Biography of Angela Davis, Political Activist and Academic

Angela Davis at First News Conference
Angela Davis, on trial for alleged activities in connection with a Marin County Court shootout, attends her first news conference since being released on bail on Feb. 24, 1972. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Angela Davis (born Jan. 26, 1944) is a political activist, academic, and author, who has been highly involved in the civil rights movement in the U.S. She is well known for her work and influence on racial justice, women's rights, criminal justice reform. Davis is a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in its History of Consciousness Department, and a former director of the university's Feminist Studies Department. In the 1960s and 1970s, Davis was known for her association with the Black Panthers Party—but actually spent only a short time as a member of that group—and the Communist Party. For a time she even appeared on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Ten Most Wanted" list. In 1997, Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization working toward the dismantling of prisons, or what Davis and others have called the prison-industrial complex.

Fast Facts: Angela Davis

  • Known For: Black academic and activist known for her association with the Black Panthers whose influence among civil rights activists reverberates to this day.
  • Also Known As: Angela Yvonne Davis
  • Born: Jan. 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama
  • Parents: B. Frank Davis and Sallye Bell Davis
  • Education: Brandeis University (B.A.), University of California, San Diego (M.A.), Humboldt University (Ph.D.)
  • Published Works: "Women, Race, & Class," "Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday," "Are Prisons Obsolete?"
  • Spouse: Hilton Braithwaite (m. 1980-1983)
  • Notable Quote: "Revolution is a serious thing, the most serious thing about a revolutionary's life. When one commits oneself to the struggle, it must be for a lifetime."

Early Life

Davis was born on Jan. 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father B. Frank Davis was a teacher who later opened a gas station, and her mother Sallye Bell Davis was a teacher, who was active in the NAACP.

Davis initially lived in a segregated neighborhood in Birmingham, but in 1948 moved into a "large wooden house on Center Street" in a suburban area of the city populated mainly by White people. The White neighbors in the area were hostile but left the family alone as long they stayed on "their side" of Center Street, Davis wrote in her autobiography. But when another Black family moved into the neighborhood on the other side of Center Street, that family's house was blown up in "an explosion a hundred times louder than the loudest, most frightening thunderclap I had ever heard," Davis wrote. Still, Black families continued to move into the middle-class neighborhood, provoking an angry reaction. "The bombings became such a constant response that soon our neighborhood became known as Dynamite Hill," said Davis.

Davis was bused to segregated schools with all-Black student populations, first to an elementary school, Carrie A. Tuggle School, and later to Parker Annex, another school a few blocks away that was an extension of Parker High School. The schools were ramshackle and in disrepair, according to Davis, but from the elementary school, students could see an all-White school nearby, a beautiful brick building surrounded by a lush, green lawn.

Though Birmingham was an epicenter of the civil rights movement, Davis was unable to take part in the movement in its initial years in the 1950s and early 1960s. "I left the South precisely at the moment when radical change was about to take place," she said in a documentary film about her life. "I discovered a program to bring Black students from the segregated South to the North. So, I didn't get to directly experience all of the protests in Birmingham."

She moved for a time to New York City, where she attended what is now known as Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School or LREI. Her mother also earned a master's degree in New York City during summer breaks from teaching.

Angela Davis (1969)
Angela Davis in 1969. Removing her from California's public university system was a priority for then-governor Ronald Reagan.

Archive / Getty Images

Davis excelled as a student. Decades after graduating from graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in 1965, Davis returned to the school in February 2019 as part of an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the university's African American Studies Department. She recalled that she enjoyed the "intellectual atmosphere" at Brandeis, studying French language and culture, but that she was only one of a handful of Black students on campus. She noted that she encountered a kind of oppression at Brandeis that she was unfamiliar with during a talk at the anniversary event:

"I made this journey from the south to the north in search of some kind of freedom, and what I thought I would find in the north wasn’t there. I discovered new forms of racism that I could not at the time articulate as racism."

Also, during her undergraduate years at Brandeis, Davis learned of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four girls she had known. This Ku Klux Klan-perpetrated violence marked a major turning point in the civil rights movement, bringing worldwide attention to the plight of Black people in the United States.

Davis also spent two years studying at the Paris-Sorbonne University. She also studied philosophy in Germany at the University of Frankfurt for two years. Describing that time, Davis notes:

"I ended up studying in Germany when these new developments in the Black movement happened. The emergence of the Black Panther party. And, my feeling was, 'I want to be there. This is earthshaking, this is change. I want to be part of that.' "

Davis did return to the United States and received a master's degree from the University of California at San Diego in 1968. She went back to Germany and earned a doctorate in philosophy from the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1969.

Politics and Philosophy

Davis became involved in Black politics and in several organizations for Black women, including Sisters Inside and Critical Resistance, which she helped found. Davis also joined the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Though Davis was affiliated with the Black Panther Party, she said in her documentary that she felt that the group was paternalistic and sexist, and that women were "expected to take a back seat and to sit, literally, at the feet of the men."

Instead, Davis spent most of her time with the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-Black branch of the Communist Party, which was named for Cuban Communist and revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Patrice Lumumba, a Congolese politician and independence leader. She helped the group's chairman, Franklin Alexander, organize and lead numerous protests, calling not only for racial equality but also advocating for the rights of women, as well as the end of police brutality, better housing, and "stopping the depression level of unemployment in the Black community," as Alexander noted in 1969. Davis said she was attracted to the ideals of "global revolution, third-world people, people of color—and that was what drew me into the party."

Angela Davis Speaking at UCLA
Angela Davis, UCLA assistant philosophy professor, Black activist, and Communist Party member, lectures on Black literature in Royce Hall at UCLA. Despite a ruling that no students attending would receive credit, well over 1,000 people attended the lecture. Davis was fired by the Board of Regents under a 29-year-old rule prohibiting the hiring of communists in the California University system. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

During this period, in 1969, Davis was hired as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles, where she taught Kant, Marxism, and philosophy in Black literature. As a teacher, Davis was popular with both students and faculty members—her first lecture drew well over 1,000 people—but a leak identifying her as a member of the Communist Party led the UCLA regents, headed then by Ronald Reagan, to dismiss her. 

Superior Court Judge Jerry Pacht ordered her reinstatement, ruling that the university could not fire Davis simply because she was a member of the Communist Party, but she was fired again the following year, on June 20, 1970, for what the regents said where her incendiary statements, including charges that the regents " '...killed, brutalized [and] murdered' the People's Park demonstrators, and her repeated characterization of the police as 'pigs,' " according to a 1970 story in the New York Times. (One person had been killed and dozens injured in during a demonstration at People's Park in Berkely on May 15, 1969.) The American Association of University Professors later, in 1972, censured the Board of Regents for Davis's firings.

Activism

After her dismissal from UCLA, Davis became involved in the case of the Soledad Brothers, a group of Black prisoners at Soledad Prison—George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette—who were charged with the murder of a guard at the prison. Davis and a number of others formed the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, a group that worked to try to free the prisoners. She soon became the leader of the group.

On Aug. 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson, the 17-year-old brother of George Jackson, kidnapped Marin County Superior Court Judge Harold Haley in an attempt to negotiate for the release of the Soledad Brothers. (Haley was presiding over the trial of prisoner James McClain, who was charged in an unrelated incident—the attempted stabbing of a prison guard.) Haley was killed in the failed attempt, but the guns Jonathan Jackson used were registered to Davis, who had purchased them a few days prior to the incident.

Davis was arrested as a suspected conspirator in the abortive attempt. Davis was eventually acquitted of all charges, but for a time she was on the FBI's Most Wanted list after she fled and went into hiding to avoid arrest.

FBI Poster of Communist Activist Angela Davis
The FBI issued this wanted flier on Aug. 18, 1970. Angela Davis was charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for murder and kidnapping. Bettmann / Getty Images

Davis joined the Communist Party when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and ran for vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. Davis was not the first Black woman to run for vice president. That honor goes to Charlotta Bass, a journalist and activist, who ran for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. According to USA Today, Bass told supporters during her acceptance speech in Chicago:

“This is a historic moment in American political life. Historic for myself, for my people, for all women. For the first time in the history of this nation a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land.”

And in 1972, Shirley Chisolm, who had been the first Black woman elected to Congress (in 1968), unsuccessfully sought the nomination for vice president on the Democratic ticket. Though "discrimination followed her quest," according to the National Women's History Museum, Chisolm entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 votes with a campaign funded in part by the Congressional Black Caucus. A few years after her two vice-presidential runs, in 1991, Davis left the Communist Party, though she continues to be involved in some of its activities.

As a self-described prison abolitionist, she has played a major role in the push for criminal justice reforms and other resistance to what she calls the "prison-industrial complex." In her essay "Public Imprisonment and Private Violence," Davis calls the sexual abuse of women in prison "one of the most heinous state-sanctioned human rights violations within the United States today."

Prison Reform

Davis has continued her work for prison reform over the years. To press her point, Davis speaks at events and academic conferences, such as one held at the University of Virginia in 2009. Thirty scholars and others—including Davis—gathered to discuss "the growth of the prison-industrial complex and racial disparities in the U.S.," according to UVA Today.

Davis told the paper at the time that "(r)acism fuels the prison-industrial complex. The vast disproportion of Black people makes it clear. … Black men are criminalized." Davis has advocated for other methods to deal with people who are violent, methods that focus on rehabilitation and restoration. To that end, Davis has also written on the subject, particularly in her 2010 book, "Are Prisons Obsolete?"

In the book, Davis said:

"During my own career as an anti-prison activist, I have seen the population of U.S. prisons increase with such rapidity that many people in Black, Latino, and Native American communities now have a far greater chance of going to prison than getting an education."

Noting that she first became involved in anti-prison activism during the 1960s, she argued that it's time to have a serious national talk about doing away with these institutions that "relegate ever-larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked more by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion."

Academia

Women's March on Washington - Angela Davis
Angela Davis at the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington, D.C. WireImage / Getty Images

Davis taught in the Ethnic Studies department at San Francisco State University from 1980 to 1984. Although former Gov. Reagan swore she would never teach again in the University of California system, "Davis was reinstated after an outcry from academics and civil rights advocates," according to J.M. Brown of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Davis was hired by the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the History of Consciousness Department in 1984 and was made a professor in 1991. 

During her tenure there, she continued to work as an activist and promote women's rights and racial justice. She has published books on race, class, and gender, including such popular titles as "The Meaning of Freedom" and "Women, Culture & Politics."

When Davis retired from UCSC in 2008, she was named professor emerita. In the years since, she has continued her work for prison abolition, women's rights, and racial justice. Davis has taught at UCLA and elsewhere as a visiting professor, committed to the importance of "liberating minds as well as liberating society."

Personal Life

Davis was married to photographer Hilton Braithwaite from 1980 to 1983. In 1997, she told Out magazine that she is lesbian.

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