Angela Yvonne Davis was born on January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. She attended segregated schools in that city until, in her junior year of high school, she was accepted by an American Friends Service Committee program that placed black students from the South into integrated schools in the North. Davis chose to attend Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City, also known as the Little Red Schoolhouse (LRS), famous for its Communist faculty and student body. There, Davis was exposed to the Marxist classics. Moreover, during her time in New York, she lived as a house guest of Herbert Aptheker, the Communist Party’s chief theoretician, and his family. (Future Weather Underground terrorist Kathy Boudin also attended LRS during the same time period as Davis).
In 1961 Davis enrolled at Brandeis University, where she majored in French and came under the influence of the radical Marxist professor Herbert Marcuse. She spent her junior year studying in Paris, where she came into contact with Algerian revolutionaries. Davis graduated from Brandeis in 1965 and then served two years on the faculty of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. During that time, she studied at the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University. That Institute, better known as the Frankfurt School, was modeled after the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. In 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, the members of the Frankfurt School fled the country. Most went to the United States, and many became influential in American universities. The Frankfurt School’s studies combined Marxist analysis with Freudian psychoanalysis to form the basis of what became known as “critical theory,” which historian Paul Kengor describes as “the formal academic front-name for cultural Marxism.” Over the course of her academic career, Davis would identify critical theory as one of her fields of expertise.
Davis returned to the U.S. in 1967 to continue her post-graduate studies at UC San Diego, so that Marcuse, who was now teaching there, could be her doctoral adviser. She also took a teaching position at UCLA in 1969.
A devoted Stalinist, Davis was a staunch supporter of the USSR during the Cold War era. Of the many people who had suffered so terribly in the gulags administered by the Soviets under Stalin, Davis once said: “They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.”
In 1968, as Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring,” Davis, who fully supported the Soviet invasion, joined the Communist Party, voicing her belief that “the only path of liberation for black people is that which leads toward complete and radical overthrow of the capitalist class.”
Davis developed a belief in violence as an acceptable means of dealing with one’s enemies. This was true, she maintained, not only for a world power like the Soviet Union, but also for individual human beings. Indeed, she once stated: “For the black female, the solution is not to become less aggressive, not to lay down the gun, but to learn how to set the sights correctly, aim accurately, squeeze rather than jerk and not be overcome by the damage. We have to learn how to rejoice when pigs’ blood is spilled.”
In September 1969 Davis was fired from the UCLA faculty when her membership in the Communist Party became known. This firing resulted in a celebrated First Amendment battle that made Davis a national figure and forced UCLA to rehire her.
In 1970 Davis was implicated by more than 20 witnesses in a plot to free her imprisoned lover, fellow Black Panther George Jackson, by hijacking a Marin County, California courtroom and taking hostage the judge, the prosecuting assistant district attorney, and two jurors. In an ensuing gun battle outside the court building, Judge Harold Haley’s head was blown off by a sawed-off shotgun owned by Ms. Davis. To avoid arrest for her alleged complicity in the plot, Davis fled California, using aliases and changing her appearance to avoid detection. Before long, she had earned a spot on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list.
Two months later, Davis was tracked down and arrested by the FBI in New York City. At that point, the Communist Party launched an aggressive propaganda campaign designed to portray the United States as a racist wasteland that routinely mistreated black people like Ms. Davis. In 1971, the CIA estimated that at least 5 percent of all Soviet propaganda efforts that year were directed towards America’s alleged mistreatment of Davis during her arrest and incarceration.
At her 1972 trial, Davis presented her own version of her whereabouts at the time of the 1970 shootout. Because she was acting as her own attorney, she could not be cross-examined. Davis presented a number of alibi witnesses, almost all of whom were Communist friends, who testified that she had been with them in Los Angeles playing Scrabble at the time of the Marin County slaughter. Meanwhile, prosecution witnesses who placed Davis in Marin County were dismissed by Davis as being unable to accurately identify a black person — because they were white.
Despite the fact that 20 witnesses had testified against her, the first vote by the jury, which was packed with Davis sympathizers like radical activist Mary Timothy, was 10-2 in favor of acquittal. Soon thereafter, the jurors reached a unanimous verdict and Davis was found not guilty. Following the announcement of the verdict, one male juror, Ralph Delange, faced news cameras and gave a revolutionary’s clenched-fist salute. Laughing at the justice system, he said that prosecutors had been mistaken to expect that the “middle-class jury” would convict Davis. Added Delange: “I did it because I wanted to show I felt an identity with the oppressed people in the crowd . . . and to express my sympathy with their struggle.” Delange and most of the other jurors — with Davis joining them — then went off to partake in a music-festival victory celebration thrown by the official Committee to Free Angela. Soon thereafter, jury forewoman Mary Timothy befriended the Committee’s leader, lifelong Communist Party member Bettina Aptheker, went on to have an intimate relationship with her.
Not long after the end of Davis’s trial, she and the Communist Party together created an organization called the National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression (NAARPR), which quickly grew into one of the Party’s most active front groups. Within two years, it would consist of no fewer than 25 chapters in 21 states. As bestselling author David Horowitz pointed out a number of years later: “[NAARPR’s] main target was the Ku Klux Klan, at the time a thoroughly discredited, closely monitored, and generally moribund institution…. At the time, the Klan was hardly important. But it was vital to the political strategy of leftists like Angela Davis and the Communist Workers Party that the Klan be important.”
In 1972 as well, Davis was hired as a Professor of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, a post she would hold for the next twelve years.
Also in ’72, Davis went on an international speaking tour that included a stop in Fidel Castro‘s Cuba, a nation she perceived to be free of racism. Davis subsequently gained much attention for declaring that “only under socialism could the fight against racism be successfully executed.” A longtime admirer of Castro, Davis once said of the dictator: “Fidel is the leader of one of the smallest countries in the world, but he has helped to shape the destinies of millions of people across the globe.”
Another 1972 trip took Davis to the Soviet Union, where, at the invitation of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, she received an honorary doctorate from Moscow State University.
That September, Davis paid a friendly visit to the Communist regime of East Germany. There, she: (a) met Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany; (b) received an honorary degree from the University of Leipzig; and (c) was presented with the Star of People’s Friendship by Walter Ulbricht, who from 1950-71 had served as the First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, the nation’s Marxist-Leninist governing party. On September 11 in East Berlin, Davis delivered a speech titled “Not Only My Victory,” in which she praised East Germany and the USSR while denouncing American racism.
Davis returned to East Berlin in 1973, leading the U.S. delegation to the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students. There, Erich Honecker hailed Davis as one of the many “Other Americans” — blacks who allegedly had been abused and oppressed by a racist, fascist United States. Other special guests of honor included Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Benjamin Chavis.
Also in the 1970s, Davis was a passionate admirer of the Rev. Jim Jones, a committed communist who had gained considerable fame as a faith healer and cult leader of the People’s Temple, a jungle-based commune in Jonestown, Guyana. In the mid-Seventies, Jones initiated friendships with Davis and some other left-wing activists in the San Francisco area. On September 10, 1977, Davis spoke via radio telephone “patch” to members of the Peoples Temple. “We are very deeply obligated to you for what you have done to further the fight for justice, to further the struggle against oppression, to further the fight against racism,” she said. Davis also warned them that a conspiracy was being planned against them “because of your progressive stand.”
In May 1978 as well, Davis was a sponsor of a “Palestinian Human Rights and Peace” conference organized by the Palestine Human Rights Campaign.
In 1979 Davis was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize (formerly named the International Stalin Peace Prize) by the East German police state. This honor was given by a Soviet government-appointed panel that sought to recognize individuals who had “strengthened peace among peoples” by advancing the totalitarian agendas of the Kremlin. As she prepared to board a plane to leave the Soviet Union and return to the United States, Davis turned to face a crowd of well-wishers, raised her fist in the revolutionary salute, and pronounced: “Long live the science of Marxism-Leninism.”
Davis ran for Vice President of the United States in 1980 and 1984, alongside Gus Hall, on the Communist Party ticket.
Davis was on the Committee of Sponsors of a March 28, 1982 gala luncheon organized by the New World Review. Held in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City, the event was titled, “We Will Make Peace Prevail! Disarmament Over Confrontation, Life Over Death.” Nearly all the participants were members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA)
In 1984 Davis stepped down from her position as Professor of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.
Davis remained an active member of the Communist Party until 1991, when she was expelled for opposing the attempted coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. She then formed the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism to carry on the Communist mission with other Party members, including such notables as Bettina Aptheker, Conn Hallinan, and Harry Targ.
Also in 1991, Davis began a 17-year stint as a tenured University Professor in the History of Consciousness and the Feminist Studies departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She earned a six-figure salary and had access to a full-time research assistant. Moreover, Davis’s income was supplemented by speaking fees that ranged from $10,000 to $20,000 per appearance on college campuses, where she was an icon of radical faculty, administrators, and students.
Notably, the “History of Consciousness” program in which Davis taught, once awarded a Ph.D. to former Black Panther Huey Newton while Davis was on the faculty. The creator of the program, Professor Page Smith, once revealed during a formal interview that he had established the program “to demonstrate that Ph.D. is a fraud.”
In his 1991 book, Chutzpah, the prominent liberal attorney Alan Dershowitz wrote that while Davis was preparing to travel to the Soviet Union to receive a “human rights award,” she had rejected Dershowitz’s request that she speak up on behalf of Jewish prisoners of conscience in the USSR. Wrote Dershowitz, whose account Davis has never challenged: “Several days later, I received a call back from Ms. Davis’s secretary informing me that Davis had looked into the people on my list and none of them were political prisoners. ‘They are all Zionist fascists and opponents of socialism.’ Davis would urge that they be kept in prison where they belonged.”
In 1994 Davis was appointed Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz.
In 1997 she became a founding member of Critical Resistance, a national organization dedicated to dismantling America’s so-called “prison-industrial complex.” The notion that virtually all nonwhite minorities in jail are actually “political prisoners” who should be released, has been a frequent theme of Davis’s over the course of her career as a professor and activist. In 2003, for instance, she said: “My question is, Why are people so quick to assume that locking away an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. population would help those who live in the free world feel safer and more secure? . . . [H]ow difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and their families.”
In 1997 Davis confirmed rumors that she was a lesbian, a subject about which she had long been reluctant to speak openly. In April 1999 she delivered an address at Johns Hopkins University’s “Living Out Loud” program, a series of lectures, films and events presented by the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, an undergraduate group on campus. In her speech, Davis focused on how issues of race and class affect the gay movement.
For Davis, every facet of life is weighted with political significance. Her lesbianism, she once said, is “something I’m fine with as a political statement.” She also has stated that issues like sexuality can “enter into consciousness and become the focus of struggle” against domestic violence and AIDS. In her 1998 book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Davis asserted that female blues vocalists who sang about homosexual desire, abusive men, jealousy, lust, travel, and love, were creating “a working-class Black feminism” and “a politics of resistance challenging race and gender identity.”
In March 1998, Davis was one of the “Endorsers of the Call” to establish a Black Radical Congress.
In October 1998, she endorsed a Brecht Forum event in New York City celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto‘s publication.
During the months preceding the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Davis was a frequent guest speaker at anti-war rallies.
On March 14, 2003, she lectured at the Sacramento Marxist School in California. Her talk was titled, “The Politics of Women, Race, and Class in the 21st Century.”
In 2006, Davis sat on the Board of Directors for the Women of Color Resource Center.
In 2007, she was a board member of the Movement for a Democratic Society.
In 2008, Davis retired from her post as a Professor at UC Santa Cruz. Since then, she has been a Distinguished Professor Emerita.
Davis delivered the keynote address at an April 2009 event where the Chicago branch of the NAARPR presented its highest honor, the Human Rights Award, to Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Davis’s speech emphasized such themes as the evils of capitalism, the intransigent nature of American racism, and the injustices of the “prison-industrial complex.” Some noteworthy excerpts:
In the fall of 2011, Davis was a vocal supporter of the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement. “I am so proud of Oakland!” she said at a December 2011 event in that city. “I spoke at Occupy Philly, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Berlin, and everyone is talking about Oakland!”
Davis was an honorary co-chair of, and a featured speaker at, the January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington – a massive anti-Donald Trump, anti-conservative protest that was held in the nation’s capital, while satellite marches took place in numerous other cities nationwide. In her remarks that day, Davis said: “The next 1,459 days of the Trump administration will be 1,459 days of resistance: resistance on the ground, resistance in the classrooms, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music.” The official co-founders of the March were Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, Black Lives Matter leader Tamika Mallory, and fashion designer Bob Bland (a woman originally Mari Lynn Foulger), who developed the “Nasty Women” T-shirts that became associated with the March.
In April 2019, Davis organized a rally supporting Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim U.S. congresswoman who had recently been criticized by President Donald Trump. In the course of her remarks, Davis said that Trump “uses this bizarre logic of fungibility, where one Muslim represents the worst—or all Muslims, rather, represent the worst deeds that any Muslim has ever conducted” — a mindset that she said was “at the heart of racism.” “It is about time that we stepped up to defend those who represent our political vision on the front lines of struggle,” Davis added. Omar, for her part, said of Davis: “One of my idols!… I can’t tell you how enormously inspiring you have been to me throughout my life…. We collectively must make sure that we are dismantling all systems of oppression.” Other participants in the rally included Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.
In September 2019, Davis was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In January 2020, Yale University invited Davis to speak at its Martin Luther King Day festivities the following month.
In 1974 Davis and the NAARPR condemned the “jailing and torture of Arabs in areas occupied by Israel,” and they declared their unwavering support for Yasser Arafat‘s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1976, Davis accompanied Tawfiq Zayyad, the communist mayor of Nazareth, to a San Francisco press conference where she described Zayyad’s December 1973 election as having represented a victory for “progressive forces all over the world.” She also pledged that the NAARPR would try to help Palestinian prisoners as much as possible.
In a 2011 commencement address which she gave at Evergreen State College, Davis, advocating “divestment” from Israel as a form of “resistance” to that nation’s system of “apartheid,” lauded “the spirit and legacy” of the late International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie.
Davis has endorsed both the Free Gaza Movement and the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement. The objectives of both initiatives are inspired by, and consistent with, those of Hamas. In January 2014, Davis delivered a speech in which she promoted BDS and called on people to “assis[t] our sisters and brothers in Palestine, as they battle against Israeli apartheid” and the Jewish state’s “ideological condemnation of their freedom efforts under the rubric of terrorism.”
In August 2014, while Israel was engaged in a military effort to dismantle Hamas’s vast terror infrastructure in Gaza, Davis and a number of other left-wing activists signed a statement that said:
“[W]e strongly condemn the current massacre of the Palestinians of Gaza …
“We condemn and are horrified by the current acts of Israeli brutality, while also recognizing the deeply rooted and ongoing violence that Palestinians are forced to endure on a daily basis — for example, living in ghetto-like conditions in Gaza, systematically having land confiscated, being deprived of their livelihoods, collective punishment, gender and racial violence, and ongoing expulsion and displacement from the Nakba until today.
“An extensive prison system bolsters the occupation and suppresses resistance. Over 5,000 Palestinians are locked inside Israeli prisons; more than 200 are children. There is ongoing criminalization of their political activity….
“We stand with the Palestinian community and with activists all over the world in condemning the flagrant injustices of the current Israeli massacre against the Palestinians of Gaza; the land, air, and sea blockade of Gaza; and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”
In March 15, 2015, Davis delivered a speech to Jewish Voice For Peace, a Jewish anti-Zionist organization focused on supporting the Palestinians in the Mideast conflict through targeted sanctions against Israel – sanctions designed to punish the Jewish state for its alleged human-rights violations. Said Davis in the course of her remarks: “I am extremely happy that Jewish Voice For Peace is emerging as one of the most important progressive organizations in the country.”
When Davis was interviewed by Ta-Nehisi Coates for Vanity Fair magazine in August 2020, she and Coates discussed the ongoing race riots in which Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists were violently looting and burning large sections of Democrat-run cities across the United States. The riots initially had been sparked by a May 25 incident in which a black man named George Floyd died after being abused for several minutes by a white police officer in Minneapolis. In her remarks, Davis characterized the societal unrest as an opportunity for transformative social change; she condemned America as an inherently evil nation; and she portrayed capitalism as an outgrowth of racism. Some excerpts:
An October 2020 hagiography of Davis which was published by The New York Times reported that Davis: (a) continued to embrace communism and Marxist ideology; (b) had very little confidence that the Democratic Party would contribute much to the process of “transforming America”; (c) believed that “it’s important to push the Democrats further to the left”; and (d) greatly admired the members of the so-called “Squad” in the U.S. House of Representatives — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib.
Davis has served as an advisory board member of Dream Defenders, along with such notables as Linda Sarsour and Edward Whitfield (a former teacher at Malcolm X Liberation University in North Carolina).
In October 2020, Time magazine included Davis in its annual list of the 100 most influential people in America.
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