Angela Yvonne Davis
January 26, 1944
(m. 1980; div. 1983)
|Awards||Lenin Peace Prize|
|Education||Brandeis University (BA)|
University of California, San Diego (MA)
Humboldt University (PhD)
|Doctoral advisor||Herbert Marcuse|
Angela Yvonne Davis (born January 26, 1944) is an American political activist, philosopher, academic and author. She is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A Marxist, Davis was a longtime member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and is a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). She is the author of over ten books on class, feminism, race, and the US prison system.
Born to an African-American family in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis studied French at Brandeis University and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in West Germany. Studying under the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a prominent figure in the Frankfurt School, Davis became increasingly engaged in far-left politics. Returning to the United States, she studied at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to East Germany, where she completed a doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin. After returning to the United States, she joined the Communist Party and became involved in numerous causes, including the second-wave feminist movement and the campaign against the Vietnam War. In 1969, she was hired as an acting assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). UCLA's governing Board of Regents soon fired her due to her Communist Party membership; after a court ruled this illegal, the university fired her again, this time for her use of inflammatory language.
In 1970, guns belonging to Davis were used in an armed takeover of a courtroom in Marin County, California, in which four people were killed. Prosecuted for three capital felonies, including conspiracy to murder, she was held in jail for over a year before being acquitted of all charges in 1972. She visited Eastern Bloc countries in the 1970s and during the 1980s, was twice the Communist Party's candidate for vice president; at the time, she also held the position of professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University. Much of her work focused on the abolition of prisons and in 1997, she co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison-industrial complex. In 1991, amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she was part of a faction in the Communist Party that broke away to establish the CPUSA. Also in 1991, she joined the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she became department director before retiring in 2008. Since then she has continued to write and remained active in movements such as Occupy and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
Davis has received various awards, including the Soviet Union's Lenin Peace Prize. Accused of supporting political violence, she has sustained criticism from the highest levels of the US government. She has also been criticized for supporting the Soviet Union and its satellites. Davis has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 2020, she was listed as the 1971 "Woman of the Year" in Time magazine's "100 Women of the Year" edition, which covered the 100 years that began with women's suffrage in 1920. Davis is included in Time 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
Angela Davis was born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her family lived in the "Dynamite Hill" neighborhood, which was marked in the 1950s by the bombings of houses in an attempt to intimidate and drive out middle-class black people who had moved there. Davis occasionally spent time on her uncle's farm and with friends in New York City. Her siblings include two brothers, Ben and Reginald, and a sister, Fania. Ben played defensive back for the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Davis attended Carrie A. Tuggle School, a segregated black elementary school, and later, Parker Annex, a middle-school branch of Parker High School in Birmingham. During this time, Davis's mother, Sallye Bell Davis, was a national officer and leading organizer of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization influenced by the Communist Party aimed at building alliances among African Americans in the South. Davis grew up surrounded by communist organizers and thinkers, who significantly influenced her intellectual development.
Davis was involved in her church youth group as a child, and attended Sunday school regularly. She attributes much of her political involvement to her involvement with the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. She also participated in the Girl Scouts 1959 national roundup in Colorado. As a Girl Scout, she marched and picketed to protest racial segregation in Birmingham.
By her junior year of high school, Davis had been accepted by an American Friends Service Committee (Quaker) program that placed black students from the South in integrated schools in the North. She chose Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village. There she was recruited by a communist youth group, Advance.
Davis was awarded a scholarship to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she was one of three black students in her class. She encountered the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse at a rally during the Cuban Missile Crisis and became his student. In a 2007 television interview, Davis said, "Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary." She worked part-time to earn enough money to travel to France and Switzerland and attended the eighth World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki. She returned home in 1963 to a Federal Bureau of Investigation interview about her attendance at the communist-sponsored festival.
During her second year at Brandeis, Davis decided to major in French and continued her intensive study of philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre. She was accepted by the Hamilton College Junior Year in France Program. Classes were initially at Biarritz and later at the Sorbonne. In Paris, she and other students lived with a French family. She was in Biarritz when she learned of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, in which four black girls were killed. She grieved deeply as she was personally acquainted with the victims.
While completing her degree in French, Davis realized that her primary area of interest was philosophy. She was particularly interested in Marcuse's ideas. On returning to Brandeis, she sat in on his course. She wrote in her autobiography that Marcuse was approachable and helpful. She began making plans to attend the University of Frankfurt for graduate work in philosophy. In 1965, she graduated magna cum laude, a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
In Germany, with a monthly stipend of $100, she lived first with a German family and later with a group of students in a loft in an old factory. After visiting East Berlin during the annual May Day celebration, she felt that the East German government was dealing better with the residual effects of fascism than were the West Germans. Many of her roommates were active in the radical Socialist German Student Union (SDS), and Davis participated in some SDS actions. Events in the United States, including the formation of the Black Panther Party and the transformation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to an all-black organization, drew her interest upon her return.
Marcuse had moved to a position at the University of California, San Diego, and Davis followed him there after her two years in Frankfurt. Davis traveled to London to attend a conference on "The Dialectics of Liberation". The black contingent at the conference included the Trinidadian-American Stokely Carmichael and the British Michael X. Although moved by Carmichael's rhetoric, Davis was reportedly disappointed by her colleagues' black nationalist sentiments and their rejection of communism as a "white man's thing".
Beginning in 1969, Davis was an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Although both Princeton and Swarthmore had tried to recruit her, she opted for UCLA because of its urban location. At that time she was known as a radical feminist and activist, a member of the Communist Party USA, and an affiliate of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party.
In 1969, the University of California initiated a policy against hiring Communists. At their September 19, 1969, meeting, the Board of Regents fired Davis from her $10,000-a-year post because of her membership in the Communist Party, urged on by California Governor Ronald Reagan. Judge Jerry Pacht ruled the Regents could not fire Davis solely because of her affiliation with the Communist Party, and she resumed her post. The Regents fired Davis again on June 20, 1970, for the "inflammatory language" she had used in four different speeches. The report stated, "We deem particularly offensive such utterances as her statement that the regents 'killed, brutalized (and) murdered' the People's Park demonstrators, and her repeated characterizations of the police as 'pigs'". The American Association of University Professors censured the board for this action.
On August 7, 1970, heavily armed 17-year-old African-American high-school student Jonathan Jackson, whose brother was George Jackson, one of the three Soledad Brothers, gained control of a courtroom in Marin County, California. He armed the black defendants and took Judge Harold Haley, the prosecutor, and three female jurors as hostages. As Jackson transported the hostages and two black defendants away from the courtroom, one of the defendants, James McClain, shot at the police. The police returned fire. The judge and the three black men were killed in the melee; one of the jurors and the prosecutor were injured. Although the judge was shot in the head with a blast from a shotgun, he also suffered a chest wound from a bullet that may have been fired from outside the van. Evidence during the trial showed that either could have been fatal. Davis had purchased several of the firearms Jackson used in the attack, including the shotgun used to shoot Haley, which she bought at a San Francisco pawn shop two days before the incident. She was also found to have been corresponding with one of the inmates involved.
As California considers "all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, ... whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense, or aid and abet in its commission, ... are principals in any crime so committed", Davis was charged with "aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley", and Marin County Superior Court Judge Peter Allen Smith issued a warrant for her arrest. Hours after the judge issued the warrant on August 14, 1970, a massive attempt to find and arrest Davis began. On August 18, four days after the warrant was issued, the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover listed Davis on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List; she was the third woman and the 309th person to be listed.
Soon after, Davis became a fugitive and fled California. According to her autobiography, during this time she hid in friends' homes and moved at night. On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found her at a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City. President Richard M. Nixon congratulated the FBI on its "capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis."
On January 5, 1971, Davis appeared at Marin County Superior Court and declared her innocence before the court and nation: "I now declare publicly before the court, before the people of this country that I am innocent of all charges which have been leveled against me by the state of California." John Abt, general counsel of the Communist Party USA, was one of the first attorneys to represent Davis for her alleged involvement in the shootings.
While being held in the Women's Detention Center, Davis was initially segregated from other prisoners, in solitary confinement. With the help of her legal team, she obtained a federal court order to get out of the segregated area.
Across the nation, thousands of people began organizing a movement to gain her release. In New York City, black writers formed a committee called the Black People in Defense of Angela Davis. By February 1971 more than 200 local committees in the United States, and 67 in foreign countries, worked to free Davis from prison. John Lennon and Yoko Ono contributed to this campaign with the song "Angela". In 1972, after a 16-month incarceration, the state allowed her release on bail from county jail. On February 23, 1972, Rodger McAfee, a dairy farmer from Fresno, California, paid her $100,000 bail with the help of Steve Sparacino, a wealthy business owner. The United Presbyterian Church paid some of her legal defense expenses.
A defense motion for a change of venue was granted, and the trial was moved to Santa Clara County. On June 4, 1972, after 13 hours of deliberations, the all-white jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The fact that she owned the guns used in the crime was judged insufficient to establish her role in the plot. She was represented by Leo Branton Jr., who hired psychologists to help the defense determine who in the jury pool might favor their arguments, a technique that has since become more common. He also hired experts to discredit the reliability of eyewitness accounts.
After her acquittal, Davis went on an international speaking tour in 1972 and the tour included Cuba, where she had previously been received by Fidel Castro in 1969 as a member of a Communist Party delegation. Robert F. Williams, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael had also visited Cuba, and Assata Shakur later moved there after escaping from a US prison. Her reception by Afro-Cubans at a mass rally was so enthusiastic that she was reportedly barely able to speak. Davis perceived Cuba as a racism-free country, which led her to believe that "only under socialism could the fight against racism be successfully executed." When she returned to the United States, her socialist leanings increasingly influenced her understanding of race struggles. In 1974, she attended the Second Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women.
In 1971, the CIA estimated that five percent of Soviet propaganda efforts were directed towards the Angela Davis campaign. In August 1972, Davis visited the USSR at the invitation of the Central Committee, and received an honorary doctorate from Moscow State University.
On May 1, 1979, she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union. She visited Moscow later that month to accept the prize, where she praised "the glorious name" of Lenin and the "great October Revolution".
The East German government organized an extensive campaign on behalf of Davis. In September 1972, Davis visited East Germany, where she met the state's leader Erich Honecker, received an honorary degree from the University of Leipzig and the Star of People's Friendship from Walter Ulbricht. On September 11 in East Berlin she delivered a speech, "Not Only My Victory", praising the GDR and USSR and denouncing American racism, and visited the Berlin Wall, where she laid flowers at the memorial for Reinhold Huhn (an East German guard who had been killed by a man who was trying to escape with his family across the border in 1962). Davis said "We mourn the deaths of the border guards who sacrificed their lives for the protection of their socialist homeland" and "When we return to the USA, we shall undertake to tell our people the truth about the true function of this border." In 1973, she returned to East Berlin leading the US delegation to the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students.
In the mid-1970s, Jim Jones, who developed the cult Peoples Temple, initiated friendships with progressive leaders in the San Francisco area including Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement and Davis. On September 10, 1977, 14 months before the Temple's mass murder-suicide, Davis spoke via amateur radio telephone "patch" to members of his Peoples Temple living in Jonestown in Guyana. In her statement during the "Six Day Siege", she expressed support for the People's Temple anti-racism efforts and told members there was a conspiracy against them. She said, "When you are attacked, it is because of your progressive stand, and we feel that it is directly an attack against us as well."
In 1975, Russian dissident and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn argued in a speech before an AFL-CIO meeting in New York City that Davis was derelict in having failed to support prisoners in various socialist countries around the world, given her strong opposition to the US prison system. He said a group of Czech prisoners had appealed to Davis for support, which Solzhenitsyn said she had declined. In 1972, Ji?í Pelikán had written an open letter asking her to support Czech prisoners, which Davis had refused, believing that the Czech prisoners were undermining the Husák government and that Pelikán, in exile in Italy, was attacking his own country. According to Solzhenitsyn, in response to concerns about Czech prisoners being "persecuted by the state", Davis had responded that "They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison." Alan Dershowitz, who also asked Davis to support a number of imprisoned refuseniks in the USSR, said that she declined because she did not consider them political prisoners.
Davis was a lecturer at the Claremont Black Studies Center at the Claremont Colleges in 1975. Attendance at the course she taught was limited to 26 students out of the more than 5,000 on campus, and she was forced to teach in secret because alumni benefactors didn't want her to indoctrinate the general student population with communist thought. College trustees made arrangements to minimize her appearance on campus, limiting her seminars to Friday evenings and Saturdays, "when campus activity is low". Her classes moved from one classroom to another and the students were sworn to secrecy. Much of this secrecy continued throughout Davis's brief time teaching at the colleges. In 2020 it was announced that Davis would be the Ena H. Thompson Distinguished Lecturer for Pomona College's History Department, welcoming her back after 45 years.
Davis taught a women's studies course at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1978, and was a professor of ethnic studies at the San Francisco State University from at least 1980 to 1984. She was a professor in the History of Consciousness and the Feminist Studies departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Rutgers University from 1991 to 2008. Since then, she has been distinguished professor emerita.
Davis was a distinguished visiting professor at Syracuse University in spring 1992 and October 2010, and was the Randolph Visiting Distinguished Professor of philosophy at Vassar College in 1995.
In 2016, Davis was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in Healing and Social Justice from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco during its 48th annual commencement ceremony.
Davis accepted the Communist Party USA's nomination for vice president, as Gus Hall's running mate, in 1980 and in 1984. They received less than 0.02% of the vote in 1980. She left the party in 1991, founding the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Her group broke from the Communist Party USA because of the latter's support of the 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt after the fall of the Soviet Union and tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Davis said that she and others who had "circulated a petition about the need for democratization of the structures of governance of the party" were not allowed to run for national office and thus "in a sense ... invited to leave". In 2014, she said she continues to have a relationship with the CPUSA but has not rejoined. In the 21st century, Davis has supported the Democratic Party in presidential elections, endorsing Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden.
Davis is a major figure in the prison abolition movement. She has called the United States prison system the "prison-industrial complex" and was one of the founders of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to building a movement to abolish the prison system. In recent works, she has argued that the US prison system resembles a new form of slavery, pointing to the disproportionate share of the African-American population who were incarcerated. Davis advocates focusing social efforts on education and building "engaged communities" to solve various social problems now handled through state punishment.
As early as 1969, Davis began public speaking engagements. She expressed her opposition to the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and the prison-industrial complex, and her support of gay rights and other social justice movements. In 1969, she blamed imperialism for the troubles oppressed populations suffer:
We are facing a common enemy and that enemy is Yankee Imperialism, which is killing us both here and abroad. Now I think anyone who would try to separate those struggles, anyone who would say that in order to consolidate an anti-war movement, we have to leave all of these other outlying issues out of the picture, is playing right into the hands of the enemy.
In 2001, she publicly spoke against the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks, continued to criticize the prison-industrial complex, and discussed the broken immigration system. She said that to solve social justice issues, people must "hone their critical skills, develop them and implement them." Later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she declared that the "horrendous situation in New Orleans" was due to the country's structural racism, capitalism, and imperialism.
Davis opposed the 1995 Million Man March, arguing that the exclusion of women from this event promoted male chauvinism. She said that Louis Farrakhan and other organizers appeared to prefer that women take subordinate roles in society. Together with Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, she formed the African American Agenda 2000, an alliance of black feminists.
Davis has continued to oppose the death penalty. In 2003, she lectured at Agnes Scott College, a liberal arts women's college in Atlanta, Georgia, on prison reform, minority issues, and the ills of the criminal justice system.
On October 31, 2011, Davis spoke at the Philadelphia and Washington Square Occupy Wall Street assemblies. Due to restrictions on electronic amplification, her words were human microphoned. In 2012, Davis was awarded the 2011 Blue Planet Award, an award given for contributions to humanity and the planet.
At the 27th Empowering Women of Color Conference in 2012, Davis said she was a vegan. She has called for the release of Rasmea Odeh, associate director at the Arab American Action Network, who was convicted of immigration fraud in relation to her hiding of a previous murder conviction.
Davis was an honorary co-chair of the January 21, 2017, Women's March on Washington, which occurred the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration. The organizers' decision to make her a featured speaker was criticized from the right by Humberto Fontova and the National Review. Libertarian journalist Cathy Young wrote that Davis's "long record of support for political violence in the United States and the worst of human rights abusers abroad" undermined the march.
On October 16, 2018, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, presented Davis with an honorary degree during the inaugural Viola Desmond Legacy Lecture, as part of the institution's bicentennial celebration year.
On January 7, 2019, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) rescinded Davis's Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, saying she "does not meet all of the criteria". Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and others cited criticism of Davis's vocal support for Palestinian rights and the movement to boycott Israel. Davis said her loss of the award was "not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice." On January 25, the BCRI reversed its decision and issued a public apology, stating that there should have been more public consultation.
In November 2019, along with other public figures, Davis signed a letter supporting Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn describing him as "a beacon of hope in the struggle against emergent far-right nationalism, xenophobia and racism in much of the democratic world", and endorsed him in the 2019 UK general election.
From 1980 to 1983 Davis was married to Hilton Braithwaite. In 1997, she came out as a lesbian in an interview with Out magazine. As of 2020, Davis was living with her life partner Gina Dent, a fellow humanities scholar and intersectional feminist researcher at UC Santa Cruz, who together with Davis advocates for black liberation, Palestinian solidarity, and the abolition of police and prisons.
In Renato Guttuso's painting The Funerals of Togliatti (1972), Davis is depicted, among other figures of communism, in the left framework, near the author's self-portrait, Elio Vittorini, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In 1971, black playwright Elvie Moore wrote the play Angela is Happening, depicting Davis on trial with figures such as Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and H. Rap Brown as eyewitnesses proclaiming her innocence. The play was performed at the Inner City Cultural Center and at UCLA, with Pat Ballard as Davis.
The documentary Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary (1972) was directed by UCLA Film School student Yolande du Luart. It follows Davis from 1969 to 1970, documenting her dismissal from UCLA. The film wrapped shooting before the Marin County incident.
In 2019, Julie Dash, who is credited as the first black female director to have a theatrical release of a film (Daughters of the Dust) in the US, announced that she would be directing a film based on Davis's life.
Several days later, I received a call back from Ms Davis' secretary informing me that Davis had looked into the people on my list and none were political prisoners. "They are all Zionist fascists and opponents of socialism." Davis would urge that they be kept in prison where they belonged.