Angela Davis evokes spirit of activism on MLK Day

by Amy Kingsley

The roar went up as soon as student presenter Josue Monge announced the speaker.

‘“I should come to Greensboro more often,’” said civil rights activist Angela Davis in response to the warm welcome.

She recognized the holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which her Jan. 17 presence on the UNCG campus honored. She spoke about the struggle to gain official recognition of the civil rights leader’s birthday and quoted King throughout her speech. The capacity crowd of 2,300 packing Aycock Auditorium proved heavily supportive of the controversial Davis, but pockets of dissension littered the pack.

Her message ‘— that Hurricane Katrina exposed structural racism and biases often concentrated in prison and military systems ‘— earned resounding applause and a standing ovation. Davis also called for President Bush’s impeachment and the dismantling of the Office of Homeland Security. Her delivery reflected decades spent in academia, including her current tenure in the History of Human Consciousness department at University of California at Santa Cruz.

‘“It is important to produce the kind of historical memory that recognizes the value of mass struggle,’” Davis said. ‘“We need to learn to acknowledge the part of ordinary people in building resistance.’”

Despite her rhetorical emphasis on the mass in movements, Davis herself has emerged as a distinctive activist leader. UCLA administrators fired her from the school’s philosophy department in 1970 after her membership in the Communist Party and her association with Black Panthers came to light. A botched attempt by supporters of black power theorist George Jackson to free him from jail by taking hostages during a trial resulted in a nationwide manhunt for Davis, who was implicated in the crime.

After her capture, Davis spent 16 months in jail, much of that time in solitary confinement, before her acquittal. She emerged from the institution a prison abolitionist.

‘“Prison becomes a way of disappearing people and hoping it disappears the problems they represent,’” Davis said.

Among the societal ills that land people behind bars are drug addiction, poverty, mental illness and illiteracy. Redistributing prison budgets to education, health care and housing would eliminate the need for jails, Davis said.

Although Davis has a more radical activist background than King, she tied their messages together through his final campaign for the poor and opposition to the Vietnam War. Then she compared the legal racism King fought to the connections between race and class Hurricane Katrina revealed. The power of racial stereotypes emerged in widespread media reports of rapes and murders that never happened.

‘“Racism was responsible for assertions that black people were killing other people,’” she said. ‘“I wonder why it was that so many of us believed that. The assumption was that when a whole lot of black people get together that is what happens.’”

Some campus conservatives opposed Davis as a keynote speaker for UNCG’s MLK celebration. Several students opposed to Davis’ appearance occupied a balcony row. During the question and answer segment, one of them confronted her.

The student asked whether Davis, whose Black Panthers and Communists killed thousands by reckoning, felt responsible for the current climate of fear. After Davis told the student that neither group had killed thousands of people, she elaborated on the rest of the question.

‘“I do believe that I, like everyone else in this country, bear some responsibility for the world we inhabit,’” she said.

In a short press conference after the speech at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery, she went into greater detail on the importance of activism.

‘“I don’t think there are ever enough activists,’” she said. ‘“There are people all over the country doing important work. But more and more we have to learn how to create sustained movements. We have this fast food notion of activism and we have to talk about the importance of acquiring the patience to see things through.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at