On August 18, 1970, Angela Yvonne Davis became the third woman ever placed on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list, sought for her supposed involvement in kidnappings and murders growing out of an armed seizure of a Marin County Courthouse in California. Until her arrest two months later, photos of the 26-year-old university professor and activist with her iconic Afro hairstyle appeared on an FBI poster along with a warning that she should be considered “armed and dangerous.”

Davis's arrest was followed by a 16-month incarceration and a huge global campaign to “Free Angela Davis,” leading to her acquittal in 1972. An acclaimed author, academic and advocate for prison reform, Davis has since described those two years as a “formative” period for what became her lifelong work.

Davis Campaigns for the Release of the Soledad Brothers

Davis had gained national notoriety in 1969 when she was fired from her position as a lecturer in the philosophy department at the University of California Los Angeles because of her political activism and declared affiliation with the Communist Party. Davis sued and got her position back, but then left UCLA when her contract expired in 1970. That same year, Davis became involved in a campaign to liberate the so-called Soledad Brothers, three prisoners accused of the murder of a prison guard at a California state prison. The killing had occurred three days after another guard shot and killed three Black prisoners during a riot.

At a press conference in which she announced the formation of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, Davis said the charges against the three were the latest in a "long series of repressive and genocidal measures taken by the prisons in the state." A member of that committee was Jonathan Jackson, the blood brother of one of the three men.

The Assault on the Marin County Courthouse

On August 7 Jackson burst into a courthouse in Marin County, California, where Judge Harold J. Haley presided over an assault trial. The Associated Press reported that Jackson carried a bowling bag full of weapons and distributed them to three convicts—one on trial and two there as witnesses.

The armed men took Judge Haley and four other people as hostages and marched them into a small van in the parking lot. Authorities alleged that Jackson intended to trade the hostages for the Soledad prisoners. Police exchanged fire with the abductors as they attempted to flee, and four people were killed in the shootout: the judge, two of the prisoners and Jackson.

Witnesses before a county grand jury testified that several of the weapons used in the courthouse takeover had been purchased by Davis, including a sawed-off shotgun that authorities said was used to kill Judge Haley. Although Davis had not been present, the grand jury returned an indictment charging her with kidnapping, murder and conspiracy.

Davis never denied owning the weapons, but said she was not involved and had no knowledge of her weapons being used in the courthouse assault.

In a 2004 interview on C-SPAN, Davis said that she had received multiple threats following her discharge from UCLA, that she “purchased guns that were used by a number of people who acted as security” for her and that Jackson had been part of that “security detail” with access to the weapons.

Warrant Issued for Davis' Arrest

Two weeks after the assault, on August 14, a judge issued a warrant for Davis’ arrest and an intense police search began. Four days later, on August 18, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover listed her on the agency’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List. Davis went underground and fled California. In a 1974 autobiography and in numerous accounts since Davis describes how she changed her appearance, hid in friends’ homes and moved around at night.

On October 13 FBI agents found Davis (wearing a wig) at a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City and arrested her. She was unarmed and offered no resistance. Photographs of a handcuffed Davis made newspaper front pages around the world. President Richard Nixon congratulated the FBI on its “capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis.”

Handcuffed and in the custody of FBI agents, Angela Davis leaves FBI headquarters after her arrest.
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Handcuffed and in the custody of FBI agents, Angela Davis leaves FBI headquarters after her arrest.

'Free Angela Davis' Movement Begins

The morning after the arrest, the all-Black Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party of Southern California—the organization to which Davis belonged—held a press conference to announce a campaign to liberate Davis. The group’s chairman declared, “We are completely and without reservation committed to lead in building the largest, broadest, most all-encompassing movement this country has ever seen to free our comrade, Angela Davis—political prisoner.”

Davis was denied bail and extradited to California. At her January 5, 1971 arraignment at a Marin County Superior Court, Davis declared herself “innocent of all charges” and the victim of “a political frame-up.”

A National United Committee to Free Angela Davis was formed and thousands of people around the country organized to gain her release. People showed up at protests wearing “Free Angela” buttons. The movement expanded, with musicians like John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Rolling Stones recording songs in her support.

Activists raised funds for Davis’ defense, which was estimated to cost half a million dollars. Religious groups, including the United Presbyterian Church and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, contributed to the campaign.

The state allowed Davis’ release on bail in February 1972. Lawyers filed a motion for a change of venue and Davis’ trial was moved to Santa Clara County. On June 4, 1972, after 13 hours of deliberations over three days, an all-white jury returned verdicts of not guilty on all three charges.

After Acquittal, Davis Focuses on Prisoners' Rights

In a 1997 interview with PBS Frontline, Davis recalled how she worked on behalf of prisoners’ rights even while behind bars, and continued to do so upon her release

“As soon as my trial was over, we tried to use the energy that had developed around my case to create [an] organization, which we called the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression,” Davis said. “And… I'm still working for the freedom of political prisoners.”

In the C-SPAN interview, Davis recalled how her own time behind bars helped shape her thoughts.

“My experiences during that time were quite formative in many ways,” Davis said. “I had not been able to think through the question of the role the institution of the prison played in perpetuating structures of racism and class bias and so forth.”

Angela Davis
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Angela Davis at a news conference on February 24, 1972, following her release on bail.

Over the years, Davis remained active as a scholar and activist. In 1991 she became a professor in the field of history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz and four years later was appointed to the University of California Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies. In 1997 she co-founded Critical Resistance, a national organization dedicated to the dismantling of the “prison industrial complex,” a term that she helped to popularize

“[Davis and other writers] have generated an intersectional viewpoint from which to examine the utility of prisons, from a feminist perspective and from an anti-racist point of view,” says Diego H. Alcalá Laboy a lawyer specializing in prison rights who is starting a teaching position at the Widener University Delaware Law School. “In the U.S., there is a direct connection between race and [imprisonment], and hers is a significative contribution in that regard.”

Davis retired from teaching at U.C. Santa Cruz in 2008, but continues to write and speak on issues around prisons, police, race, gender and class. She re-released her 1974 memoir, An Autobiography, with a new introduction in 2022.