Angela Davis: A Life of Dissent

Angela Davis is a prolific figure on the American Left. A scholar, activist, orator, and Marxist thinker, she has been both catapulted into fame by supporters and systematically denounced by bitter political enemies.

Regardless of one’s feelings about her, Davis has achieved recognition as a household name: a feat few philosophers–especially of the Left–can boast. This article will seek to survey her life and her contributions to Leftist tradition, including those that have led her into ample controversy with the Establishment.

Early Life and Education

Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944. She attended Carrie A. Tuggle School, a segregated elementary school, and Parker Annex middle school. Davis was profoundly influenced by communist organizers and thinkers affiliated with the Southern Negro Youth Congress, of which her mother was a national officer and organizer. As a Girl Scout, she marched in protest of racial segregation in Birmingham. 

She later attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, a progressive high school in New York City, and eventually received a scholarship to attend Brandeis University, becoming one of three Black students in her class. There, while at a rally during the Cuban Missile Crisis, she met the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and eventually studied under him. Davis reports that “[he] taught [her] that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary.” 

She studied abroad in France and eventually studied philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, before receiving her Master’s from UC-San Diego and her Ph.D. from Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

Professorship at UCLA

In 1969, Davis was hired to teach philosophy at UCLA. It was at this point that Davis achieved recognition as a radical feminist and thinker, joining both the Communist Party and the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party. That same year, the University of California instituted a policy to stop the hiring of communists. The Board of Regents subsequently fired Davis at the urging of then-Governor Ronald Reagan.

After a lawsuit was filed in her defense, a judge ruled that the university could not fire her solely because of her Communist Party membership. Alas, she was fired again for “inflammatory language” that she had reportedly used in four different speeches.

Marin County Civic Center Controversy

In 1970, 17-year-old Jonathan P. Jackson and three other inmates kidnapped Judge Harold Haley and took four hostages at Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California. Gunfire ensued, leaving four dead (including Jackson and Judge Haley) and three wounded. The guns were owned by Angela Davis, who had purchased the weapons but maintained that she had no knowledge of the incident nor participated in its planning. Through loose connections (Davis had established a network of connections through activism and the Black Panther Party), Jackson got a hold of the weapons registered under Davis’s name and used them in the attack.

A warrant was issued for Davis’s arrest. Fleeing California, she reports having stayed in friends’ homes and moved during the nighttime to avoid capture. Four days after the warrant was issued, Davis was placed on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List. In October of 1970, she was found and arrested by the FBI. Then-President Nixon congratulated the FBI on capturing the “dangerous terrorist Angela Davis.”

Davis was charged with three capital felonies, including conspiracy to murder. Throughout it all, Davis pressed that she was innocent. She was acquitted in 1972 by an all-white jury after the judge determined that her ownership of the weapons was insufficient to establish any role in the plot.

1980s – Present

In 1980 and 1984, Davis was the vice presidential candidate on the Communist Party ticket, running next to Gus Hall. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Party was split between supporters of the Russian coup d’etat attempt (Soviet hardliners) and those that supported moving the party toward a more multi-tendency, democratic socialist orientation. The latter group formed the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, which Davis co-founded and which eventually split off from the Communist Party.
Davis may be best known as an advocate for prison abolition and one of the co-founders of Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization that advocates for prison abolition. She has authored over 10 books on the U.S. prison system, class, race, and gender, and is listed on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She continues her activism to the present day: she is invited to countless speaking engagements and lectures, tirelessly authors Left scholarship, and continuously lends her perspective on the pressing issues of our time.

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