Angela Davis, first in her field

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Angela Davis (center), with Gloria Steinem and Elizabeth Sackler

In early June, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art –which is named for the historian who is the current president of that museum – presented Angela Davis with the 2016 Sackler Center First Award, which honors “women who are first in their fields.”

Who is Angela Davis? Her name may mean nothing to most younger Americans. To those over a certain age, however, she’s a very familiar figure.

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Davis in her heyday

Born in Alabama in 1944, Davis joined the American Communist Party at an early age. While studying at the University of Frankfurt, she took part in activities sponsored by the radical Socialist German Student Union and attended May Day celebrations in what was then East Berlin. She later joined the Black Panthers and received a doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University, also in East Berlin. She went on to teach at UCLA, where the regents fired her in 1969 because of her Communist Party membership. Rehired by the university on orders from a judge, she was fired again after using “inflammatory language” (such as calling the police “pigs”) in several speeches.

Then she became world-famous. It happened like this.

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George Jackson

Davis was in love with, and secretly married to, a gangster named George Jackson, who, like her, was a Communist and Black Panther leader. After he committed five armed robberies, he was caught, tried, convicted, and incarcerated at Soledad State Prison in California. The Black Panthers later published a collection of his prison letters; Davis, for her part, spearheaded an effort to secure his release, along with that of two fellow Marxists who were also confined at Soledad. The men were collectively known as the Soledad Brothers. 

On August 7, 1970, Jackson’s 17-year-old brother, Jonathan, entered a Marin County courtroom in which another punk, James McClain, was on trial for murdering a prison guard. Jonathan brought with him plenty of weapons, which he handed to McClain and to two other convicts who were present in the courtroom as witnesses. Jonathan and the three jailbirds then took hostage the presiding judge, Harold Haley, a father of three, along with the prosecutor and three of the jurors. 

- - Group leaves the the Civic Center with a shotgun taped around Judge Harold Haley's neck. The inmate at left, James McClain, was fatally wounded in the van as it attempted escape. (IJ photo/Roger Bockrath)
James McClain (with gun, left), Jonathan Jackson, and comrades leave the the Marin County Civic Center with Judge Haley and other hostages (note the shotgun taped around Haley’s neck)

Jonathan and the convicts took their hostages out of the courthouse and drove off with them in a van. Jonathan’s goal was to hijack a plane, fly the hostages to Cuba, and exchange them for his brother’s freedom. But he didn’t get that far. At a roadblock, he and his pals got into a shootout with police. Jonathan, Judge Haley, and the two convicts were killed; the prosecutor was paralyzed for life; and a juror was injured. It was soon discovered that some of the guns Jonathan had brought into the courtroom had been purchased by Davis only days earlier. Charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder and placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, Davis took it on the lam; after a few months underground, she was tracked down by cops at a Howard Johnson’s motel in Manhattan.

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Davis is taken into custody

Meanwhile George Jackson had died. Using a gun smuggled into his cell (he was now at San Quentin), perhaps by his lawyer, Jackson, in consort with six fellow prisoners, took three guards hostage, bound them, and cut their throats. Jackson was then shot to death trying to make his escape. His comrades in the American Communist Party described it as a “murder.”

As for Angela Davis, she went on trial. Among American Communist leaders, there was disagreement about what position the Party should take on her case. For some, her actions were a bridge too far. For others – well, we’ll get around to that tomorrow.

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