History’s rebel girls – Angela Davis

As a child growing up in the GDR I was quite familiar with the name Angela Davis. Davis, a member of the Communist Party USA was frequently invited by East German officials and perfectly suited the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the state. Back then though, I didn’t really know who Angela Davis, the woman with the impressive Afro, was.

angela davis civil rights
Angela Davis in the GDR with general secretary Erich Honecker, 1972

Born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis experienced segregation first hand. This experience undoubtedly influenced her subsequent political activism, which has been aimed at fighting political repression, in particular in relation to the African American community. Her early activism included the organisation of inter-racial study groups, which brought her into contact with the police who broke up these groups. State-wide segregation in the United States was finally ended with the introduction of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

From a young age Davis was introduced to Communism through the activism of her mother and during her High School years she became a memmber of a Communist youth group. Under the mentorship of Herbert Marcuse, Davis studied philosophy and received her doctorate from the Humboldt University in East Berlin. While travelling and studying in Europe, Davis learned about the bombing of a church by the Ku Klux Klan in her hometown Birmingham, Alabama, which claimed the lives of four young girls.

angela davis civil rights

Shocked by events at home and also inspired by student activism she had experienced when studying in Germany, Davis joined the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. Organisations such as the Black Panthers had been emerging around the time in an effort to support the struggle for black liberation and to protect the black community from police brutality. Davis’ belief that Socialism provided the best means to fight racism as well as her feminist convictions, led to clashes with the Black Panther leadership who saw Communism as a white ideology and believed women should not take on an active role in the fight against oppression. Davis left the movement to join an all black wing of the Communist Party USA in 1968.

Her political affiliations not only made her work as a professor in the philosophy department at the University of California difficult, but she also frequently received death threats and was eventually fired from her job in 1970. Her involvement with the movement to free the Soledad Brothers, three African Americans imprisoned for the murder of a prison guard, would eventually lead to her own incarceration, when an attempt to forcefully free the brothers during a court hearing in August 1970 ended in a shoot out and the death of four people.

angela davis civil rights

The guns used during the court room shoot out had been registered to Davis. She was subsequently charged with kidnapping, conspiracy and murder and if convicted, she would have faced the death penalty. Placed on the FBI’s most wanted list, Davis went on the run until her arrest in October 1970. She spent 16 months in prison, before she was finally acquitted of all charges in June 1972.

Davis resumed her work as a university lecturer and political activist and even ran for vice president of the United States on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. She founded the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression and in the 1990s and early 2000s she championed the cause of imprisoned activists Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom she considers to be political prisoners.

rebel girls angela davis

Till today Davis is focussing her activism against the US prison system and in wider terms against the prison industrial complex (PIC) – a term that describes ‘the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to what are, in actuality, economic, social, and political problems.’

Davis is in favour of the abolition of prisons and in her speeches and writings she denounces structural racism in the criminal justice system. Although she doesn’t have an answer to what should replace prisons, she wants to raise awareness of the fact that more resources are being devoted to sustaining the prison system than to educational institutions. Critical Resistance, the organisation Davis helped to found in 1997, is dedicated to building an international movement that will break down the PIC.

angela davis civil rights

Besides her work as a political activist and scholar (she is a Professor Emerita at the University of California Santa Cruz), Davis has authored numerous books, amongst them an autobiography; Women, Race, and Class; Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday; Are Prisons Obsolete? and The Meaning of Freedom.

This year Davis will be honoured with the Sackler Center First Award by the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The award is given to extraordinary women who were the first in their field.