Activist Angela Davis Reaches a New Generation
In film and onstage, from the perspective of more than 50 years of activism, Angela Davis offers lessons from an organizer.
To the middle and high school students who came to hear Angela Davis recently in Charlotte, North Carolina, she was a name from the past. They left knowing her activism continues. The lecture program sponsored by the Harvey B. Gantt Center described her as one who “has always emphasized the importance of building awareness for economic, racial and gender justice.”
For teacher Barbara Wesselman, 53, it was like “seeing history.” Of Davis, she said, “For me, she wasn’t a radical. She was in the front of helping things change.”
Davis ticked off a long list of her causes and projects, starting with her days as a child in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and stopping at the organizing effort, she said, “in which I did not participate,” the worldwide effort “to free me.”
With new interviews with Davis, "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” tells that story. Directed by Shola Lynch, the historical vérité style documentary, a U.S.-French production, opens on April 5 in selected cities. It comes more than 40 years after Davis’ acquittal on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in the 1970 killing of Judge Harold Haley in Marin County, California.
In the 1960s and 1970s, with citizens challenging authority, Davis became a symbol of the struggle between generations and often within families. Her on-the-frontlines activism and associations, from SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party hit a divided society’s hot buttons. Davis’s profile, with signature Afro, became iconic.
In Charlotte, the 69-year-old Davis wanted the students to know that her organizing work began long before.
Her earliest memories were “the sound of bombs exploding” in her Birmingham neighborhood, with black families edging close to the white enclaves carved out nearby, Davis said. She and her black playmates would dare each other to run across the street, with extra points if you rang the doorbell of a white family. “In a sense, that was already organizing.” Davis said it also taught her something about what organizing should be—“fun.” She organized interracial study groups, illegal in Alabama at that time.
Davis said she was only following the path of her mother, a woman who craved education so much she ran away from foster parents and the small Alabama town where black children went to work, not school, and settled in Birmingham. As a child, Angela Davis spent summers in New York where her mother traveled to study for a master’s degree. There she learned that a segregated life was not the rule everywhere, although the affluent parents of white high school classmates awkwardly asked their black maids to sit at the dinner table when she visited.
On weekends, she would join other activists picketing Woolworth’s to protest its policies of segregated lunch counters in other parts of the country. She was studying abroad in college when she learned of the 1963 church bombing of four young girls in a Birmingham church; they were children she had known and her mother had taught.
On April 4, 1968, the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Davis was active in SNCC in Los Angeles, a group that she said eventually ended up disbanding because of sexism. Though women were heading many SNCC projects – that’s “usually the case, that woman are running the organization,” whether it’s the church or school – “the guys wanted to be the ones to hold the press conferences and give the speeches,” she said.
“Even though it was a struggle about the roles women should play, not all of the women agreed,” Davis said, “and there were some men who stood with the women. It wasn’t so much a struggle of men and women; it was a struggle around the role of gender. … It’s important to recognize that things are never so neatly situated as they sometimes appear to be.”
Davis became a public figure after she was hired to teach at UCLA in the late 1960s then fired for her association with the Communist Party. Though the courts ruled in her favor and she resumed her work, there were death threats and campus bodyguards. “Had I known,” Davis said in Charlotte, “I probably would not have accepted that job. I prefer to do work in the background.”
In August 1970, when one of her personal bodyguards, brother of one of three California prison inmates known as the Soledad Brothers, initiated a courtroom breakout, and a shootout resulted in deaths and injuries, Davis was charged. She fled the state and was arrested two months later in New York.
In Charlotte, Davis told the story of how she discovered she had been assigned a spot on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. She was in Florida, watching an episode of TV’s “The F.B.I.,” when the show’s star, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., came on “with this big poster of me,” and described her as “armed and dangerous.”
Churches, schools, writers and others formed committees. John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded a song. East Germany school children sent postcards. “I didn’t want the campaign to just be about me,” Davis said. “There were many other prisoners who deserved that support as well.”
A critic of a justice system that she said is focused on vengeance, Davis is a founding member of Critical Resistance, a national organization dedicated to dismantling the “prison industrial complex.”
“I haven’t really changed very much,” she said. “Hopefully I’ve grown a bit wiser and understand things a little more deeply. But I’m still very much a socialist, a communist with a small ‘c’ if you want to put it that way.”
Now distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Davis said she is a supporter of President Obama, but is critical of some of his policies. “More than Obama himself, I appreciate all of the people who have made it possible for him to be elected,” she told me after her Charlotte talk. “He needs to be pressured; he himself has said many times he can’t do it by himself.
“In many ways during the first term people voted for him and then went home and said to him, ‘well, you do all of the work.’ I’m very heartened by the fact that he in his inauguration speech linked LGBT issues with women’s issues with anti-racist issues. But we have to mobilize and pressure him to speak out on other issues as well. He hasn’t yet talked about mass imprisonment. … I think he really needs to give some leadership to the country about how to deal with the prison crisis. It is the new Jim Crow. It is also about the involvement of the whole prison system in the economy, in the global economy. When you reach a point where it becomes profitable to imprison people, you have to also challenge capitalism.”
After listening to Davis, 14-year-old Damarys Garcia said she was impressed “that she wouldn’t give up. … She changed the world.”
Davis returned her audience’s admiration. “I am really excited at the work I do with people who are much younger than I am,” she said. “I enjoy remembering what it was like not to know so much.”
“Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” won best documentary at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, where Davis appeared. For audiences, it will be a reminder, a revelation or a bit of both.
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