is often the case with things important that happen around town, I don’t
know about this until the last minute.
My friend Debbie called me to let me know that Angela Davis was going to
speak at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) the following morning.
Remember Davis? Chances are, if you’re not black, or at least somewhere
over 35, you might not.
Angela Davis speaking at Johnson C. Smith
University Jan. 17.
I remember her.
Here’s the requisite short bio:
During the late 1960s, Davis worked diligently for social change as a radical
feminist and activist. She was also a member of the Communist Party USA
and associated with the Black Panther Party. In a controversial decision,
the Board of Regents of the University of California, lead by Ronald Reagan,
fired her from her job in 1969 because of her membership in the Communist
Party. In 1970, Davis became the third woman to appear on the FBI’s
Most Wanted List when she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and homicide — due
to her alleged participation in an escape attempt from Marin County Hall
of Justice. It was alleged that she had helped Jonathan Jackson, younger
brother of prison inmate and cause célèbre, George Jackson,
plan a kidnapping in order to secure the release of his elder sibling.
The kidnapping plan went awry, resulting in the deaths of Judge Harold
Haley, prisoners William Christmas and James McClain and Jonathan Jackson.
The shotgun that killed Haley had been registered in her name. It was alleged
by the prosecution that she provided some of the firearms and participated
in the planning of the kidnapping. She evaded the police for two months
before being captured. In 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released the song “Angela” about
her and The Rolling Stones released “Sweet Black Angel,” which
chronicled her legal problems and advocated for her release. The same year,
she was tried and acquitted of all charges
That was 34 years ago.
“That was a long time ago, huh?” Angela Davis grins when she
realizes how much time has passed. “Probably before most of you were
Her assumption isn’t too far off the mark. Most of the audience in
the JCSU gymnasium were students with a handful of faculty members. Some
were there to listen to Davis talk about her life experiences, her thoughts
on Dr. Martin Luther King and the future of civil rights in America. Some
of the students, of course, were there for class credit — like the
one behind me filing her fingernails or the one with the massively clunky
platforms that stomped down the bleachers midway through Davis’ speech.
Distractions and interuptions aside, I was there to see and hear Angela
I remembered her appearances on the nightly news when I was just a little
kid — my parents reacted with horror to the news of a supposedly
murderous Black Panther Party member running from the police.
If she could strike that much fear in my parents — I knew she had
to be cool.
Years later I would read her autobiography and would come to learn that
we shared many of the same ideas about socialism and democracy and we both
shared an unyielding desire to constantly learn new things.
In hindsight, it seems perfectly logical that an oppressed white (ish)
gay boy would identify with a black woman fighting against societal wrongs.
At the time, however, my mother and classmates at school just couldn’t
understand why I was toting around this book “by that woman with
the big afro.”
Ironically, in some of the research I’ve done in recent days on Davis,
I came across this particularly telling quote: “It is both humiliating
and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that
constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo.”
Now 62, (but looking perhaps 20 years younger than that) Davis no longer
wears the hairstyle she wore as a sign of solidarity with the Black Panther
Today she’s sporting dark auburn and brown knots, a face full of
makeup, a tailored suit and spiked heels. Times have definitely changed
for Angela Davis.
In the years since Davis rose to notoriety she has returned to teaching
and is a much sought-after lecturer on college campuses across the country.
In a 1999 cover interview with OUT magazine, Davis publicly came out for
the first time, though she seemed somewhat reserved. “It’s
something I’m fine with as a political statement,” she said
in the pages of OUT. “But I still want a private space for carrying
out my relationships.”
Wanted poster for Angela Davis, dated sometime
Throughout the lecture Davis recalled some of her experiences with the
government of the early ’70s and then moved on to talk about her
thoughts on King. Early on she promised to talk about her connections
to JCSU and Charlotte, but a sideline foray into the death penalty — clearly
an important issue for Davis and a sentiment I share with her — became
the central focus of her lecture. She never got back to her connections
with the school and Charlotte.
It was interesting to note at lecture’s end how she skillfully
brought things full circle and managed to come back to the topic of honoring
the legacy of Dr. King, now and in the future.
“Change is produced by ordinary individuals who do heroic things,” she
told the audience. “That was Dr. King. You have to take risks and
be creative and try things that may not work out. That’s how you
David Moore Editor
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