Blog post

Angela Davis: political activist

African-American philosopher and author combatting racism, sexism and homophobia

black and white portrait of Angela Davis
Marijke Everts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Angela Davis is a political activist, philosopher and author who has continuously pushed for changes in the US prison system. Her work has been admired in East Germany and other communist nations, but she was once regarded by the FBI as a terrorist.

Angela Davis was born in Alabama in 1944. Like other African-Americans of her time, she grew up witnessing racism: the Klu Klux Klan carried out terrorist attacks on Black communities in her neighbourhood in Birmingham.

She attended a segregated black elementary school and was involved in the girls scouts. As a scout, she would march and protest racial segregation in Birmingham. Her mother was a leading organiser of the Southern Negro Youth Congress which, influenced by the Communist Party, aimed at building alliances between African Americans in the South.

Her encounters with systematic racism shaped her political views. Her family was involved in communist and leftist circles which, in turn, led her to become a member of the US Communist Party.

Angela Davis

She encountered Herbert Marcus - the Frankfurt School philosopher - while she was studying at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and became a student of his. In her second year at Brandeis, she majored in French while continuing her studies of philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre. The course included a year living in France - in Biarritz and Paris.

In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed a church killing four girls and injuring more. Angela Davis knew the victims personally.

Upon her return back to the US, she made plans to attend the University of Frankfurt to continue her interests in philosophy.

While she was studying in Germany, her roommates were active in the Socialist German Student Union which she participated in as well. During her two years there, she learnt of the formation of the Black Panther Party in the US.

Angela Davis at what seems to be a conference

She traveled to London in 1967 to attend a conference entitled ‘The Dialectics of Liberation’ where activists such as Trinidadian-American Stokely Carmichael and British Michael X were also present. Davis is said to have been disappointed by their rejection of communism as a ‘white man’s thing’.

A poster of Angela Davis

In 1971, Angela Davis was on trial and held at a Women’s Detention Centre for ‘aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley’. The judge had been prosecuting three African-American inmates, known as the Soledad Brothers, charged with murdering a white prison guard at Soledad Prison. Davis’ gun was found on one of the inmate’s brothers who had gained control of the courtroom, armed the defendants, and took the judge, prosecutor and jurors as hostages. The Soledad Brothers and the judge were killed during the commotion.

Finnish workers' May Day procession with posters and banners on the Long Bridge on May 1, 1972. A banner reads: Release Angela Davis!
A poster by the French Communist Party that reads: Release Angela Davis
A Dutch free Angela poster by CineClub
A poster with Angela Davis' portrait that reads: Free Angela Davis Now!
A German poster with Davis' portrait that reads: Freedom for Angela Davis

In the US and internationally, thousands of people organised a movement to gain her release. John Lennon and Yoko Ono contributed to the campaign with their song ‘Angela’.

In Europe, Communist Eastern bloc countries coordinated solidarity campaigns with the slogan ‘Freedom for Angela’. Students would send postcards with roses to the US demanding her freedom.

On June 4, 1972, the all-white jury ruled that she was not guilty. Though she owned the guns used in the crime, she had no role in the crime.

Angela Davis holding hands with two people on her side cheering

In September 1972, she visited East Germany, where she delivered a speech denouncing American racism and praised the German Democratic Republic and USSR. In communist nations, she became a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance. But, considering her stand on the US prison system, political prisoners who were oppressed by socialist dictatorships also hoped for her solidarity in supporting their causes, which they did not find.

Today, she is still remembered by many in Germany. An exhibition currently at the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau in Dresden called 1 Million Roses for Angela Davis highlights her role in the Eastern Bloc through photographs, sound installations, sculptures, videos and conceptual works.

She continues to be a major figure in the prison abolition movement, advocating for social efforts on education and community building in solving social problems handled by state punishment. She has stated that she is a vegan and, for her contributions to humanity and the planet, she was awarded the 2011 Blue Planet Award.

Angela Davis at an event of the party 'Die Linke', the Left party in Germany in 2012.

Davis came out as a lesbian in 1997 in Out magazine. She is one of the founders of the African American Agenda 2000, an alliance of black feminists working to combat racism, sexism and homophobia.

Feminism involves so much more than gender equality and it involves so much more than gender.... it has to involve a consciousness of capitalism and racism and colonialism and post-colonialities, and ability and more genders than we can even imagine and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name.' — Angela Davis