On October 13, 1970, Angela Davis was arrested at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in Midtown Manhattan. Her 18-month incarceration, which ultimately resulted in an acquittal, set off the nationwide “Free Angela Davis” movement among activists and artists. John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote “Angela” to raise awareness about her plight and the Rolling Stones penned their song, “Sweet Black Angel,” celebrating the radical feminist, activist and Black Panther Party associate. Despite the enthusiastic support from the counterculture, Davis was a polarizing figure to many Americans. Following her 1972 trial where a jury cleared her of all the charges, Davis has remained a leading figure in social justice movements across the globe. In America, she has been a vocal proponent for prison reform.
Davis was born on January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, AL, the heart of the Jim Crow South. Due to the constant KKK bombings and attacks, her city was nicknamed “Bombingham,” while the black middle class neighborhood in which she grew up was called “Dynamite Hill.” Amidst this violent backdrop, Davis became a part of the civil rights and social justice movements at a young age. Taking a queue from her mother’s activism and the communist organizers in her community, a teenaged Davis organized many interracial study groups that were frequently busted by the local police.
Looking to escape the brutal environment of her youth, she moved North to attend Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and while studying philosophy in graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, she got involved with two radical groups, the Black Panthers and an all-black branch of the Communist Party. Davis first gained national attention when she got removed from her teaching position at UCLA due to her communist affiliations. An ardent anti-communist, Ronald Reagan, the governor of California at the time, was behind her firing. Always the fighter, Davis successfully challenged the decision and got her job back.
Despite the conflict over her political leanings, Davis continued her social activism beyond the academic setting. She became a strong supporter of three prison inmates, known as the Soledad brothers, from the Soledad Prison in California. Davis joined the “Soledad Brothers Defense Committee” that was organized to fight what they viewed as a wrongful conviction for the murder of a prison guard. During one of the Soledad brother’s trials in a Marin County Courthouse on August 7, 1970, there was a failed armed escape attempt. Several people were killed and the guns used in the crime were registered under Davis’ name. Although she was neither present nor aware of the escape plan, Davis was brought up on charges, including murder, and she went into hiding.
At 28 years old, Davis became the third woman in history to end up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The federal charge was “unlawful interstate flight” because she had left California to avoid prosecution of the wrongful kidnapping and murder charges. When Davis was finally caught on October 13, 1970, President Nixon congratulated the FBI on their “capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis.” When she was finally acquitted on all charges in 1972, she later shared, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
After being vindicated in a court of law, Davis continued her work for social justice. She wrote several seminal books including, “Women, Race, and Class” (1980) and “Are Prisons Obsolete?” (2003). She currently teaches courses on the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also co-chaired the January 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. where she was a featured speaker. Additionally, she is a leader in the prison reform movement, what she calls “the 21st century abolitionist movement.” To learn more about this issue, watch Ava DuVernay’s gripping Netflix documentary, “13th,” in which Davis is interviewed.