Biography of Angela Davis, Political Activist and Academic

Angela Davis in 1969
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Angela Davis (born January 26, 1944) is a radical activist, philosopher, writer, speaker, and educator. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was well known for her association with the Black Panthers. She was fired from one teaching job for being a communist, and for a time she even appeared on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Ten Most Wanted" list.

Fast Facts: Angela Davis

  • Known For: Davis is an academic and activist known for her association with the Black Panthers.
  • Also Known As: Angela Yvonne Davis
  • Born: January 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

Angela Yvonne Davis was born on January 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. Davis lived in a segregated neighborhood and went to segregated schools through high school. She later 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.

Davis 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 Frankfurt for two years, then received an M.A. from the University of California at San Diego in 1968. Her doctoral study took place from 1968 to 1969.

During her undergraduate years at Brandeis, she was shocked to hear 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 African-Americans in the United States.

Politics and Philosophy

A member of the Communist Party USA, Davis became involved in radical 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 (SNCC). She was part of an all-black communist group called the Che-Lumumba Club, and through that group she began to organize public protests.

In 1969, Davis was hired as an assistant professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. She used her post to teach Kant, Marxism, and philosophy in black literature. Davis was popular as 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.

Activism

After her dismissal from UCLA, Davis became involved in the case of the Soledad Brothers, a group of prisoners at Soledad Prison. Anonymous threats led her to purchase weapons for self-defense.

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, on August 7, 1970. A county judge was killed in the failed attempt to take hostages and rescue Jackson, and the guns used were registered in her name. 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.

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 Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Davis ran for vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1980.

Davis left the Communist Party in 1991, 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." Davis has called "the sexual abuse of women in prison is one of the most heinous state-sanctioned human rights violations within the United States today."

Academia

Davis taught in the Ethnic Studies department at San Francisco State University from 1980 to 1984. Although former Gov. Ronald Reagan swore she would never teach again in the University of California system, Davis began teaching at the University of California at Santa Cruz 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 "Angela Davis: An Autobiography," "Are Prisons Obsolete?," "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 was a lesbian.

Sources

  • Aptheker, Bettina. "The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis." Cornell University Press, 1999.
  • Davis, Angela Y. "Angela Davis: an Autobiography." International Publishers, 2008.
  • Davis, Angela Y. "Are Prisons Obsolete?" Seven Stories Press, 2003.
  • Davis, Angela Y. "Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday." Vintage Books, 1999.
  • Davis, Angela Y., and Joy James. "The Angela Y. Davis Reader." Blackwell, 1998.
  • Timothy, Mary. "Jury Woman: the Story of the Trial of Angela Y. Davis." Glide Publications, 1975.