9 – Angela Davis
“My name became known because I was, one might say accidentally the target of state repression and because so many people throughout the country and other parts of the world organized around the demand for my freedom.” Angela Davis
The next in our trio of strong black women is a powerhouse of the black radical movement, Angela Davis. Davis comes in the same traditions as Rosa Parks and Miriam Makeba, in the sense that she was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, but her causes go far further than the two previous women. Davis’ career in politics – which is now into its sixth decade and shows no signs of slowing down – has always confronted racism and bigotry, but has also delivered scathing criticisms of the systems that perpetuate prejudice.
As an activist, she was an early member of the Black Panther Party (and described as the “dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis” by President Richard Nixon) before transitioning into membership of the Communist Party of the USA, as well as giving speeches in socialist nations such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany. As an academic, she has held positions all over the world and written extensively on civil rights and women’s rights, as well as being one of the major formulators of the concept of the prison industrial complex, which links the prison system of the United States to issues of racism, class prejudice and economics.
She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time one of the most racist cities in the country. She later wrote of her upbringing: “I grew up in the southern United States in a city which at that time during the late ’40’s and early ’50’s was the most segregated city in the country, and in a sense learning how to oppose the status quo was a question of survival.” She was educated there, but moved to New York City as a teenager to attend an integrated school. She became attracted to the far left and, while at university, travelled to a communist youth festival in Finland. She later studied in France and Germany before moving back to the States to teach in 1969, whereupon she was thrust into black activism.
Davis’ political views were well set by the time she returned to America, but her political career was just beginning. As a member of the Communist Party, a campaign began to have her removed from the California university system, led by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. She was let go by her employer but reinstated after a judge ruled that her political beliefs were not a ground for her to be fired. In 1970, she would be shot into the national spotlight: a 17-year-old black high school student took a judge and three jurors hostage at a courthouse in Marin County, California, eventually killing the judge with a shotgun that Davis had bought two days before. She was put on the FBI Most Wanted List and remained a fugitive for two months, before being captured.
Her trial made international news. Thousands demonstrated for her release, John Lennon penned a song on her behalf and, over a year after first being arrested, she was released on bail. When her case finally came to court, she was acquitted of prior knowledge of the crime. On the back of this publicity, Davis travelled to speak at conferences around the world: she visited Cuba, the Soviet Union and East Germany, before returning to academia with teaching posts in San Francisco and Santa Cruz in California. A major subject that she had campaigned over is the mass incarceration of African-Americans, which she has regularly compared to the slavery era:
“For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret — all at a fraction of the cost of ‘free labor’.”
Her influence on the black feminist movement cannot be underestimated. Through decades of activism and literature, she has done about as much to raise the profile of black women, of women’s rights and civil rights, and of economic justice, as almost anyone still active today.