To celebrate Women’s History Month, Dr. Generals led a Fireside Chat that delved into the inspiring and sometimes overlooked legacy of Angela Davis, from influences in her youth and early career to how she began her work in prison abolition by successfully defending herself in court after being placed on the FBI’s most wanted list and death row. The discussion illuminated the historical context of her work, as well as the substantial role she has played in shaping contemporary social justice dialogue.
Although the Jim Crow Era of the United States can seem like a distant past, it was a bitter reality for the now 78-year-old Davis. She witnessed atrocities committed by the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young Black girls, two of whom were her friends, were murdered by white supremacists.
Due to her excellent academic record, Davis was able to move to New York City to attend a progressive high school. She received a scholarship to Brandeis University and earned a degree in French literature, later realizing that she wanted to study philosophy. She moved to Germany to complete a graduate program at the University of Frankfurt, “and this is where her embrace of communism and Marxism began,” said Dr. Generals. She began fully diving into the works of Hegel, Marx, John Locke and their peers, earning a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Humbolt in Berlin.
Feeling like the privilege of her academic career was removing her from the suffering of those she wanted to help the most, Davis returned to the United Stated to teach at UCLA.
She began protesting more and joined the Black Panther Party, where Dr. Generals explained, “they really resented the idea that a woman was a leader in their movement.” Davis also became an activist within the Communist Party, where there was a distinct lack of emphasis placed upon the oppression caused by systemic racism.
Ronald Reagan, governor of California in 1970, heard that a Communist was teaching at a California state school, and he attempted to get her fired. “During this time, she became a target for the right wing,” Dr. Generals explained, saying that she received constant death threats, forcing her to hire private security.
One of these security guards, Johnathan Jackson, was the brother of George Jackson, one of the Soledad brothers, who were accused (Davis believes falsely) of causing a prison riot that resulted in the death of a police officer. Davis took great interest in the case and advocated for justice for the Soledad brothers, but without Davis’ knowledge, Johnathan Jackson took hostages at the court hearing for his brother. This resulted in a shootout that caused the death of the judge. It was later discovered that it was the San Quentin guards who opened fire, who were responsible for the death of the judge, and the other prisoners and Jonathan.
Because her weapon was used, Davis was blamed by law enforcement. She attempted to escape imprisonment by going underground, but was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list and was eventually located by law enforcement. They imprisoned her in the Manhattan Detention Complex and placed her in solitary confinement.
“But her advocacy for prison reform really began to take hold there,” said Dr. Generals. She saw the inhumanity with which the women in prison were treated and “when she got [out of solitary confinement] the women embraced her, and they began protesting their treatment within the jail.”
“They yelled out the windows and coordinated with activists to get supplies and funding for bail. They created a protest movement to reform the bail system, because nobody in that prison could afford bail,” explained Dr. Generals. Over the course of 18 months, Davis was able to free several of her fellow inmates.
People around the nation and world rallied for her release, and by February 1971, including pop culture icons like Aretha Franklin, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, advocated for her release. After 16 months she was released on bail.
On June 4, 1972, she famously represented herself in front of an all-white jury and was proven innocent.
“Thank you, Dr. Generals, for keeping Angela Davis’ legacy alive,” commented one of the audience members who also wanted to share with the group Mahalia Jackson singing part of the song, Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain: “No, don't move the mountain. Give me strength to move my mountain. But lead me all around.”
Her voice was all-encompassing, soulful and clear. It was the perfect way to end the Fireside Chat and celebrate the power in women’s history.