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Civil rights movement

Angela Davis

As part of its 100 Women of the Year project, created to celebrate influential women who were often overshadowed in its previous Men of the Year awards, in March 2020 Time magazine named Angela Davis as its 1971 Woman of the Year.

“An activist. An author. A scholar. An abolitionist. A legend, as revered by my generation of millennials as she is her own. She is Angela Y. Davis,” Ibram Xolani Kendi, an American author and anti-racist activist, wrote for Time.

Angela Davis was one of the most important – and some would say controversial – female Black activists of her generation. She took on the system with the intention of pulling it down.

In a country where people were taught to fear and hate Communism, and many were driven out of their jobs if any hint of Communism was suspected, Davis’ full throttle support for the Soviet Union, combined with her anti-racist activism and sympathies for the Black Panthers, caused consternation and trepidation in the eyes of many white people.

Born in Alabama, 1944, Davis studied French at Brandeis University and Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, before returning to the U.S. to study at the University of California. After completing a doctorate at the Humbolt University of Berlin, in East Germany, she joined the Communist Party on her return, where she became active in the anti-racist struggle, second-wave feminist movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests.

In 1969, Davis took up an assistant professorship at the University of California, but was soon fired due to her Communist Party membership. This was subsequently ruled illegal, but the University was determined to drive her out and she was soon fired again, this time for using inflammatory language.

Davis championed the cause of Black prisoners and became a prominent figure in the prison abolition movement, which sought to replace prisons with a rehabilitation system, and later became a co-founder of Critical Resistance, a grassroots group seeking to “end the Prison Industrial Complex”. She would argue that the U.S. prison system resembled a new form of slavery.

It was during this work, in the late 1960s, that Davis became close to a young revolutionary, George Jackson, one of the so-called ‘Soledad Brothers’ (after Soledad Prison in California, where he was held). Jackson’s brother Jonathan was among four people killed – including a trial judge – in an abortive escape and kidnapping attempt from a Californian courtroom in 1970. A warrant was put out for Davis’s arrest after it was discovered that she owned the guns used in the attack, with the FBI putting her on its Ten Most Wanted List, only the third woman ever to be listed.

Davis was arrested in New York four months later and was charged with kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. This triggered a massive campaign in her support around the country, with over 200 support committees were formed in the U.S. alone and solidarity groups and actions in a further 67 countries.

Angela Davis was eventually acquitted by an all-white jury. She continued her political activism, including becoming a leading light in the U.S. Communist Party, though she left it in 1991 after arguing the party needed to move away from its orthodox Marxist doctrine.

Angela Davis’s uncompromising views unnerved and even scared many in white society. However, her views were often grounded in the realities of racism.

Asked in 1972 whether she supported violence, she replied:

“You ask me whether I approve of violence? That just doesn’t make any sense at all. Whether I approve of guns? I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs – bombs that were planted by racists. I remember, from the time I was very small, the sound of bombs exploding across the street and the house shaking … That’s why, when someone asks me about violence, I find it incredible because it means the person asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through and experienced in this country from the time the first Black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”