A current photograph of Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz (Courtesy photo)
Say the name Angela Davis and, depending upon with whom you speak, a range of opinions, emotions and thoughts automatically ensue.
But, to hear the famed political activist speak, it’s easy to understand why she has become one of the most prominently known fighters against oppression in America and around the globe.
“A lot of civil and human rights activists of the ’60s and ’70s are no longer with the movement but that’s not the case with Angela Davis. She’s still on the front lines,” said David Leonard, chair of the Washington State University’s Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies, where Davis recently spoke to a sold-out audience.
Davis, who turned 71 on Monday, Jan. 26, holds the title of professor emerita in the Humanities Division at the University of California Santa Cruz. However, 45 years ago, she held the dubious distinction of being on the FBI’s notorious “Most Wanted” list.
It turned out the charges didn’t hold and Davis, now a noted scholar, continued her work as the face of the 1970s black power movement.
In her mid-20s when she gained the national spotlight, Davis in 1969, lost her job as an assistant philosophy professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) because the state Board of Regents cited her membership in the Communist Party.
“The dismissal sparked large-scale student protests in support of Davis’s right to teach and academic freedom. Then, roughly a year later, she became a nationally hunted fugitive after the FBI linked her to the shooting deaths of four people in a Marin County courthouse,” said Linda Weiford, a writer for the Washington State University Press.
Captured and tried, an all-white jury eventually acquitted Davis of all charges.
“I wasn’t seeking fame. I wasn’t seeking notoriety. I just wanted to be a teacher and activist,” said Davis in a recent interview with UCLA News.
Even in her personal biography, Davis focused on activism as perhaps her sole motivation in life. Over the years she has been active as a student, teacher, writer, scholar, activist and organizer. She’s also a living witness to the historical struggles of the contemporary era.
“She is someone whose name jumps out at you, whether you are black, white, Asian, or whatever,” said Kenyon Moore, a junior at Howard University in Northwest. “I think her story is worth telling and I think she’s definitely worth listening to,” Moore said.
Like many educators, Davis said she’s especially concerned with the general tendency to devote more resources and attention to the prison system than to educational institutions.
Having helped to popularize the notion of what she called a “prison industrial complex,” Davis now urges her audiences to think seriously about the future possibility of a world without prisons and to help forge a 21st century abolitionist movement.
She’s lectured in all of the fifty United States, as well as in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the former Soviet Union. Davis also has written articles and essays for numerous journals and she’s authored nine books, including, “The Meaning of Freedom and other Difficult Dialogues.”
Following the shootings of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri and other incidents of alleged injustices against young blacks and police brutality, Davis said America had reached a time of transformation.
“There is such potential for change. All over this country from Ferguson to New York City to Washington and indeed, in other parts of the world, people are absolutely refusing to assent to racist state violence,” Davis said.
“Rather, we are saying that black bodies do matter. And our work must be to continue taking to the streets and standing together against the routine actions of police and the district attorneys who collude with them; and continue saying, ‘No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,’ until there is real change on the agenda for us.”