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Making A Difference: Angela Davis

Often when the African American Civil Rights Movement is mentioned, the individuals associated are African American men like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. But have you heard of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence?

Portrait of Angela Davis

If you have heard of the Black Panther Party, usually you think of a masculine Black Power organisation connected with the leaders such as Huey P. Newton or Bobby Seale. However, the Black Panther Party had a large female membership who ran the organisation. Angela Davis was one of the Black Panther Party's female members, an influential black feminist who challenged racial, gender, and class oppression within America. Her story for fighting for civil rights is often masked by the Black Power Movement's masculine imagery.

Poster of Angela Davis

An Iconic poster of Angela Davis was used during the Black Power Movement during the 1960s and 1970s.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama 1944, the hardships of being a black woman in America hit Davis from an early age. In her speech, becoming an activist available on Spotify, Davis speaks about how growing up in one of the most segregated states within America taught Davis to be open-spoken and challenge the system.

"Our parents taught us to we had to be critical otherwise we could not affirm our own humanity.” ( Angela Davis, 1991)

At the age of 23, Davis joined the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1967 while being a philosophy student at the University of California. Davis was also a member of the Communist Party USA; she believed both the African American Civil Rights movement in America and Communism were interlinked with the equality for all races, genders, and class backgrounds in America.  

With Davis’ national presence and activity within the Black Power movement, she became the first woman to be on the FBI top 10 wanted list meaning her activism was put on hold between 1970 to 1972. Davis was arrested on 13th October 1970 for kidnapping, murder charges, and conspiracy regarding the courthouse shooting at San Rafael, California 7th August 1970. If found guilty, Davis could be imprisoned for life or convicted of the death penalty.

Image of Angela Davis's arrest

Davis being arrested in New York by two FBI agents, 13 October 1970.

Davis’ arrest sparked a ‘Free Angela’ movement sweeping across America, actively promoting the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement that embodied the acknowledgement of African American’s beauty in society and the media. After two years, on 4 June 1972, all charges were dropped against Davis by an all-white jury.

Still, to this present day, Davis is politically active in her efforts to campaign for women’s, LGBTQ+, African American civil rights. Davis has written several books on race, class, gender oppression, and the prison system within America, always challenging inequalities. Davis is an important black woman whose recognition within advocating for equality is often overlooked. Her journey that is still ongoing is an inspiration to us all as a woman who is passionate about suppressing the injustices within America, which is illustrated in Davis’ speech at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.

CBS News Watch legendary activist Angela Davis rally Women's March On Washington

Poster of Angela Davis

Further Reading

If you are interested in learning more about Davis and the trial, here are some great suggested reads.

  • Aptheker, B. (2014) The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis. 2nd ed. London: Cornell University Press.
  • Bloom, J. & Martin Jr, W.E. eds. (2016) Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Oakland: University of California Press.