The story of a radical thinker whose imprisonment garnered a national response.
Life Story: Angela Davis
Angela Davis, between 1965 and 1980. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
Pin-back button of Angela Davis
Pin-back button of Angela Davis, 1971. N. G. Slater Corporation, New-York Historical Society.
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. Angela was exposed to both racism and activism at an early age. Birmingham was one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Angela’s neighborhood was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill” because the Ku Klux Klan often attacked the homes of Black residents with bombs. Speaking out about civil rights in Birmingham was incredibly dangerous. But Angela’s mother refused to stay silent. She participated in a communist-based Black civil rights organization.
As a high school junior, Angela participated in a program that paired Black students from the South with white families in the North. The goal was to integrate northern schools and connect more white Northerners to the Southern Black experience. Angela lived with a family in Greenwich Village, New York City. The school she attended was very progressive and reinforced the values instilled in Angela by her parents. She joined the school’s communist youth group.
Angela earned a scholarship to study French Literature at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. After graduation, she studied in Germany and completed a PhD in philosophy.
Upon returning to the United States, she became involved in the civil rights movement. She believed racism and capitalism were dangers to American justice. Angela was drawn to the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party. While Angela was interested in their commitment to civil rights and Black Power, she did not fully agree with their policies. She was concerned about the divisions between male and female members. She felt that male leaders expected women to stay in the background and not lead.
Angela appreciated that the Communist Party was more welcoming to women and focused on ending capitalism. Although she willingly collaborated with Black Panther members, she took on a leadership role within a local chapter of the Communist Party.
In 1969, Angela became a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles. Governor of California Ronald Reagan learned about Angela’s political connections and pressured the university to fire her. Supported by many of her colleagues and students, Angela fought back. She took her case to court. The Supreme Court of California ruled Angela could not be banned for party affiliation. However, several months later, the university found another reason to fire her. They claimed that her comments in recent speeches were too politically incendiary.
Around the same time that Angela lost her job, she became involved in the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee. The Soledad Brothers were three Black inmates at Soledad Prison charged with the murder of a white prison guard. The committee sought to raise funds and awareness in support of the three accused men.
. . . [racism] is deeply embedded in the very fabric of this country—its economy, its political structures, and all the institutions which form the basis of this society . . .
On August 7, 1970, an armed gunman and brother of one of the Soledad Brothers entered a courtroom in California and took several people hostage. He stated he would hold the victims until the Soledad Brothers were set free. Amidst the attempted police rescue, four people were killed, including the courtroom judge.
An investigation revealed that the gunman used a weapon Angela bought at a pawn shop several days earlier. Under California law, Angela could be charged as if she were present at the crime because of her connection to the gun.
Distrustful of a government that had already silenced her in the classroom, Angela went into hiding. During that time, the FBI added her to the “10 Most Wanted” list. In October, she was arrested in a hotel room in New York City. Upon her arrest, President Richard Nixon congratulated the FBI on “the capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis.” Angela was charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy. If found guilty, she could have faced the death penalty. She insisted she was innocent. Her lawyers emphasized that not only was she not present at the crime scene, but also she purchased the gun for legal reasons.
Angela was held in jail for 18 months. The court denied her bail. The guards often kept her in solitary confinement claiming that her ideas were dangerous. During her time, Angela came to understand the criminal justice system on a deeper level. She had long been an advocate for prison reform. But she had never fully appreciated the unique challenges women faced in the prison system. To stay healthy physically and mentally, Angela focused on writing, karate, and yoga.
Outside of the prison’s walls, Angela became an international symbol of resistance. Activists adopted the rallying cry of “Free Angela.” They argued that Angela was a political prisoner and unfairly targeted because of her political beliefs and activist work. Buttons, posters, and other advocacy materials were created to raise awareness about her plight. Musician John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono recorded a song about her. Angela’s name and image became a symbol for the social justice revolution.
On June 4, 1972, an all-white jury found Angela not guilty on all charges. Angela said it was the happiest day of her life.
Her time in prison only added fuel to Angela’s passion for equality and justice. She participated in an international speaking tour and accepted invitations to visit several communist countries, including Cuba, the Soviet Union, and East Germany. Angela also founded several advocacy organizations, including the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
Angela returned to teaching and published several books. She lent her ideas and her voice to a variety of issues. She spoke out about prison reform, women’s rights, racial equality, and the inequality of capitalism. Angela was also an advocate for the LGBTQ community and came out as a lesbian in the late 1990s.
Today, she is the Distinguished Professor Emerita of the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She continues to be an unwavering thought-leader and advocate for equality for all Americans.
Black Panther Party: A national Black Power political organization founded in Oakland, California, in 1966.
Black Power: A civil rights concept that promoted racial pride and solidarity among Black Americans.
capitalism: An economic and political system in which all goods and items of value are privately owned, and production and sales are controlled by private businesses.
communism: A political system in which all goods and items of value are collectively owned and distributed to citizens equally.
Communist Party: A political party that seeks to achieve the social and economic goals of communism.
FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
incendiary: Designed to intentionally cause trouble or harm.
Ku Klux Klan (KKK): A national organization that promoted an America made up entirely of white, Protestant, native-born Americans and was inspired by the KKK of the 1870s, which was a secret organization focused on terrorizing black citizens in the post-Civil War South.
PhD: Acronym for Doctor of Philsophy. The highest level of academic degree.
rallying cry: A phrase the appears in protests and on protest materials that expresses emotions or ideas held by a group.
Soledad Brothers: Three Black inmates – George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette – at Soledad Prison charged with the murder of a white prison guard in January 1970.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): A national organization founded to recruit and organize young people interested in the civil rights movement.
How did Angela’s childhood in Alabama and New York City shape her adult life?
How did Angela’s political beliefs shape her career as an academic?
What concerns did Angela have about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party?
Why do you think President Nixon described Angela as a “terrorist?” What does this suggest about attitudes toward women, Black people, activists, and communists in the early 1970s?
Why do you think Angela became an international symbol while in prison? What does this tell you about the intersection of activism and celebrity culture?
Connect Angela Davis’s life story to Ella Baker’s. Ask students to think about how these women’s lives intertwined, including their feelings about sexism within the civil rights movement and Ella’s interest in Angela’s case.
Both Angela Davis and Antonia Pantoja were academics and educators who advocated for equality and justice within their communities. Invite students to compare their stories and consider how each woman fought for change.
AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE