The real Angela Davis
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 23:02
Since the beginning of February, fliers posted on the campus of Davidson College have outlined the College’s plans to celebrate Black History Month. Events include many discussions on social activism led by students from the Black Student Coalition, local activists, Davidson professors, black veterans of World War II, and Davidson’s first African-American student, among others. The keynote speaker of Davidson’s observance of Black History Month was the controversial civil rights activist Angela Davis. Separate posters highlighted her arrival, featuring a painting of a raised brown fist and the words, “Who is Angela Davis?”
Well, who exactly is Angela Davis? A quick internet search can show that she is arguably one of the most controversial figures to ever speak at Davidson College. Davis is well known for her radical revolutionary ideas and strong ties to the Black Panther and Communist Parties. In fact, Davis spent time in both East Germany and Cuba before she eventually ran for Vice President on the Communist Party USA ticket in 1980 and 1984.
But her general support of the Black Panther Party and Marxist leanings are not the least of what make her controversial. Angela Davis is closely tied to the shocking events that occurred at the Marin County Courthouse on August 7th, 1970. That day, inmate James McClain of the Soledad Prison in California was on trial for the stabbing of a prison guard when Jonathan Jackson took control of the courtroom with a concealed handgun. Jackson demanded freedom for the “Soledad Brothers” – of which his own brother, George Jackson, was a member – who had been charged with the murder of another prison guard earlier that year. Several firearms were transferred from Jackson to the inmate defendant and witnesses, who took Judge Harold Haley, Assistant District Attorney Gary Thomas and three female jurors hostage. In the chaos surrounding the escape attempt that followed, Judge Haley, Jackson and two other prisoners were killed. Thomas, a prisoner, and a juror were also seriously wounded in the shootout. Gary Thomas would never overcome the paralysis resulting from the gunshot wound in his back.
The weapons used in the escape attempt – two pistols, a carbine, and a sawed-off shotgun – belonged to none other than Angela Davis. In fact, Davis had purchased the shotgun just two days before the Marin County Courthouse shooting, accompanied by Jonathan Jackson himself. Witnesses testified seeing Davis and Jackson together repeatedly in the days leading up to the shooting. Furthermore, Davis’ letters were found in George Jackson’s prison cell proclaiming her love for him and her desire for his freedom. Due to her complicit involvement in the Courthoue shooting, Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover named Davis to the Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitive list, and she was arrested in New York City two months later.
Despite overwhelming evidence, Davis was acquitted because the evidence was circumstantial in nature. Nearly all of the plot’s participants were dead, and since Davis wasn’t the one who stormed the courtroom, she couldn’t be convicted of her charges no matter how complicit she seemed. But my intention isn’t to retry old trials or explain old verdicts. This article intends to address the seeming carelessness shown by students and professors alike as they neglect their charge to analyze and consider critically the information they receive from lecturers like Angela Davis when they come to speak.
I was surprised to find that very few students and professors at Davidson were aware of Davis’ implication in the Marin County Courthouse shooting. I felt that if people knew the real story, they wouldn’t have laughed as hard as they did when Davis joked, “History is a very strange thing. What at one point provoked horror for people who heard that I was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List can provoke applause in the 21st century.”
I do not mean to say that Davis is unqualified to speak on the Civil Rights Movement. Davis has fought for civil rights for decades, but we most certainly cannot forget her methods of fighting. Her close ties to the radical Black Panther Party and connection to the Marin County Courthouse shooting provide a context that we, as students of history, cannot ignore. If her story is worth telling (and I think it is), then tell it! Tell her story in its entirety, and don’t gloss over the bloody details. We cannot merely romanticize the violence committed by the Black Panther Party and its supporters, in the same way that we cannot forget the violence committed against blacks by racial bigots. The “see no evil” approach to history does justice to no one, and diminishes its authenticity and relevance to modern discussion.
Regardless of the person on stage, audience members in an academic environment such as Davidson must engage the lecturer with an evaluative ear and never simply accept something at face value. Facts must be verified and ideas must be questioned until truth emerges. Listeners must evaluate the speaker’s agenda. Of what is he or she trying to convince me, and how does this mesh with my own values and experience? In the case of Angela Davis, it is clear that she has a strong perspective to impress upon her listeners. It is up to us to discern what we believe and what we reject, and to determine right or wrong for ourselves.
I am pleased Angela Davis spoke on campus, solely because I believe in the free expression of ideas. I may not agree with all she says or stands for, but I appreciate the way it challenged my beliefs in some ways and reinforced them in others. Do I place her in the same category as the Freedom Riders, the sit-in activists, and the brave leaders of other non-violent protests? In my opinion, no. Instead, I wish to celebrate the courage and sacrifice of the Civil Rights figures I admire, like Dr. Martin Luther King and the Little Rock Nine, and I regret that Davidson did not choose a lecturer of that caliber instead. The Civil Rights Movement is multifaceted, and its supporters do not compose one monolithic unit. They should not be treated as such. Radicals like Angela Davis and the Black Panthers are undoubtedly part of the Civil Rights story and Black History, but it is our responsibility to view them in a way we deem appropriate. To do so, we must be as informed, objective and thoughtful as possible.