A scholar, activist, and professed Communist, Angela Davis (born 1944) became a leading advocate of civil rights for blacks in the United States.
In August 1970 Angela Yvonne Davis was catapulted into the national spotlight when she was put on the list of the ten most wanted criminals in the United States. An armed black man, Jonathan Jackson, entered the Marin County, California, Civic Center on August 7, 1970, with a weapon owned by Davis and attempted, along with three San Quentin prisoners, to take hostages. Jackson's intention was to hold the hostages until several inmates of Soledad Prison, including Jackson's brother, George, were released. During the attempt three of the assailants and the presiding judge were killed and three others wounded. A warrant was issued for Davis's arrest. She fled, eluding the police until October 1970. After a total of 16 months in prison in New York—where she was apprehended—and in California, Davis's trial began.
The prosecutor alleged that Davis engineered the plan to kidnap the judge and jurors because of her love for George Jackson. The prosecution presented witnesses who testified that they had seen Davis with Jonathan Jackson in the days preceding the August 7 incident. Davis and her defense attorneys argued that Davis was a political activist concerned with prison reforms and the oppression of the poor in general and was not moved to a crime of passion because of her feeling for Jackson. The all-white jury, composed of eight women and four men, acquitted Davis on all counts in June 1972.
Davis, a self-avowed Communist, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. Both her parents were college educated. Her mother was a teacher and her father, after teaching for a short time, went into business for himself. The Davises moved into an all-white neighborhood when Angela was very young. Racial antipathy was fomenting in the city and the Davises knew that they were not welcome in the neighborhood. The homes of several black families who moved in after the Davises were bombed, although the Davises' home was not.
Angela Davis encountered segregation in almost every area of her life. In housing, school, stores, church, and social life, the ubiquitous "white only" or "colored only" signs, both visible and invisible, were always there. Because Davis had the opportunity to travel to New York during many of her summer vacations her awareness of the difference in racial attitudes and social classes in the South and the North was heightened. Even as a teenager, Davis later wrote, she developed a desire to alleviate the plight of the black and the poor.
Because of superior achievement during her high school years Davis got the opportunity to study at Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City. There she was regularly exposed to both socialist and communist philosophies and began to develop an interest in these subjects. She was especially interested in mass movements designed to overthrow political domination by elites. Davis's scholastic achievements earned her a scholarship to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she was one of the few blacks on campus. At the university Davis studied French literature but continued to be interested in philosophy. She studied in France during her junior year. While there, she learned of the September 1963 bombing of a church in her hometown, Birmingham, that resulted in the death of four black girls. She knew three of them.
During her senior year at Brandeis, Davis studied philosophy with Herbert Marcuse, who later became her graduate adviser. After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis in 1965, Davis applied for a scholarship to study philosophy at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. After two years she returned to the United States to study for her doctorate with Marcuse, who was then teaching at the University of California at San Diego. While in graduate school she became politically active with groups such as the Black Panthers, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Ron Karenga's US-Organization. In 1968 she became a member of the Communist Party and joined one of its local organs, the Che-Lumumba Club.
As a requirement for her doctorate Davis had to teach for one year and was appointed to the faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her appointment was challenged because she had indicated on her application that she was a Communist. There was a regulation that Communists were not allowed to teach in California state universities. Consequently, the governing body of the university, the Board of Regents, and the governor, Ronald Reagan, attempted to fire Davis. She waged a court battle against her dismissal and won. Later, however, in June 1970, she was fired for her political activity.
After she was acquitted of the charges stemming from the August 7, 1970 incident, she taught black philosophy and women's studies at San Francisco State College. In 1980 and 1984 she ran on the Communist Party ticket for vice president of the United States. By 1983 she was working with the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression and had been awarded an honorary doctorate from Lenin University.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Davis taught courses at several universities, and in 1997 continued to teach at the University of California at Santa Cruz. At the university she acted as presidential chair of a minority women's studies department. She has stated that she hopes young people will continue to seek new solutions. In Essence she said, "History is important, but it also can stifle young people's ability to think in new ways and to present ideas that may sound implausible now but that really may help us develop radical strategies for moving into the next century."
Much has been written about Angela Davis. She is coauthor of a volume entitled If They Come in the Morning (1971) and the author of Angela Davis, An Autobiography (1974), Women, Race and Class (1983), and Women, Culture & Politics (1989). The transcript of the Marin County court case (#52613) is available on microfilm. Several other books discuss the same case. Some of these are Charles R. Ashman, The People vs. Angela Davis (1972); Regina Nadelson, Who is Angela Davis? (1972); J. A. Parker, Angela Davis, the Making of a Revolutionary (1973); and Bettina Aptheker, The Morning Breaks (1975). □