Speech at Angela Davis Rally, (Undated) Unknown Location
Angela Davis, activist, academic, author,1 and former political prisoner, gained global attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She gained widespread attention when she faced murder charges in a trial that inspired an “unprecedented political campaign waged for her release all over the world.”2 At the time, Davis had just been fired from UCLA for being a member of the Communist Party and for supporting the Soledad Brothers’ release from prison. Operating under the direction of Governor Ronald Reagan, the University of California Board of Regents fired Davis in 1969. Despite the fact that a court ruling blocked her dismissal, she was fired again that same year for “inflammatory language” and for being “unprofessional.”3 Many of Davis’ supporters recognized that Reagan was “determined to get rid of her” because of his “personal vendetta” against Davis.4
Davis was also scrutinized for attending anti-lynching protests that advocated for the release of the Soledad Brothers from prison. The Soledad Brothers—George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette—faced murder charges for allegedly killing a white prison guard. In August 1970, Jonathan Jackson, George’s younger brother, attempted to help his brother escape. Davis was charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in connection with Jackson because guns allegedly purchased by Davis were used in a California courtroom shootout that killed four people that same year.5 These events landed Davis on the F.B.I.’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives’ list. She was incarcerated for 16 months at California’s Marin County Jail, where she was often placed in solitary confinement and faced the possibility of the death penalty.6
The Communist Party, the Black Panther Party (BPP), and many liberation organizations were outraged by Davis’ incarceration, which acted as a catalyst for the “widespread prison abolition effort that continues into today.”7 Protests for Davis were held across major cities in the United States and around the world. Some people protested through marches, while others wrote songs and plays about the movement to free Angela Davis. Writing in the New York Times in 1971, Sol Stern called these global protests to free Angela Davis the “best organized, most broad-based defense effort in the recent history of radical political trials.”8
Davis symbolized the treatment that Black people faced in the criminal justice system, yet her treatment as a Black woman also forced many activists to confront sexism within Black liberation groups. Paula Crenshaw addressed such sexism in her speech, tackling gender ideologies that viewed women as weaker than men. While we do not know much about Crenshaw or which of the thousands of Angela Davis’ rallies she addressed, her speech challenged the “male supremacy and chauvinism” that minimized Black women’s participation in the Black liberation movements and encouraged them to stay at home and remain silent.9 Crenshaw places Davis within the lineage of Black activist women by referencing Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. Despite the fact that there were many Black women leaders, Black women in general were depicted on “the margins of great social change—visible at times in the mass demonstrations but obscured in the ranks of revolutionaries and radical theoreticians.”10 Some male activists also demeaned strong women as “castrators,” who threatened male leadership and weakened the movement.11
Crenshaw uses this speech to correct the gender politics of Black activism at the beginning of the 1970s. In her passionate address, Crenshaw cautions against reproducing white male chauvinism in Black politics. She denounces the Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other white liberals who circulate sexist and racist myths about Black women. In 1965, Moynihan issued what became known as the “Moynihan report” that blamed Black poverty and inequities on Black women’s dominance in the home and community.12 Because Black women were blamed for social problems and seen as weaker, they were encouraged to do secretarial work or act as “bridge leaders” working behind-the-scenes to support the movement. While these roles are also important, Crenshaw’s arguments show how thinking of Black women’s roles as only supportive, patronized and minimized their contributions as “central leaders and strategists.”13 The Moynihan report and Davis’ incarceration contextualize Crenshaw’s pleas for Black women to “step” forward and realize their place in the struggle, and for men to fulfill their “obligation” to bring Black women into the movement.14
For Crenshaw, Black men and women needed to acknowledge women’s “talents” and “untapped resources” in order to liberate all Black people.15 Conversations about Black women’s roles demonstrated the need “to develop new definitions of Black womanhood” that were unbridled by white, male values.16 This speech embodies the spirit of Black feminism, which centers Black women and their experiences with racism, sexism, classism, and other social/political identities. Crenshaw’s rallying cries around Black women’s strength show how Black women in particular are critical to Black liberation and gender equity movements.17
Crenshaw argues that in order to “free our people,” all Black people must be united under a common cause, which for her is building a movement around freeing Davis.18 Crenshaw’s call and the protesters’ demands eventually were realized. In June 1972, Davis was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.19 Davis remains a symbol for Black liberation and prison abolition, and continues her activism to this day, speaking out at demonstrations and rallies against police violence and white supremacy.20
- Davis has authored several books, including: Angela Davis: An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1974); Women, Race and Class (New York: Random House, 1981); The Prison-Industrial Complex (Chico, CA: Ak Press, 1999); Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003); Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005); Women, Culture & Politics (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011).
- Sol Stern, “The Campaign to Free Angela Davis…and Mitchell Magee,” New York Times, June 27, 1971, https://www.nytimes.com/1971/06/27/archives/the-campaign-to-free-angela-davis-and-ruchell-magee-the-campaign-to.html.
- “Angela Davis (January 26, 1944),” National Archives, July 22, 2020, https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/individuals/angela-davis#davisintro; The Soledad Brothers were three incarcerated men who had been charged with murdering a white prison guard.
- Lucia Adams, Memoria Academia 1960-1976 (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2014), 141.
- Meredith L. Roman, “‘Armed and Dangerous’: The Criminalization of Angela Davis and the Cold War Myth of America’s Innocence,” Women, Gender, and Families of Color 8, no. 1 (2020): 88.
- “Angela Davis (January 26, 1944).”
- Stern, “The Campaign to Free Angela Davis.”
- Paula Crenshaw, “Speaking at Angela Davis Rally,” para. 6.
- Jeanne Theoharis, Komozi Woodard, and Dayo F. Gore, Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 2.
- Ashley D. Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 58.
- Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on Black families, officially titled, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, is one of the most controversial documents of the twentieth century. See: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 1965).
- Theoharis, Woodard, and Gore, Want to Start a Revolution,? 9.
- Crenshaw, “Speaking at Angela Davis Rally,” para. 12.
- Ibid., para.13.
- Farmer, Remaking Black Power, 59.
- See: Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Female Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1990); Jennifer C. Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).
- Crenshaw, “Speaking at Angela Davis Rally,” para. 12-13.
- Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, directed by Shola Lynch (New York: Realside Productions, 2012), film.
- Lanre Bakare, “Angela Davis: ‘We Knew that the Role of the Police was to Protect White Supremacy’,” The Atlantic, June 15, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/15/angela-davis-on-george-floyd-as-long-as-the-violence-of-racism-remains-no-one-is-safe.