There are many black women who embody the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, but probably none quite like Angela Davis. Her signature afro is legendary, her words eloquent and timeless, and her commitment to the struggle has stood the test of time. Her ability to rally both black and white alike, as well as her gift for teaching the virtue and value of revolution make her one of the most influential and inspirational people in black history past and present.
Although born in Birmingham Alabama, Angela Davis’ quest for education and knowledge literally took her around the world. The daughter of educated parents (her father was a graduate of St. Augustine's College, a historically black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, and her mother from Birmingham’s Miles College), Angela quickly realized the value of education. Both of her parents were teachers at one point in their lives, which no doubt influenced her decision to be a lifelong teacher both in and out of the classroom.
In addition to shaping her desire for academic pursuits, her parents and greatly influenced her world view. Davis’ mother was a national officer and leading organizer of the Southern Negro Congress, an organization heavily influenced by the Communist Party. Consequently Davis grew up surrounded by communist organizers and thinkers who significantly influenced her intellectual development growing up.
This interest in the communist party and the fighting against oppression only strengthened in college where she met noted philosopher and Frankfort School Professor Herbert Marcuse, often referred to as the “Father of the Left”. Marcuse main intellectual concerns were the dehumanizing effects of capitalism and modern technology and he Marxist scholarship inspired many radical intellectuals and political activists in the 1960s and '70s, both in the U.S. and internationally. His influence on Angela Davis was profound, as she famously stated in a television interview "Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary.”
While attending college at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts Davis got the opportunity to study abroad for a year in France, where she had the opportunity to travel through Europe and attend many conferences on Marxist and communist philosophy as well as the fight for social justice. Upon returning home after attending the World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki, Finland she returned home in 1963 to an FBI interview about her attendance at the Communist-sponsored festival.
After graduating from Brandeis she went to the University of Frankfurt in Germany and graduated with honors in 1965 with a degree in philosophy. In Germany many of her roommates were active in the radical Socialist German Student Union (SDS), and Davis participated in SDS actions, a prelude to her revoutionary involvement with the but events unfolding in the United States — the formation of the Black Panther Party and the Civil Rights movement here in the US.
With a strong educational background rooted in philosophy, a deep understanding of the capitalistic systems of oppression abroad, and a clear understanding of the racism and oppression here at home Angela Davis was well equipped to lend her voice and knowledge the Civil Rights struggle and other causes of the 1960's.
In 1969 Davis began her teaching career as an assistant professor at UCLA, but almost immediately ran into trouble with then California Governor Ronald Reagan who wanted her banned from the school for her incendiary language and political affiliations. As a known member of the Communist Party and active affiliate of the Black Panther Party Davis openly spoke out against the Vietnam War, the prison industrial complex, sexism and institutional racism. She was particularly vocal about "Yankee Imperialism" and the damaging effects of capitalism here and abroad. Reagan ultimately exerted his pressure and got her fired from her position at UCLA in 1970.
Later in 1970 Davis was implicated in the August 7th courthouse kidnapping and susbsequent killing of Marin County Judge Harold Haley. Although physically not a part of the now infamous Marin County Incident, Davis purchased weapons that were subsequently used in the crime and was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder. Forced to flee, Angela spent several weeks on the run until her arrest on October 13, 1970.
Davis spent 18 months in prison awaiting trial, during which time an international campaign to "Free Angela Davis" was born. By February 1971 more than 200 local committees in the United States, and 67 in foreign countries worked to liberate Angela Davis from prison. Through the efforts of these groups and her legal team Angela Davis was acquitted of all charges in 1972.
The result of this international incident was an increased notoriety for Angela Davis which allowed her voice to be heard not only in the United States, but in countries around the world. Davis has continued to speak out against issues of unfair treatment, police and prison misconduct, women's rights issues and the mishandling of the events of the day from the so-called "War on Terror" to Hurricane Katrina.
Angela Davis served as a Professor of History of Consciousness at the University of California Santa Cruz for 17 years from 1991 to 2008. She also served as the Chair of African American and Feminist studies at the University. Her philosophy has been to teach her students to think critically about the power systems in place in this country and abroad to include capitalism and the prison industrial complex. In addition to her work at UC Santa Cruz, Davis has also taught at or been a guest lecturer at dozens of universities including UCLA, Vassar, Howard, Brown University, the Claremont Colleges, and Stanford University.
10 Things You May Not Know About Angela Davis
1. Angela Davis studied French as an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Massachusettes
2. Angela Davis (from Birmingham Alabama) personally knew some of the victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings by the KKK.
3. Both of Angela Davis' parents were teachers at one point in their lives.
4. Angela Davis ran for Vice President of the United States twice (1980, 1984) as a member of the Communist Party USA ticket.
5. Angela Davis was introduced to socialism and communism while in high school in Greenwich Village, NY and was recruited by the Communist youth group, Advance. She also met children of some of the leaders of the Communist Party USA, including her lifelong friend, Bettina Aptheker daughter of famed African American historian Herbert Aptheker.
6. In 1979 Davis was also awarded with the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union for her civil rights activism.
7. Among her several degrees, Davis earned a master's degree at UC San Diego. Her professor and mentor Herbert Mancuse is considered by many as “the most famous person” ever to teach at UC San Diego.
8. In 1970 Angela Davis was the third woman ever to appear on the FBI’s "Ten Most Wanted List"
10. Davis was a one-time member of the Communist Party which made her a prime target of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.
Angela Davis has continued to educate young people all her life. As a professor at UCLA and then Santa Cruz for 17 years Angela Davis has taught young people to question authority and the power structures that be.
Angela Davis fights for what she believes in. She doesn't just talk the talk, she walks the walk as evidenced by her 1970 arrest for the Soledad Brothers incident. A true lifelong revolutionary, her efforts did not stop int he 70's and she continues to be an advicate for prisoners rights, women's rights and the rights of the LGBT community.
In a time when women did not have the voice they do today Angela Davis stood out as a powerful black woman who spoke her mind and moved a generation.
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