Who Is Angela Davis?
On Monday, April 23 at Spazio Alfieri, activists and scholars Angela Davis and Gina Dent delivered a dialogue about their past and continuing social activism. The event will be followed by a round table discussion with Davis and Dent today, Tuesday, April 24 at 6 p.m., open to twenty-five NYU Florence students who applied for a spot.
Angela Davis is one of the most well-known radical activists from the Civil Rights era. She was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama where she grew up as an African American facing segregation and racial discrimination. Her neighborhood, which became known as “Dynamite Hill,” was the site of several bombings during the 1950s, a scare tactic used to drive out black middle class families who had moved into the formerly all-white area. Her personal experiences as well as familial influence fueled her will to make a lasting change in society.
Growing up, her mother was a national officer and leading organizer of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization influenced by the Communist Party that aimed to unite African-Americans in the South. This environment inspired Davis to become involved in her own activism as a teenager.
She organized interracial study groups, which were broken up by the police, and marched to protest racial segregation in Alabama as a Girl Scout. She applied and was accepted to the American Friends Service Committee, a program that placed black students from the South into a newly integrated school of their choice in the North. Davis ended up attending Elisabeth Irwin High School in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City.
At this point Davis became fully invested in socialism and communism, even joining a youth Communist group, called Advance. After high school, she was awarded a scholarship to attend Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she studied both philosophy and language under the personal mentorship of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whom she met at a protest.
In college, she joined several activist groups, including an all-black branch of the Communist Party and the Black Panthers. She later spent time studying at the University of Frankfurt, where she also participated in activism combatting the lasting effects of fascism in the country.
Upon her return to the States, she began studying under Marcuse at the University of California, San Diego, where she earned her master’s degree. She was offered jobs at several colleges, but chose to lecture in the Philosophy Department at the University of Southern California, where she was almost fired for her involvement in the Communist Party. She left the institution in 1970 after a report by the University of California Board of Regents criticized her use of “inflammatory language” in her speeches, especially regarding the police.
One of the most (in)famous events Davis was involved in was the 1970 trial of three black inmates, referred to as the Soledad Brothers, accused of killing a guard at the Soledad Prison. An armed 17 year old named Jonathan Jackson gained control of the California courtroom where the trial was taking place and held several people hostage; later, investigators found that the guns were registered in Davis’s name, and that Davis and Jackson’s older brother, George, may have been romantically involved, paving the way for multiple charges against her.
After a warrant was sent out for her arrest, Davis became a fugitive and fled California. She was on the run for two months, from August 14 to October 14, before she was found. During this time, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover listed her on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List, the third woman to ever be listed.
She was arrested on all charges, including murder, and was initially placed in solitary confinement in an all-women’s prison. She was able to leave solitary confinement with the help of her legal team, but ultimately spent 16 months incarcerated.
A national movement formed across the U.S. and the world to free Davis from prison. Black writers from New York City formed the Black People in Defense of Angela Davis organization, and by February of 1971, more than 200 committees in the U.S. and 67 abroad combined their efforts to release her; artists like John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote protest songs in her favor.
On February 23, 1972, she was released on $100,000 bail, paid by dairy farmer Rodger McAfee with the help of Steve Sparacino, a wealthy business owner, and the United Presbyterian Church, who helped fund her legal expenses.
Davis’s life post-prison was and is committed to reforming the U.S. carceral system. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete, she challenges readers to confront the human rights violations perpetrated in the U.S. prison systems and how the system parallels the institution of slavery.
Davis calls herself an abolitionist rather than a prison reformer, pointing to the disproportionate numbers of incarcerated indigenous and black prisoners and the profit gained from mass incarceration, referred to as the prison-industrial complex. She was one of the founding members of Critical Resistance, a grassroots movement working to dismantle the prison-industrial complex.
Over the past forty years, Davis has been an activist and educator about the problems with the modern prison system, how race, gender and class affect treatment and opportunity in society, and more. Though sometimes characterized as a radical, Davis works in coherence with organizations and institutions to advocate for her unique reform proposals, such as the abolition of all prisons. In her books, conferences and talks, she often highlights the amount of resources it takes to keep 2.3 million Americans in prison, and that the treatment of prisoners hinders rather than motivates rehabilitation. She also asserts that the use of the prison system is not what it was fundamentally created for; instead of a harsh but humane form of punishment, the turn of the 19th century turned prisons into places where “reform” was characterized by hard labor, cruelty and maltreatment. Further, she notes, a vast amount of the prisoners experiencing these conditions are African American, indigenous people and other people of color, providing evidence for the idea that the prison system promotes a racist agenda.
Her work in feminism is also some of the most important, as she was one of the first activists and academics to introduce the concept of intersectionality when examining social issues. Her work Women, Race and Class is critical towards the mainstream feminist movement for not being aware of the racial and economic components of gender discrimination, especially in the treatment of black women. Further, she is a member affiliated with Sisters Inside, an Australian organization that advocates for better treatment and services for women who are affected by the imbalances in the criminal justice system.
Davis is no longer formally aligned with the Communist Party, but works for social equality using a more democratic socialist approach. She currently teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is the author of nine books. She has lectured throughout the United States and abroad and is recognized internationally for her ongoing efforts to fight all forms of oppression. La Pietra Dialogues will closely cover her visit to NYU Florence this week, here on our blog and on social media, and will continue to celebrate and discuss the past and present of activism with our ongoing series, 1968/2018: Year of Revolt.