It was the Fourth of July. The rest of the country was celebrating the birth of American freedom in a good-natured orgy of sports and barbecues, with here and there a few fireworks. But the fireworks that Angela Davis set off in Raleigh, N.C. that day were of a different sort. They were verbal—barbed and confident sallies in behalf of freedom for oppressed peoples.
As “co-chairperson” of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Angela Davis spoke at a rally called by the alliance in North Carolina’s capital to protest that state’s death penalty and what she maintains is the nation’s worst penal system, in which there are more men on death row than in any other state.
To the largely black audience of 5,000, Angela Davis, 30, an avowed Communist, was the stellar attraction. Waiting to address the crowd assembled before the capitol, she stood reflectively behind a hand-to-hand cordon of protectors. Lifted up to the flatbed truck which served as the speakers’ platform and aware that most of her audience was from out-state, she began: “I extend to you a militant greeting to Raleigh.” An approving roar brought a smile to her face, and Angela Davis knew the crowd was with her.
She proclaimed that the civil rights movement’s radical left was neither tired nor had lost its momentum but was, rather, poised for a great re-vitalization, and that July 4th, in Raleigh, would be its dawning. At first she spoke with an eastern university accent, but as she became possessed by her own rhetoric her body began to move in a rhythmic cadence, her pitch inched upward, the vowels became drawn out, and the word endings began to slur as if subconsciously she were emulating some preacher from her Alabama childhood.
Aflame now, Angela Davis drew the crowd to her with a passionate excoriation of racism in North Carolina’s administration of justice. Thrusting her clenched fist into the air, she cried, “How wrong! How wrong! How wrong!” With that, 5,000 throats erupted in wave after wave of exultation, and Angela had the throng in her upraised fist.
In August 1970 guns registered in Angela Davis’ name were used in a shoot-out outside the Marin County Calif. courthouse in which a judge and three other persons were killed. When Angela Davis heard the news she fled the Bay area, knowing that she would be arrested, convinced that she would not get a fair trial. Declared “the most wanted” fugitive in the nation by the FBI, she was found two months later in New. York, arrested on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy and returned to California. Imprisoned for 18 months—and in isolation most of that time—she was ultimately released on bail of $102,000. Two months after being brought to trial in San Jose, ably defended by two black attorneys and cheered on by a left-wing claque outside the courtroom, Angela Davis was acquitted by an all-white jury on all three counts.
After that she went on a four-month-long “tour of gratitude” of America’s black communities and of foreign countries where ad-hoc groups had raised about a quarter of a million dollars for her legal defense. She was instrumental in mobilizing some 200 such groups into the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. The organization, dedicated to freeing all persons it considers unjustly harassed or imprisoned on racist or ideological grounds, is headquartered in New York, with 25 chapters in 21 states.
In recent months Davis has extended her considerable energies across the country, addressing student and social groups, holding rallies and press conferences, on subjects from government harassment of the left to women’s liberation. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who has known her for years, says: “She is very articulate, and youth on college campuses need a strong female image. She has a great concern about the problems that face us in the nation and is seeking to find a solution to them.”
Since co-founding the alliance, Davis has maintained her home base in Oakland, Calif., but while traveling she often stays at alliance homes. Speaking fees, some as high as $1,500, pay for her transportation (usually by air) and other expenses, with the bulk of the sum going into alliance coffers. In the last year, for her personal living expenses, she has been able to draw upon a $200,000 book advance from Random House. Angela Davis—an Autobiography will be published in October.
Davis’ commitment to social causes has its roots in Birmingham, where she was born in 1944. Both her parents were schoolteachers, and Angela was a well-brought-up, all-American youngster down to her Girl Scout decorations. But at an early age she was bothered by the inequities in the society around her. At 12 she helped organize interracial study groups, and in her teens she worked on voter registration and marched in picket lines. Angela’s excellence as a student earned her scholarships, first to Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City and subsequently to Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where she majored in French literature. In her junior year she attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where political and social discussions became almost a daily ritual.
That year proved to be a line of demarcation for her. In September 1963 four black girls—all former playmates of Angela—were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed. News of the fire and death at home left in Angela a smoldering and a heightened bitterness.
Back at Brandeis for her senior year, Angela took a one-semester course under Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. She switched to philosophy from French. Graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and recommended by Marcuse, she went to Germany to spend a year at the Goethe University in Frankfurt under Professor Oscar Negt. He recalls her as “excellent and very diligent; she perfected her German, enabling her to understand nuances of a German philosopher not even accessible to the native born.”
She followed Marcuse to the University of California at San Diego, where she completed her master’s degree and began work on her doctorate. Marcuse calls her “one of my best and brightest students.” “I decided to teach,” Davis says, “because I think that any person who studies philosophy has to be involved actively.” She left her doctoral work to become an acting assistant professor of philosophy, and a highly popular teacher, at the University of California at Los Angeles. Vocal in the black liberation struggle, she made a fateful decision: she joined the Communist party. When her party allegiance became known, it caused an academic row, leading—after an exchange of lawsuits—to dismissal and, briefly, reinstatement.
While she was at UCLA Davis also worked ardently to free the Soledad brothers—three black convicts accused of murdering a white guard at California’s Soledad Prison three days after three black prisoners had been killed by white guards. She became friendly with 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, brother of Soledad brother George Jackson. It was Jonathan who, in an attempt to free the Soledad brothers in August of 1970, smuggled the guns registered in Angela Davis’ name into the Marin County Courthouse for the fateful shoot-out. (George Jackson was subsequently killed at San Quentin Prison.)
Had Jonathan Jackson never used Angela Davis’ guns, had she not been captured, had she not run afoul of the Board of Regents, had she not helped found the National Alliance, she might have evolved into a distinguished philosopher and teacher. Offstage, still reticent and soft-spoken, the scholar who reads in French and German and relaxes over such works as Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, explains that she hopes some day to go back to pedagogy. And, a slow smile spreading over her fine features, she modestly adds that she would like to complete work on her doctoral dissertation—on aspects of Emmanuel Kant’s thought—but that will not be for some time, because the FBI destroyed most of her research material left in her rooms when she was a fugitive. “I want to do these things,” Angela says, “but I don’t have the right to lift myself out of the struggle and go bury myself in libraries or classrooms.” In different times, Angela suggests, she probably would have liked marriage and children.
Instead, she is endlessly zigzagging across the country—with sorties abroad—lecturing and proselytizing. In speaking engagements, Angela focuses on alliance projects, but she will also discuss feminism and how she sees the umbrella label of women’s liberation as “a middle-class white woman’s concept.” She says, “I think that when you talk about women’s liberation you have to talk about relating first of all to the most oppressed women in society—black women, Puerto Rican women, Indian women and poor white women. The oppression of women of color is a problem which must be dealt with by revolutionaries, by radicals, by progressives.”
The celebrity element is a prominent factor in Davis’ life. She is recognized on the streets of Birmingham, New York and especially California. When someone asks for an autograph she writes between the recipient’s name and her own “Solidarity!”
Public interest in Angela Davis may be surpassed, however, by that of the law-enforcement authorities. Talking about her life in a modest house in a black, working-class area of east Oakland, Calif., she wryly observes that, “FBI agents and police ‘happen’ to be driving around in the neighborhood and park in front of my house at 6:00 in the morning. They meet us at airports, they follow us, they ask my neighbors about who has been visiting me, what time I came in, where I’ve been going. But I expect it. I probably would begin to worry when that kind of pressure would relax, because then I would think that we weren’t doing anything that is a threat to their power.”