Noted civil rights activist, educator and author Angela Davis used vignettes from her life to show a large group of University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff students taking part in the 40th annual Youth Motivation Task Force what can be accomplished when you commit yourself to a goal.
“I want to take 20 examples from my life to show you where my fight for social justice has taken me,” Davis said. “I want to start with a period before I was born. My mother grew up in a rural area of Alabama as a foster child who never knew her biological parents. When she graduated elementary school at the age of 13 her foster parents expected her to do what most black children did then, which was to get a job. My mother, however, wanted to go to high school but there were none near where she lived; the closest one was in Birmingham.”
Davis said her mother left home and traveled to Birmingham to attend high school before going on to Miles College.
“I really emulated my mother in many ways,” Davis said. “She was part of the group trying to secure the freedom of the Scottsboro Nine, a group of African-American men falsely accused of raping two young white women.”
Davis recounted a favorite childhood game she played with friends in Birmingham to explain why she continues to do what she does.
“People ask me if I ever get tired,” Davis said. “They say that even after all I have done there is still racism. My answer to them is no, I never get tired. When I was growing up in Birmingham we moved into a house that was on a corner that divided the black neighborhood from the white neighborhood. Only black people who worked on the white side of the street could be over there but we would run across the street and then run back knowing full well that it was illegal. Sometimes we would even run up to a white person’s house and ring their doorbell and try to make it back home without getting caught.”
Davis said she used this story to demonstrate how fighting for social justice can be fun.
“I don’t like to look at it as just a sacrifice,” Davis said. “You can also enjoy doing it. I’ve really enjoyed being involved in the many movements that I’ve been part of. At the age of 11 I was part of an interracial group of kids who talked about racial justice. The Ku Klux Klan eventually burned down the church where we met.”
Davis said she left Birmingham at 15 to go to high school in New York City.
“I was again following in my mother’s footsteps,” Davis said. “I had applied for a program that involved black students from the south going to school in the north and staying with a white family. That was when I learned that the universe was so much larger. It is when I heard Spanish spoken for the first time. I went to Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York and I found out that you had to have four years of French to graduate. I was already a junior and I didn’t even know what French was. I came to have a lifelong love affair with the French language.”
Davis said the sit-ins that began the civil rights movement in the South began the year after she left Birmingham for New York.
“I left in 1959 and it all broke loose in 1960,” Davis said. “I was sad that I had missed out on the dramatic struggles in the South. I became a member of the Advance youth organization, which was part of the Communist Party. It was out of this group that the Southern Negro Youth Conference developed and helped to make it possible for the development of the civil rights movement.”
Davis said she spent two years in Frankfurt, West Germany, and became a member of the German Socialist Student Organization after graduating from Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
“We were active against the Vietnam War and the Shah of Iran,” she said. “In 1966 the Black Panther Party was created and I saw a photo of the group and I said to myself ‘I have to go home.’ Herbert [Marcuse] had left Brandeis and was now in California at the University of California-San Diego so I came home and went to California.”
Davis enrolled at UCSD and quickly became part of a radical organizing effort in which students attempted to have a new college at the university named Lumumba-Zapata College, after Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
“As part of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Nonviolence Coordinating Committee we prevented a massacre in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Davis said. “We knew that the Los Angelese Police Department would use any rioting that occurred as a pretext to kill black activists and black people. We took charge of the protests and called for a shutdown of businesses to honor Dr. King instead of rioting.”
Davis said she joined the Communist Party after LASNCC fell apart because of internal disagreement over the role of women in the organization.
“I considered not joining the Communist Party at first because I didn’t think it was radical enough,” Davis said. “I mean that was the group that my mother and father belonged to. But I did join and I was also in charge of the educational program of the Los Angeles Black Panther Party.”
Davis said that she was hired to teach philosophy at the University of California-Los Angeles but was quickly fired because then-Gov. Ronald Reagan forbade members of the Communist Party from working in state-funded jobs.
She said that she was fired from a teaching job the second time because of her involvement in trying to secure the freedom of three young black men held at Soledad Prison.
“I received sometimes hundreds of death threats per day at that time and I had to have guards shepherd me from class to class,” Davis said. “I purchased several guns for self-defense that were for the use of my guards. One of the younger brothers of the Soledad men took those guns and used them in a courtroom shootout in Marin County, California, that led to the deaths of a judge and several others.”
Davis said that because the guns were listed in her name she was charged as an accomplice to murder, kidnapping and conspiracy and was placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Ten Most Wanted List.
“I was captured after two months,” Davis said. “I spent 18 months in jail. Some of my supporters began a bail campaign in an attempt to get me out of jail. The crimes I was accused of were capital crimes and not eligible for bail but after the Supreme Court of California deemed capital punishment as cruel and unusual I could be bailed out.”
Davis said $100,000 was raised for her bail and she was released.
“I was found not guilty on all counts at trial,” Davis said.
Davis said she worked for the freedom of political prisoners through the National Political Committee to Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners.
Prison industrial complex
Davis said her current focus is on what she believes to be a prison culture that makes money on the backs of predominantly black men.
“There is a statistic that there are more black men in prison under the criminal justice system now than there were in slavery in 1850,” Davis said. “Between the jobs shipped overseas, the lack of recreational facilities and educational opportunity, what are they supposed to do? It is like having a surplus population that is warehoused.”
Davis said she believes imprisonment is a mostly outdated system that needs to be reassessed.