There are two small black-and-white headshots of a young woman with a large afro, one dated 1969, one 1970, topped by these lines:
Wanted by the FBI
Interstate Flight — Murder, Kidnaping [sic]
Angela Yvonne Davis
The infamous poster from 1970 is one of the artifacts on view at “Angela Davis: Freed by the People,” a new exhibition at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Curated from Davis’ archive, the exhibition showcases the complex and storied activist, author, and scholar beyond the headlines that defined her rise to fame as an icon of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s.
“We’re trying to show our visitors the side of Angela Davis that might be more familiar, but also the more personal and intimate side of her,” said Elizabeth Hinton, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and associate professor of history and African and African American studies, who organized the exhibition with a committee of Radcliffe specialists. “She is a complicated figure who at a very young age was thrust into a number of struggles, and we also want to set her political commitments in a larger context,” that includes her upbringing and academic work as a feminist philosopher and educator.
The exhibition is on display at the Lia and William Poorvu Gallery in the Schlesinger Library, and it includes items from Davis’ early life in Birmingham, Ala.; her arrest and trial over her role in a deadly 1970 prisoner escape from a California courthouse; a world tour of socialist and communist countries that put Davis on the global stage; her extensive catalog of written work; and her contemporary activism on prison abolition and the rights of incarcerated people.
“Equality, freedom, challenging confinement, critiquing the justice system, emphasizing the importance of intersectionality — Angela Davis was always way ahead of the curve,” said Hinton.
“One of the exciting things about exhibiting the Angela Davis materials is that it gives visitors to the Poorvu gallery a taste of the kinds of research that they and others will be able to do in the next years and decades and generations,” said Jane Kamensky, Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University and Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe.
At 26 and having been fired as a UCLA philosophy professor due to her radical political activism, Davis became a famous face of the Black Freedom struggle when guns registered in her name were used in a hostage-taking and shootout at the Marin County Courthouse in San Rafael, Calif., that left three suspects and a Superior Court judge dead. She was charged as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. After two months as a fugitive, FBI agents arrested her in New York City. She spent more than a year in prison before being acquitted by an all-white jury in 1972.
Davis remained an active member of the Communist Party of the United States of America until 1991 and ran for vice president twice on the party ticket in the 1980s. In 1997, she co-founded Critical Resistance with Rose Braz, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and other activists to dismantle prison systems. She also taught in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies programs at UC Santa Cruz for 15 years before retiring as a distinguished professor emerita in 2008.
The title of the exhibition comes from a pamphlet published by the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis in 1972. The gray booklet, in which is printed the trial’s closing statement by Davis’ lawyer Leo Branton, features an illustrated portrait of Davis. The pamphlet is the lead artifact in the exhibition.
“Davis’ own political commitments and philosophical foresight has made her work and life history translate very clearly to the issues at the center of national and international struggles today,” said Hinton. “We are asking visitors to think about the ways in which these struggles have changed and evolved, and the ways in which they’ve also remained the same.”
“People might come away from the exhibition with an appreciation of Davis’ work, and they might come away from it with hard questions,” said Kamensky. “As a research library, we acquire and preserve these collections to deliver to scholars and other storytellers, and we will find new answers and ask new questions from the materials that are on those walls and in the rich and large collection of the Davis papers.”
In addition to the FBI wanted poster, the exhibition displays personal items like Davis’ prison letters and a manuscript of her 1974 autobiography with handwritten notes from Toni Morrison, then her editor at Random House. The artifacts depict the spectrum of responses people had to Davis, from the international support she received during her months in prison to the hateful messages and negative press coverage about her work and politics.
“Our key criterion is always significance, and there are many ways for materials to answer that question. It could be significant by being incredibly densely documented, or it could belong to a highly placed individual who has made change,” said Kamensky. “The papers of Angela Davis fulfill both of those criteria. The collection is very rich, and she’s been a significant force in American life. So, whatever one thinks of her politics, and I think many people who come to the gallery or research the collections will have varying opinions on that, we hope that always the work of study, of exhibition, of inquiry, and of research in our reading room is to submit our opinions to the hard assay of documentary materials and fact.”
Besides artifacts from Davis’ life, the exhibition also includes material detailing the contemporary work of prison abolitionists and the wide reach of the social justice movements that Davis championed throughout her life.
“We hope that this exhibition is inspiring for people, both to carry on Davis’ good and difficult work, but also to understand more about the holdings of the library,” said Meg Rotzel, arts program manager at Radcliffe, who designed the exhibition with gallery coordinator Joe Zane. “The archive of the Schlesinger Library is open to the public, which is a very unique thing, and we want people to think of this space and its collections as resources for their own work.”
“The aim of the exhibition is to try to use Davis’ life as a starting point to think about larger issues of inequality, and I think that is how Davis always saw herself,” said Hinton. “Even though the jury technically acquitted her [in 1972], it was the global movement that emerged in the context of her trial that the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and Davis herself would want to emphasize. Her causes were the causes of the people.”
“Angela Davis: Freed by the People” is on view at the Schlesinger Library through March 9, 2020.