Angela Davis’ Legacy of Activism

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Angela Davis spoke at Quarry Amphitheater in May 1978. Photo courtesy of UCSC Special Collections.
Angela Davis spoke at Quarry Amphitheater in May 1978. Photo courtesy of UCSC Special Collections.

The promise of Angela Davis’ presence is enough to pack a room.

When she was set to deliver the keynote at the 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation, seven years after retiring as distinguished professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, the line of hopeful attendees snaked around the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium for blocks. Even after the 1,800 capacity was met, hundreds were denied entry and left to listen to her speech on the radio.

Davis’ name draw is international. Her speeches, texts and imagery are iconic of the black liberation movement of the ’70s, and her work around gender, race and class has cemented her as an often-cited critical theorist — ideal makings for a big name at UCSC. She came to campus in 1984. She taught as a lecturer, professor, presidential chair in the African-American and feminist studies departments, and served as the chair of feminist studies from 2003-06.

Davis straddles academia and activism, and her pull toward activism is very much rooted in her upbringing.

She was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, a city so subjected to racialized violence by the Klu Klux Klan — 21 bombings in an eight-year period — that it earned the nickname of “Bombingham.” Perhaps the most infamous was the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in 1963 that left four girls dead and injured over 20.

“When I was growing up, I remember hearing that when black people moved into previously white neighborhoods, Bull Connor would announce that there would be bloodshed,” Davis said in a speech in Oakland commemorating the 50th anniversary of the church bombing. “And then, indeed, there would be a bombing, or a house would be burned.” She remembered houses across the street from hers being bombed and the neighborhood named “Dynamite Hill.”

Her experience in Alabama fostered her political activism, ultimately leading her to join the Black Panthers and later a lifelong dedication to prison abolition.

By 1969, she had made a name for herself as a radical activist. Over 2,000 students attended her opening lecture as an assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA. But her politics did not sit well with former Gov. Ronald Reagan or the UC regents, who attempted to have her fired twice, first for her affiliations with the Communist Party and later for “inflammatory language.”

The following year, Davis found herself on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and at the center of one of the most famous trials in recent history. Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping, first degree murder and criminal conspiracy resulting in the death of Marin County Judge Harold Haley because a gun registered in her name was used in a hostage incident.

In August 1970, two hostage-takers forced Haley and a prosecutor from the courtroom in an attempt to free a man on trial and demand the release of the Soledad Brothers — three black prisoners who killed a white guard in Soledad prison. The Brothers committed the murder in response to the deaths of three other black inmates at the hands of a white guard that was ruled justifiable.

After months of hiding, Davis spent a over a year in prison before being cleared of the charges. Her experience in prison solidified her campaign for prison abolition and led to the founding of Critical Resistance, an anti-prison industrial complex organization.

“Prison abolition involves the fight for public education. This should be on the top of the agenda of any radical or progressive activist in this country,” Davis said at the 2014 Afrikan Black Coalition Conference hosted at UCSC. “You can’t talk about educational justice without talking about prison justice.”