This is the first of three columns looking at the life, politics and activism of Angela Davis, a living icon for revolutionaries
Angela Davis is an icon for many, a fighter for black and women’s liberation and a revolutionary to the core. But some seem to forget the revolutionary bit.
Davis’s childhood was defined by racism, violence, fear and resistance, shaping who she went on to become.
Born on 26 January 1944, Davis was raised on Center Street, Birmingham, Alabama. This was an area that, in the 1950s, was marked by racist bombings of houses in an attempt to intimidate and drive out middle class black families. Due to the frequency of bombings the street was known as Dynamite Hill and the neighbourhood nicknamed “Bombingham”. Martin Luther King once described Birmingham as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the US”.
In her autobiography Davis recalls the reality of growing up in the Southern US, where the Jim Crow laws entrenched segregation following the end of slavery. As a black child you had to learn your place in society, namely certain parts of the bus or the shop labelled “coloured”.
Growing up she had heard of communism and witnessed the McCarthy witch-hunt. Both her parents were activists in the moderate civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — and had received death threats.
Her mother, Sallye Bell Davis, had a long history of activism and had worked alongside communists in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. Her politics were grounded in the fight for unity between black and white against racism.
Nonetheless, as a child attending segregated schools and going to civil rights marches with her mother, which were often attacked by racists, Davis saw the question of racism and civil rights as one of black people versus white people.
Aged 15 she earned a scholarship to Elizabeth Irwin High, a private school in Greenwich Village, New York. Some of its teachers were radicals who had lost their jobs in public schools due to the witch hunt.
It was in a high school history class that Davis first came to understand the ideas of socialism, and her eyes were opened up to a whole new world. She was fascinated, and followed up the class by reading the Communist Manifesto, which she said “hit her like a bolt of lightning”. She read it again and again, “finding in it answers to many of the seemingly unanswerable dilemmas which had plagued her”.
She began to understand the importance of the wider working class movement and how the question of black struggle was a part of it. The closing words of the Communist Manifesto, “WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!” are “what sealed her overwhelming desire to throw herself into the communist movement”.
Around this time, a friend who was the daughter of a Communist Party member invited her to a meeting organised by Advance, a Marxist-Leninist youth organisation. Davis joined the organisation, attending lectures and taking part in a picket of the Woolworth store on 42nd Street to persuade New Yorkers not to go in until the store agreed to hire black clerks in the South.
Alongside their struggles in the North, activists known as “freedom riders” rode interstate buses into the segregated South to take part in the civil rights protests in a much more dangerous situation. In Birmingham the police, riddled with Ku Klux Klan (KKK)members, allowed white racist mobs to attack the buses.
In 1963 Birmingham was the location for a key turning point in the civil rights movement — the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four girls aged between 11 and 14 were killed in the blast. One of them was a close friend of Davis’s younger sister. She writes in her autobiography about her mother driving one of the girls’ mothers to the bombed church only to find her daughter’s body parts strewn across the site.
On graduating from high school in 1961 Davis had been awarded a scholarship to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she studied under Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. She credits him for teaching her that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar and a revolutionary.
She went on to travel to France, Switzerland, and Germany where she joined a socialist student group fighting against the Vietnam War.
On her return to the US she was drawn to the newly formed Black Panther Party. The black liberation movement had begun to move away from the non-violence approach of the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also shaped by socialist ideas.
In 1968 Davis earned her master’s degree and her doctorate in philosophy. By 1969 she was an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Here she joined the all-black branch of the Communist Party, the Che-Lumumba Club.
Her time at the university was the start of a life-changing experience that led her to be one of the first women on the FBI’s most-wanted list.