Angela Davis: Freed by the People
September 20, 2019 to March 9, 2020

Angela Davis: Freed by the People will be on view in the Lia and William Poorvu Gallery of the Schlesinger Library, Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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

 

 The Angela Y. Davis Reader (Blackwell Publishers, 1998). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library. Click on thumbnails to view larger images.The Angela Y. Davis Reader (Blackwell Publishers, 1998). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library. Click on thumbnails to view larger images. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empires, Prisons, and Torture (Seven Stories Press, 2005). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAbolition Democracy: Beyond Empires, Prisons, and Torture (Seven Stories Press, 2005). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
 The Meaning of Freedom (City Lights Books, 2012). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryThe Meaning of Freedom (City Lights Books, 2012). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Haymarket Books, 2016). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryFreedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Haymarket Books, 2016). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

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.

Davis family photo taken in their home, ca. 1960. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDavis family photo taken in their home, ca. 1960. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDavis family home in Birmingham, Alabama, n.d. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDavis family home in Birmingham, Alabama, n.d. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
Angela Davis as a toddler with her mother, 1946. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAngela Davis as a toddler with her mother, 1946. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryLos Angeles Times editorial, 1969. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryLos Angeles Times editorial, 1969. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

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.

FBI Wanted Flyer #457, 1970. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryFBI Wanted Flyer #457, 1970. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryImage of Davis's arrest accompanying article "Dear, Dear Angela," Jim Latimore, Etcetera Magazine, July-August, 1972. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryImage of Davis's arrest accompanying article "Dear, Dear Angela," Jim Latimore, Etcetera Magazine, July-August, 1972. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
 Handmade booklet exterior, one of many tributes Davis received while in prison, ca. 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryHandmade booklet exterior, one of many tributes Davis received while in prison, ca. 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library Handmade booklet interior, one of many tributes Davis received while in prison, ca. 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryHandmade booklet interior, one of many tributes Davis received while in prison, ca. 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
 Open letter from Davis to high school students written from Marin County Jail, March 23, 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryOpen letter from Davis to high school students written from Marin County Jail, March 23, 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library Italian postcard, "Save the Life of Angela Davis," ca. 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryItalian postcard, "Save the Life of Angela Davis," ca. 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

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.

 Free Angela buttons. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryFree Angela buttons. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library Postcard from Davis's sister, Fania, to their brother, Reggie, 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPostcard from Davis's sister, Fania, to their brother, Reggie, 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
Notecard prepared by Sallye Davis in preparation for a speech, ca. 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryNotecard prepared by Sallye Davis in preparation for a speech, ca. 1971. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library Photo of Davis's class at Claremont College, 1975. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPhoto of Davis's class at Claremont College, 1975. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

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.

Angela Davis: An Autobiography (Random House, 1974). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAngela Davis: An Autobiography (Random House, 1974). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryWomen, Race, and Class (Random House, 1981). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryWomen, Race, and Class (Random House, 1981). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Pantheon Books, 1998). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryBlues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Pantheon Books, 1998). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAre Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAre Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
Manuscript of Angela Davis autobiography that includes edits by Toni Morrison, 1973. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryManuscript of Angela Davis autobiography that includes edits by Toni Morrison, 1973. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPhotograph of Toni Morrison, Sallye Davis, and Angela Davis, ca. 1974. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPhotograph of Toni Morrison, Sallye Davis, and Angela Davis, ca. 1974. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

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.

Gus Hall and Angela Davis pamphlet from US presidential race, 1984. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryGus Hall and Angela Davis pamphlet from US presidential race, 1984. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library Photograph of Davis at campaign event, n.d. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPhotograph of Davis at campaign event, n.d. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
Critical Resistance pamphlet, 2001. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCritical Resistance pamphlet, 2001. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPoster, Critical Resistance Conference, University of California, Berkeley, 1998. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPoster, Critical Resistance Conference, University of California, Berkeley, 1998. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

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.

Pamphlet, "Freed by the People: Closing Defense Statement Made in the Angela Davis Trial," June 1, 1972. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPamphlet, "Freed by the People: Closing Defense Statement Made in the Angela Davis Trial," June 1, 1972. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibrarySketch of women's prison cell, Davis's field notes of a Cuban prison, 1997. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibrarySketch of women's prison cell, Davis's field notes of a Cuban prison, 1997. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
Davis's notes from off our backs, March 1972, Vol. 2, No. 8. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDavis's notes from off our backs, March 1972, Vol. 2, No. 8. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library Ms. Foundation for Women, Take Our Daughters to Work trading card pack, 1995. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMs. Foundation for Women, Take Our Daughters to Work trading card pack, 1995. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library