Angela Davis

Philosopher, Radical Activist, Teacher

Angela Davis, 1969
Angela Davis, 1969. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Angela Davis is known as a radical activist, philosopher, writer, speaker, and educator. She was well known for a time through her association with the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s. She was fired from one teaching job for being a Communist, and she appeared on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Ten Most Wanted List" for a time.

Early Life and Student Years

 Angela Yvonne Davis was born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama.  Her father B. Frank Davis was a teacher who opened a gas station, and her mother, Sallye E. Davis, was a teacher.  She lived in a segregated neighborhood and went to segregated schools through high school.  She became involved with her family in civil rights demonstrations.  She spent some time in New York City where her mother was earning a master's degree during summer breaks from teaching.

She excelled as a student, graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in 1965, with two years of study at the Sorbonne, University of Paris. She studied philosophy in Germany at the University of Frankfort for two years, then received an M.A. from the University of California at San Diego in 1968. Her doctoral study was from 1968 to 1969.

During her undergraduate years at Brandeis, she was shocked to hear of the bombing of a Birmingham church, killing four girls she had known.

Politics and Philosophy

A member of the Communist Party, USA, at the time, she became involved in radical black politics and in several organizations for black women, including helping to found Sisters Inside and Critical Resistance. She also joined the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was part of an all-black Communist group called the Che-Lumumba Club, and through that group began to organize public protests.

In 1969, Davis was hired to a position at the University of California at Los Angeles, an assistant professorship. She taught Kant, Marxism, and philosophy in black literature. She was popular as a a teacher, but a leak identifying her as a member of the Communist Party led to the UCLA regent -- headed then by Ronald Reagan -- to dismiss her.  A court ordered her reinstatement, but she was fired again the next year.


She became involved in the case of the Soledad Brothers, a group of  prisoners at Soledad Prison. Anonymous threats led her to purchase weapons.

Davis was arrested as a suspected conspirator in the abortive attempt to free George Jackson, one of the Soledad Brothers, from a courtroom in Marin County, California, August 7, 1970. A county judge was killed in the failed attempt to take hostages and rescue Jackson. The guns used were registered in her name. Angela Davis was eventually acquitted of all charges but she was on the FBI's most-wanted list as she fled and went into hiding to avoid arrest.

Angela Davis is often associated with the Black Panthers and with the black power politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She joined the Communist Party when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. She was active with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) before the Black Panthers. Angela Davis ran for U.S. Vice President on the Communist Party ticket in 1980.

Angela Davis has been an activist and writer promoting women's rights and racial justice while pursuing her career as a philosopher and teacher at the University of Santa Cruz and San Francisco University—she achieved tenure at the University of California at Santa Cruz though former governor Ronald Reagan swore she would never teach again in the University of California system. She studied with political philosopher Herbert Marcuse. She has published on race, class, and gender (see below).

She opposed the Million Man March of Louis Farrakhan, as part of her long work for black women's rights. In 1999 she came out as a lesbian when she was outed in the press.

When she retired from UCSC, she was named Professor Emerita. She continued her work for prison abolition, women's rights, and racial justice. She has taught at UCLA and elsewhere as a visiting professor.

Selected Angela Davis Quotes

• Radical simply means "grasping things at the root."

• To understand how any society functions you must understand the relationship between the men and the women.

• Racism, in the first place, is a weapon used by the wealthy to increase the profits they bring in by paying Black workers less for their work.

• We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.

• Media mystifications should not obfuscate a simple, perceivable fact; Black teenage girls do not create poverty by having babies. Quite the contrary, they have babies at such a young age precisely because they are poor -- because they do not have the opportunity to acquire an education, because meaningful, well-paying jobs and creative forms of recreation are not accessible to them... because safe, effective forms of contraception are not available to them.

• 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.

• The work of the political activist inevitably involves a certain tension between the requirement that position be taken on current issues as they arise and the desire that one's contributions will somehow survive the ravages of time.

• Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo - obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.

• Had it not been for slavery, the death penalty would have likely been abolished in America. Slavery became a haven for the death penalty.

• Given the racist and patriarchal patterns of the state, it is difficult to envision the state as the holder of solutions to the problem of violence against women of color. However, as the anti-violence movement has been institutionalized and professionalized, the state plays an increasingly dominant role in how we conceptualize and create strategies to minimize violence against women.

• The early feminist argument that violence against women is not inherently a private matter, but has been privatized by the sexist structures of the state, the economy, and the family has had a powerful impact on public consciousness.

• Invisible, repetitive, exhausting, unproductive, uncreative -- these are the adjectives which most perfectly capture the nature of housework.

• I decided to teach because I think that any person who studies philosophy has to be involved actively.

• Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.

Books by and About Angela Davis