Angela Davis, human-rights heroine?

Davis in her heyday

In June 2016, when the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art presented Angela Davis with an award for “women who are first in their fields,” we provided readers with a brief account of Ms. Davis’s accomplishments.

To wit: a card-carrying American Communist Party member from her youth, she attended Communist May Day celebrations in East Berlin when it was still East Berlin, joined the Black Panthers, and studied at Humboldt University, also in East Berlin. Later teaching at UCLA, she was fired twice – the first time for her Communist Party membership, the second time (after a judge ordered her rehired) for giving “inflammatory” speeches in which, for example, she called police officers “pigs.” After her then husband, George Jackson, a fellow Communist and Black Panther leader, was sent to Soledad State Prison for pulling off five armed robberies, Davis masterminded an effort to spring him. As we wrote in 2016:

On the lam

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 Clain 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.

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.

On trial

Her husband George having died in an escape attempt (in which he cut the throats of three prison guards), Davis was tried for her part in the attempt to spring him. The Kremlin led a worldwide campaign to paint her as mounting a courageous challenge to the capitalist system. Useful idiots like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Despite ample evidence of guilt, Davis was found not guilty. Her acquittal was later compared to that in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, in that both defendants had lawyers who successfully painted them as victims of racism.

With one of her heroes

Now world-famous, Davis spent a few years in Cuba, went to Moscow to accept the Lenin Prize, and twice ran for vice president of the U.S. on the Communist Party line. For many on the left, she served as a feminist icon and a symbol of brave resistance to racist oppression. She has taught at many major universities and is now a “Distinguished Professor Emerita” at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And her distinction has been ratified by awards, including the 2016 honor from the Brooklyn Museum.

She was scheduled to receive yet another accolade next month – namely, the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, which is presented annually by a civil-rights organization in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. But during the first week of January came a shocking announcement: Angela Davis wouldn’t be getting the award after all. What happened? We’ll get to that on Tuesday.