Educator and activist Angela Davis (1944-) became known for her involvement in a politically charged murder case in the early 1970s. Influenced by her segregated upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis joined the Black Panthers and an all-Black branch of the Communist Party as a young woman. She became a professor at UCLA, but fell out of favor with the administration due to her ties. Davis was charged with aiding the botched escape attempt of imprisoned Black radical George Jackson, and served roughly 18 months in jail before her acquittal in 1972. After spending time traveling and lecturing, Davis returned to the classroom as a professor and authored several books.
Angela Davis: Early Life and Education
Angela Yvonne Davis is best known as a radical African American educator and activist for civil rights and other social issues. She was born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama to Sallye and Frank Davis, an elementary school teacher and the owner of a service station, respectively. Davis knew about racial prejudice from a young age; her neighborhood in Birmingham was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill” for the number of homes targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. As a teenager, Davis organized interracial study groups, which were broken up by the police. She also knew several of the young African American girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963.
Angela Davis later moved north and went to Brandeis University in Massachusetts where she studied philosophy with Herbert Marcuse. As a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, in the late 1960s, she joined several groups, including the Black Panthers. But she spent most of her time working with the Che-Lumumba Club, which was all-Black branch of the Communist Party.
Hired to teach at the University of California, Los Angeles, Angela Davis ran into trouble with the school’s administration because of her association with communism. They fired her, but she fought them in court and got her job back. Davis still ended up leaving when her contract expired in 1970.
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Angela Davis and the Soledad Brothers
Outside of academia, Angela Davis had become a strong supporter of three prison inmates of Soledad Prison known as the Soledad brothers (they were not related). These three men—John W. Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo, and George Lester Jackson—were accused of killing a prison guard after several African American inmates had been killed in a fight by another guard. Some thought these prisoners were being used as scapegoats because of the political work within the prison.
During Jackson’s trial in August 1970, an escape attempt was made when Jackson’s brother Jonathan entered the courtroom to claim hostages he could exchange for his brother. Jonathan Jackson, Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, and two inmates were killed in the ensuing shoot-out.
Angela Davis was brought up on several charges for her alleged part in the event, including murder. She went into hiding and was one of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” before being caught two months later. There were two main pieces of evidence used at trial: the guns used were registered to her, and she was reportedly in love with Jackson. Her case drew the attention of the international press and after spending roughly 18 months in jail, Davis was acquitted in June 1972.
Angela Davis Books
After spending time traveling and lecturing, Angela Davis returned to teaching. Today, she is a Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Davis is the author of several books, including Women, Race, and Class (1980), Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1999), Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (2005), The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues (2012) and Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (2016).