January 29, 2010


‘Justice’ remains Angela Davis’ message
by Melissa Cowan

Dr. Angela Davis never thought she would live to see a black President, she said. She recalled people dancing and signing in the streets of Oakland, CA, after Obama was named the election winner.

“It was the most remarkable moment,” she said. “This collective joy was experienced by people all over the world… (it was) a moment of promise for the future.”

Dr. Angela Davis said she finds it necessary to both support and criticize President Obama. Davis spoke at UMKC on Jan. 22. (photo by Kate Williams, courtesy of U-News)

Davis is widely known for her activism during the 1960s as a member of the Communist Party and close ally of the Black Panthers. She is still pushing for equality and freedom today. She is currently active with Sisters Inside, an abolitionist organization focusing on women in prison, but she advocates for all prisoners’ rights.

“One black man in the White House doesn’t cancel out the thousands of black men in the big house,” Davis said in her speech for the Second Annual Martin Luther King Keynote Address at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC). Approximately 2,500 people attended the Jan. 22 event.

The Division of Diversity, Access & Equity at UMKC asked Davis to speak at the event because she “has been deeply involved in our nation’s quest for social justice,” said Kristi Ryujin, director of Diversity Initiatives.

“Her work as an educator, both at the university level and in the larger public sphere, has always emphasized the importance of building communities of struggle for economic, racial and gender equality.”

Davis has been involved in prisoners’ rights since she became the Los Angeles chair of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee in the late 1960s. Three black convicts in Soledad State Prison were accused of killing a prison guard.

According to encyclopediaofalabama.org, in 1970, activist Jonathan Jackson went into a courtroom and handed three prisoners guns to aid in their escape. He demanded the release of the Soledad Brothers (one of whom Davis was involved with romantically). Shots were fired and four people were killed in the shooting. Two of the guns belonged to Davis. She spent 16 months in jail before she was acquitted in 1972.

But Davis did not focus on the past in her speech.

She honored Dr. Martin Luther King as the spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement, the “Second American Revolution.” But she also acknowledged those who started the Movement, the “many more people, (the) many names we do not and will not know.”

It took nearly 20 years for MLK Day to exist.

“This is a very pertinent moment to reflect on the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Davis said, this year being especially significant.

MLK Day followed shortly after “the first anniversary of the election of the first black President in our country.” But a year later, people are facing great disappointments and struggles like poverty (and its connection to imprisonment), lack of health care and military demands.
The purpose of her speech was to explore the many different issues we are facing today and how to make progress now.

“How do we identify with and advocate for those who are poor and oppressed?” Davis asked.

She believes as time has passed, our visions of freedom have expanded.

“He (MLK) never told us what he saw on the mountain top,” Davis said. “He never told us what freedom truly is. That’s because it grows and it changes.”

And the importance of Obama as President is not just the color of his skin, but that he identifies with the quest for freedom, Davis said.
She continued to explain she also finds it necessary to both support and criticize him. Davis believes it is our responsibility to push him to do the right thing: bring home the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, give civil rights to immigrants, and support the LGBT community. Transgender people, said Davis, are the most criminalized in society and the most likely to go to prison. She believes if King were still alive, he would support the movement of transgender people.

“Dr. Davis' presentation met our divisions mission,” said Ryujin. “Her comments were particularly insightful regarding freedom, the importance of everyone playing a part and taking responsibility for Civil Rights and her call to all of us to work in coalition or freedom and equity for all.”

Davis has authored eight books and currently teaches at the University of California. Through the past and current struggles, she doesn’t regret the work she’s done, “the work we all did,” she said.

“(It’s a continuous) exciting, passionate struggle to remake our lives, to remake our communities and to remake our futures.”

Melissa Cowan can be contacted at mcowan@unews.com.