Angela Davis is undoubtedly an iconic figure in 20th century American history. The Rolling Stones’ Sweet Black Angel was dedicated to her, and it was reported last year that a biopic of her is now in the works. Yet, the same Angela Davis was fired from her professorship by Ronald Reagan and described by Richard Nixon as being a “dangerous terrorist.” How can one woman be viewed so differently?
To this day, Angela Davis continues to be an important feminist figure. In her book Women, Race and Class, Davis explored the racial and socioeconomic barriers that hold back the female suffrage and reproductive rights movements. Whilst the idea of intersectional feminism is widely promoted today, Davis’ book was published in 1981. She was a pioneer of the notion that women of colour face unique challenges in their liberation. For white women, the 1980s was a time of ever increasing social and economic equality. For women of colour, Davis argued, it was an unrelenting battle against discrimination in the labour market (often forced into domestic roles) and higher education. Hoping to inspire cooperation in her work, the activist often drew attention to the important work done by both white and black women in Reconstruction era, leading to the creation of the South’s first public school system. By uncompromisingly drawing attention to these problematic points and repeatedly stressing that cooperation between white women and women of colour must take place to achieve equality, Angela Davis partially inspired the third-wave feminism movement that we see today.
Arguably, Davis’ role in the Soledad prison incident cemented her position as an African American political figure. She was a supporter of the Soledad Brothers, three black men accused of killing a white guard at California’s Soledad Prison. One Brother took control of a courtroom in August 1970 and proceeded to shoot a judge dead. The firearm used in this attack were registered to Angela Davis. A warrant was issued for her arrest; she became the third woman ever to be placed on the FBI’s ‘Ten Most Wanted’ Fugitive List and was later held in solitary confinement. She was found not guilty by an all-white jury in 1972. Davis would later say that her ordeal lead her to “understand much more concretely many of the realities of the black struggle of that period.” Davis became an outspoken critic of the ‘prison-industrial complex, comparing it to slavery. Before the Soledad incident, Angela Davis had been a well-educated, well-travelled assistant professor in philosophy, which is sadly hardly typical of the African-American experience. Her unfair persecution at the hands of the law made it starkly apparent that this could happen to any black person in the United States, and she became determined to change this.