Civil Rights Activist, Scholar
often as much heterogeneity within a black community, or more
heterogeneity, than in cross-racial communities. An
African-American woman might find it much easier to work
together with a Chicana than with another black woman whose
politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality would place her
in an entirely different community. What is problematic is the
degree to which nationalism has become a paradigm for our
community-building processes. We need to move away form such
arguments as “Well, she’s not really black.” “She comes from
such-and-such a place.” “Her hair is…” “She doesn’t listen to
‘our’ music,” and so forth. What counts as black is not so
important as our political commitment to engage in anti-racist,
anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic work.” Angela Davis,
speaking on “Building Coalitions of People of Color” at
University of California, San Diego, May 12, 1993.
Occupation: Civil rights activist, Scholar
A scholar, activist, and professed Communist, Angela Davis (born
1944) became a leading advocate of civil rights for blacks in
the United States.
In August 1970 Angela Yvonne Davis was catapulted into the
national spotlight when she was put on the list of the ten most
wanted criminals in the United States. An armed black man,
Jonathan Jackson, entered the Marin County, California, Civic
Center on August 7, 1970, with a weapon owned by Davis and
attempted, along with three San Quentin prisoners, to take
hostages. Jackson's intention was to hold the hostages until
several inmates of Soledad Prison, including Jackson's brother,
George, were released. During the attempt three of the
assailants and the presiding judge were killed and three others
wounded. A warrant was issued for Davis's arrest. She fled,
eluding the police until October 1970. After a total of 16
months in prison in New York--where she was apprehended--and in
California, Davis's trial began.
The prosecutor alleged that Davis engineered the plan to kidnap
the judge and jurors because of her love for George Jackson. The
prosecution presented witnesses who testified that they had seen
Davis with Jonathan Jackson in the days preceding the August 7
incident. Davis and her defense attorneys argued that Davis was
a political activist concerned with prison reforms and the
oppression of the poor in general and was not moved to a crime
of passion because of her feeling for Jackson. The all-white
jury, composed of eight women and four men, acquitted Davis on
all counts in June 1972.
Davis, a self-avowed Communist, was born in Birmingham, Alabama,
in 1944. Both her parents were college educated. Her mother was
a teacher and her father, after teaching for a short time, went
into business for himself. The Davises moved into an all-white
neighborhood when Angela was very young. Racial antipathy was
fomenting in the city and the Davises knew that they were not
welcome in the neighborhood. The homes of several black families
who moved in after the Davises were bombed, although the Davises'
home was not.
Angela Davis encountered segregation in almost every area of her
life. In housing, school, stores, church, and social life, the
ubiquitous "white only" or "colored only" signs, both visible
and invisible, were always there. Because Davis had the
opportunity to travel to New York during many of her summer
vacations her awareness of the difference in racial attitudes
and social classes in the South and the North was heightened.
Even as a teenager, Davis later wrote, she developed a desire to
alleviate the plight of the black and the poor.
Because of superior achievement during her high school years
Davis got the opportunity to study at Elizabeth Irwin High
School in New York City. There she was regularly exposed to both
socialist and communist philosophies and began to develop an
interest in these subjects. She was especially interested in
mass movements designed to overthrow political domination by
elites. Davis's scholastic achievements earned her a scholarship
to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she was
one of the few blacks on campus. At the university Davis studied
French literature but continued to be interested in philosophy.
She studied in France during her junior year. While there, she
learned of the September 1963 bombing of a church in her
hometown, Birmingham, that resulted in the death of four black
girls. She knew three of them.
During her senior year at Brandeis, Davis studied philosophy
with Herbert Marcuse, who later became her graduate adviser.
After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from
Brandeis in 1965, Davis applied for a scholarship to study
philosophy at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. After two
years she returned to the United States to study for her
doctorate with Marcuse, who was then teaching at the University
of California at San Diego. While in graduate school she became
politically active with groups such as the Black Panthers, the
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Ron
Karenga's US-Organization. In 1968 she became a member of the
Communist Party and joined one of its local organs, the
As a requirement for her doctorate Davis had to teach for one
year and was appointed to the faculty at the University of
California, Los Angeles. Her appointment was challenged because
she had indicated on her application that she was a Communist.
There was a regulation that Communists were not allowed to teach
in California state universities. Consequently, the governing
body of the university, the Board of Regents, and the governor,
Ronald Reagan, attempted to fire Davis. She waged a court battle
against her dismissal and won. Later, however, in June 1970, she
was fired for her political activity.
After she was acquitted of the charges stemming from the August
7, 1970 incident, she taught black philosophy and women's
studies at San Francisco State College. In 1980 and 1984 she ran
on the Communist Party ticket for vice president of the United
States. By 1983 she was working with the National Alliance
against Racist and Political Repression and had been awarded an
honorary doctorate from Lenin University.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Davis taught courses at several
universities, and in 1997 continued to teach at the University
of California at Santa Cruz. At the university she acted as
presidential chair of a minority women's studies department. She
has stated that she hopes young people will continue to seek new
solutions. In Essence she said, "History is important, but it
also can stifle young people's ability to think in new ways and
to present ideas that may sound implausible now but that really
may help us develop radical strategies for moving into the next
Much has been written about Angela Davis. She is coauthor of a
volume entitled If They Come in the Morning (1971) and the
author of Angela Davis, An Autobiography (1974), Women, Race and
Class (1983),Women, Culture & Politics(1989), and Blues Legacies
and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and
Billie Holliday (1998). The transcript of the Marin County court
case (#52613) is available on microfilm. Several other books
discuss the same case. Some of these are Charles R. Ashman, The
People vs. Angela Davis (1972); Regina Nadelson, Who is Angela
Davis? (1972); J. A. Parker, Angela Davis, the Making of a
Revolutionary (1973); and Bettina Aptheker, The Morning Breaks
Biography Resource Center -- ©2001, Gale Group, Inc.
Angela Davis is Officially Out
by Tracy Baim & Rex Wockner
The February Out magazine cover story
is on 1970s revolutionary Angela Davis, who confirms long-time
rumors that she's a lesbian. When she spoke at the National
Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum conference in 1993, she
did use the first-person in discussing the lesbigay community,
but because she wants to maintain some remnants of her private
life, she has been vague about her own lesbianism. Well, she's
not vague anymore, laying it on the line about being a lesbian,
the commercializing of her revolutionary life, and much more.
Her lesbianism is "something I'm
fine with as a political statement. But I still want a private
space for carrying out my relationships."
Davis credits younger activists for
other insights: how issues like sexuality can "enter into
consciousness and become the focus of struggle," such as
domestic violence and AIDS.
In researching her new book, Blues
Legacies and Black Feminism, she began to understand how
"personal" life historically played a role in Black
women's liberation. The blues women who sang about homosexual
desire, abusive men, jealousy, lust, travel, and love were
creating, she says, "a working-class Black feminism"
and "a politics of resistance challenging race and gender
Coalition Building Among People of Color
A discussion with
Angela Y. Davis and Elizabeth Martínez
The Angela Y. Davis Reader (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell
Angela Davis: An Autobiography (New York: International
Publishers, 1988 )