Angela Davis: Freed by the People
No single person sits more squarely at the intersection of transnational struggles for freedom than the controversial political activist and pioneering philosopher Angela Yvonne Davis. Her arrest, incarceration, and trial formed one of the most widely debated legal cases in world history. President Nixon labeled Davis a “dangerous terrorist” and a threat to the security of the United States. At the same time, people around the globe rose up to protest in her name. These allies saw Davis as a political prisoner and a symbol of the struggle for racial justice, the liberation of women, and equality. Because she sparked worldwide movements that changed the 20th century, Davis was “freed by the people” well before her trial came to an end.
Decades later, Davis’s influence continues to grow. Her work asks courageous and often contentious questions that stem from racial oppression: Is revolution possible? Can women be emancipated? Are prisons necessary? Her life story demonstrates that simply raising challenging questions can precipitate change.
Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America now houses a trove of archival materials that capture the complex world Davis navigates in the ongoing struggle for freedom. This exhibition, together with the Papers of Angela Y. Davis, offers new insights into Davis’s journey and promises to catalyze fresh research into the questions she has asked throughout her life. Freed by the People documents a global history, a personal journey, and a quest for a more equitable future.
Exhibition organized by Elizabeth Hinton, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the departments of history and of African and African American studies at Harvard University, and the exhibition committee of the Schlesinger Library
Committee members: Marilyn Dunn, executive director of the Schlesinger Library and librarian of the Radcliffe Institute; Paula Aloisio, archivist and metadata specialist; Kenvi Phillips, curator for race and ethnicity; Meg Rotzel, arts program manager; Jehan Sinclair, processing archivist, Harvard University Archives; and Jackie Wang, Arleen Carlson and Edna Nelson Graduate Fellow
Davis’s writing, speeches, and advocacy invite us to reckon with our difficult history. Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America now houses the archival materials that Davis assembled.
Angela Davis was a child of the Jim Crow South, surrounded by community organizers and radical thinkers. Her mother, Sallye Davis, as a teenager joined the communist-leaning Southern Negro Youth Congress, working to forge coalitions among black people and defend the wrongfully accused. Sallye Davis and Angela’s father, Frank Davis, were schoolteachers and leaders within Birmingham’s black community who fought for decent housing conditions and worked to raise the consciousness of young people. Angela and her three siblings grew up in the segregated Dynamite Hill neighborhood, which was bombed in the 1950s to intimidate and drive out black families.
In the spring of 1969, the philosophy department at UCLA hired Davis as an assistant professor. By early summer, California Governor Ronald Reagan and others became concerned about her radical feminism, association with the Black Panther Party, and membership in the Communist Party’s Che-Lumumba Club. At Reagan’s insistence, the Regents of the University of California fired Davis, a decision that generated national attention. She made headlines for the first time as the “fuzzy-haired professor.”
In October 1970, a year after Davis was accused of fomenting revolution in UCLA classrooms as a philosophy professor, she was placed on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
Davis avoided capture for two months before she was discovered at a motel in New York City. Denied bail, she was held in solitary confinement for almost a year on charges that carried a possible death sentence.
Davis received hundreds of letters over the course of her incarceration. She frequently communicated and sent messages to friends, comrades, academics, and supporters. Hundreds of people, from schoolchildren to political leaders, wrote to Davis to offer solidarity during her incarceration and trial.
The Angela Davis Defense Committee and organizations around the world worked tirelessly to spread awareness about her case and generate support. Davis’s 18-month incarceration ignited the transnational “Free Angela Davis” movement—comprising chiefly activists, artists, and state governments in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Millions protested at home and abroad to fight for Davis’s freedom and for an end to government repression and terror.
In 1975, Davis returned to her calling as a professor despite then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s proclamation that she would never teach at a California university again. She lectured in African American studies at Claremont College before teaching women’s and ethnic studies at San Francisco State University. She then joined the faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she retired as a distinguished professor emeritus after 17 years. Davis plays a major role in shaping feminist discourse and political philosophy. She authored a number of foundational texts, including Angela Davis: An Autobiography; Women, Race, and Class; Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday; and Are Prisons Obsolete?
Published in 1974, Davis’s best-selling autobiography and subsequent writings pioneered feminist thought and shaped the women’s liberation movement. The acclaimed writer Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, edited this text along with Women, Race, and Class, published in 1981.
In 1980 and 1984, Davis ran for vice president on the Communist Party ticket with CPUSA General Secretary Gus Hall. Their political platform centered on employment, racial justice, and an end to the nuclear arms race and US overseas intervention.
Davis founded Critical Resistance in 1997 with Rose Braz and Ruth Wilson Gilmore to challenge and, eventually, abolish prisons. Today, the organization and its founders remain at the forefront of the abolitionist movement and play a significant role in blocking the construction of prisons and jails across the country. Critical Resistance’s important work has been instrumental to many reforms, including the significant passage in 2000 of California Proposition 21, a law that ended the practice of trying juveniles as adults in the state’s court system.
Davis created a lasting vortex of struggle that has spread worldwide. Decades since she first rose to prominence, her global influence continues to grow through her leadership and inspiration of social movements.