased them a few days prior to the incident.

Davis was arrested as a suspected conspirator in the attempt. Davis was eventually acquitted of all charges, but for a time she was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list after she fled and went into hiding to avoid arrest.

Posted by AfroMarxist

The FBI issued this wanted flier on Aug. 18, 1970. Angela Davis was charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for murder and kidnapping. 

Davis joined the Communist Party when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and ran for vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. Davis was not the first Black woman to run for vice president. That honor goes to Charlotta Bass, a journalist and activist, who ran for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. According to USA Today, Bass told supporters during her acceptance speech in Chicago:

“This is a historic moment in American political life. Historic for myself, for my people, for all women. For the first time in the history of this nation a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land.”

And in 1972, Shirley Chisolm, who had been the first Black woman elected to Congress (in 1968), unsuccessfully sought the nomination for vice president on the Democratic ticket. Though “discrimination followed her quest,” according to the National Women’s History Museum, Chisolm entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 votes with a campaign funded in part by the Congressional Black Caucus.

A few years after her two vice-presidential runs, in 1991, Davis left the Communist Party, though she continues to be involved in some of its activities.

As a self-described prison abolitionist, she has played a major role in the push for criminal justice reforms and other resistance to what she calls the ‘prison-industrial complex’. In her essay Public Imprisonment and Private Violence, Davis calls the sexual abuse of women in prison:

“one of the most heinous state-sanctioned human rights violations within the United States today.”

Prison Reform

Davis has continued her work for prison reform over the years. To press her point, Davis speaks at events and academic conferences, such as one held at the University of Virginia in 2009. Thirty scholars and others—including Davis—gathered to discuss “the growth of the prison-industrial complex and racial disparities in the U.S.,” according to UVA Today.

Davis told the paper at the time that:

“(r)acism fuels the prison-industrial complex. The vast disproportion of Black people makes it clear. … Black men are criminalized.”

Davis has advocated for other methods to deal with people who are violent, methods that focus on rehabilitation and restoration. To that end, Davis has also written on the subject, particularly in her 2010 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?

In the book, Davis said:

“During my own career as an anti-prison activist, I have seen the population of U.S. prisons increase with such rapidity that many people in Black, Latino, and Native American communities now have a far greater chance of going to prison than getting an education.”

Noting that she first became involved in anti-prison activism during the 1960s, she argued that it’s time to have a serious national talk about doing away with these institutions that:

“relegate ever-larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked more by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion.”

Academia

Davis taught in the Ethnic Studies department at San Francisco State University from 1980 to 1984. Although former Gov. Reagan swore she would never teach again in the University of California system,

“Davis was reinstated after an outcry from academics and civil rights advocates,” according to J.M. Brown of theSanta Cruz Sentinel.

Davis was hired by the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the History of Consciousness Department in 1984 and was made a professor in 1991. 

During her tenure there, she continued to work as an activist and promote women’s rights and racial justice. She has published books on race, class, and gender, including such popular titles as The Meaning of Freedom and Women, Culture & Politics.

When Davis retired from UCSC in 2008, she was named professor emerita. In the years since, she has continued her work for prison abolition, women’s rights, and racial justice. Davis has taught at UCLA and elsewhere as a visiting professor, committed to the importance of:

“liberating minds as well as liberating society.”

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