Angela Davis, activist, educator, scholar, and politician, was born on January 26, 1944, in the “Dynamite Hill” area of Birmingham, Alabama. The area received that name because so many African-American homes in this middle-class neighborhood had been bombed over the years by the Ku Klux Klan. Her father, Frank Davis, was a service station owner and her mother, Sallye Davis, was an elementary school teacher. Davis’s mother was also active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), when it was dangerous to be openly associated with the organization because of its civil rights activities. As a teenager, Davis moved to New York City with her mother, who was pursuing a Master’s degree at New York University. While there she attended Elizabeth Irwin High School, a school considered leftist because a number of its teachers were blacklisted during the McCarthy era for their earlier alleged Communist activities.
In 1961 Davis enrolled at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. While at Brandeis, Davis also studied abroad for a year in France and returned to the U.S. to complete her studies, joining Phi Beta Kappa and earning her B.A. (magna cum laude) in 1965. Even before her graduation, Davis, so moved by the deaths of the four girls killed in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in her hometown in 1963, that she decided to join the civil rights movement. By 1967, however, Davis was influenced by Black Power advocates and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and then the Black Panther Party. She also continued her education, earning an M.A. from the University of California at San Diego in 1968. Davis moved further to the left in the same year when she became a member of the American Communist Party.
In 1969 Angela Davis was hired by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) as an assistant professor of philosophy, but her involvement in the Communist Party led to her dismissal. During the early 1970s, she also became active in the movement to improve prison conditions for inmates. That work led to her campaign to release the “Soledad (Prison) Brothers.”
Outside of academia, Davis had become a strong supporter of the three prison inmates of Soledad Prison known as the Soledad brothers. These three men — John W. Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Lester Jackson — were accused of killing a prison guard after several African-American inmates had been killed in a fight by another guard. Some thought these prisoners were being used as scapegoats because of the political work within the prison.
On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson, the younger brother of George Jackson, attempted to free prisoners who were on trial in the Marin County Courthouse. During this failed attempt, Superior Court Judge Harold Haley and three others including Jonathan Jackson were killed. Although Davis did not participate in the actual break-out attempt, she became a suspect when it was discovered that the guns used by Jackson were registered in her name. Davis fled to avoid arrest and was placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Criminals list for her association with the Black Panther Partner & her wrongful accusation in a murder case. She spent 16 months in jail while awaiting trial for murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges. During her high-profile trial in 1972, she was acquitted of all 3 charges, in a landmark case.
The incident nonetheless generated an outcry against Davis and then California Governor Ronald Reagan campaigned to prevent her from teaching in the California State university system. Despite the governor’s objection, Davis became a lecturer in women’s and ethnic studies at San Francisco State University in 1977.
As a scholar, Davis has authored several books, including Angela Davis: An Autobiography in 1974; Women, Race, and Class in 1983; and Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday in 1999.
In the political arena, Davis ran for Vice President of the United States in 1980 & 1984 on the Communist Party ticket. Davis continues to be an activist and lecturer as Professor Emeritus of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Syracuse University.
Angela Davis’ legacy lived on through hip-hop in the mid-1980’s and early 1990’s. The youth at the time known as the hip-hop generation delve into activism through conscious hip-hop. Inspired by Black leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells-Bamett, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Kwame Toure, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers hip-hop culture gave a voice to a new generation of activists transforming the global expression of the modern youth identity creating a new sociopolitical forum of self-expression and knowledge of self.
Du Bois’s essay, “The Freedom to Learn”; King’s book. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, Gil Scott-Heron’s song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”; and Angela Davis’s numerous writings on the prison-industrial complex lay the groundwork and possible even the soundtrack for a movement of rappers and hip hop artists, such as Public Enemy, Sister Souljah, KRS-One, MeShell Ndegeocello, Goodie Mob, The Coup, Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, Dead prez, Mr. Lif, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, Hieroglyphic and many others.
Hip-Hop Activism combined progressive youth politics, community organizing, and hip-hop culture to address such issues as the prison industrial complex, poverty racism, police brutality, globalization, education, and democracy.
Call her Angela Davis, as Rah Digga comes through and laces us with her unique brand of lyrical prowess over a fiery electric-guitar laden head-nodder.
Still heavily involved in the what we are facing as a people today, in the January 2015 #BlackLivesMatter issue of Essence Magazine, Davis wrote;
“We are in a time of transformation. There is such potential for change. All over this country from Ferguson to New York City to Washington—indeed, in other parts of the world—people are absolutely refusing to assent to racist state violence.
Rather, we are saying that Black bodies do matter. And our work must be to continue taking to the streets and standing together against the routine actions of police and the DAs who collude with them; and continue saying, “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,” until there is real change on the agenda for us.”
In July 2016 at the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors, Rapper/Actor/Activist Common credits Angela Davis and others with standing on the “front lines in our ongoing movement for justice.”
“I’m talking about Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Shirley Chisholm, I’m talking about the Black Lives Matter founders,” said Common.
“And I’m also talking about everyday women,” he continued. “Women like Diamond Reynolds, who filmed the police killing [Philando Castile]. Who tried to calmly de-escalate the deadly situation and hours later, was at her governor’s mansion, demanding justice.”
Davis, is a national figure in the Black Power and anti-prison movement. Angela Davis voicing her support for the No Youth Jail Movement at Seattle Town Hall on Thursday, January 12, 2017 in town as part of the city’s MLK Unity Day, where she backed the movement against the proposed King County juvenile detention center and reflected on the shape of activism after last November’s presidential election.
“Angela Davis has taught me so much about loving myself, my own blackness, and fighting for what I believe in,” said Chasity Jones, an attendee waiting in line. “Ever since the [election] results, a lot of people are waking up, and understanding we need to do something.”
Davis became a prominent figure in the late 1960s and early 1970s and faced repercussions for her activism. Kicking off our Women’s History Month Series, Black Westchester Magazine salutes and spotlights Angela Davis and leave you with her word from an interview while Davis was in prison, facing trial on trumped-up murder charges in California. She was asked by a reporter how she felt about the “violence” of the movement.
When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and goals that you’re striving for, not in the way you reach them.
On the other hand, because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions.
If you’re a Black person and you live in the Black community, all your life, you walk out on the street every day, seeing white policeman surrounding you. When I was living in Los Angeles, for instance…I was constantly stopped. The police didn’t know who I was, but I was a Black woman, and I had a natural, and I suppose they thought that I might be a “militant”…
You live under that situation constantly, and then you ask me whether I approve of violence. I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.
Whether I approve of guns? I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs–bombs that were planted by racists…From the time I was very, very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment, we might expect to be attacked.
The man who was at that time in complete control of the city government–his name was Bull Connor–would often get on the radio and make statements like “Niggers have moved into a white neighborhood, we’d better expect some bloodshed tonight.” And sure enough, there would be bloodshed.