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David Moore

A Black History Month moment: Angela Davis
As 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 born.”

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 Davis.
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 Party.

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 in 1970.
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 cause change.”

David Moore

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