Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama and lived most of her childhood on “Dynamite Hill”, named after the bombings perpetrated by the area’s white residents on middle-class black families.
Her mother was a national officer in the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an organization known for its communist leanings. Davis was thus exposed to the violence of racism from an early age and concurrently saw communism as a possible outlet. While teaching at UCLA in 1969, her commitment to the Communist Party, much to fellow staff’s chagrin, continued to deepen. Her support for the Soledad Brothers, a group of African-American inmates made up of George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette, only exacerbated the public’s regard for her as a controversial figure.
After a prison fight in California’s Soledad prison led to the shooting deaths of three black prisoners at the hands of a police guard, the Soledad Brothers were accused of having steered the retaliating murder against another white prison guard by the name of John Vincent Mills. Angela Davis and George Jackson began corresponding with one another in the spring of 1970, during which she would give speeches in order to rally the masses around the innocence of the accused. She also corresponded with George’s younger brother Jonathan Jackson, who did not believe that George would receive a fair trial in the Marin County courthouse. Hoping to seize Judge Harold Haley and other hostages from the courtroom in exchange for his brother’s freedom, Jonathan and the judge were killed during the ensuing violent confrontation. Angela Davis, meanwhile, was indicted for purchasing the guns used in the hostage situation.
California considers that “all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether it be felony or misdemeanor, and whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense, or aid and abet in its commission...are principles in any crime so committed.” Therefore charged with aggravated kidnapping and the first-degree murder of Judge Harold Haley, Davis went into hiding in New York before she was found and extradited to plead her case in Marin County, California. Although it soon became clear that the prosecutors’ case against Davis was weak to the point of her acquittal of the charge in 1972, Davis remained central to the media’s narration of the shootout instigated by Jonathan Jackson. She was written about with respect to her radical understanding of politics and academic legitimacy; for instance, on July 2nd, 1971, an article titled “Miss Davis to Meet with Soledad Trio” was published in the New York Times. It described the shootout as such: “Miss Davis, former faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles, is accused of buying guns used in the attempt by four blacks to escape from Judge Haley’s courtroom.” The Soledad Brothers, in stark contrast, were only addressed once throughout the article and as “the so-called Soledad Brothers” to boot. This article thus questioned the Soledad Brothers position as revolutionaries and while depicting the undeniable importance of Davis as an instrumental actor in her case. Although done so inaccurately in terms of her level of involvement in the case, she was depicted as a legitimate revolutionary threat by the mainstream press, thus placing herself outside the tropes that typically relegated black women into quiet, apolitical corners.
Contrary to typical tropes of black womanhood, Davis was not an accessory to the black male tragedy. Jonathan Jackson’s death and the Soledad Brothers plight affected her life, but did not act as a mechanism to re-inscribe markers of black womanhood; rather, Davis was an outspoken advocate and architect for her case. On October 16th, 1970, the New York Times ran a piece titled “The Angela Davis Tragedy”. Even the title of the article speaks volumes toward Davis’s significant role in the creation of her own narrative. The contents of the article consist of a brief mention concerning the “bloody shoot-out at the courthouse” then decidedly focused on Davis’s input regarding contemporary political discourse and dissent. Although the article cast Davis in a negatively extremist light, her voice was the focal point of the author’s distaste. For example, the article states “one who might have made a significant contribution to the nation’s normal political debate and to its needed processes of peaceful change became so alienated that she finally went over to revolutionary words and perhaps even worse.” Furthermore, Davis is spoken about as a catalyst for the black power and student movements. The article also states how “faculty surrounded her with an aura of martyrdom”, demonstrating once again the pivotal effects Davis’s education, beliefs and arguments had on the country.
Despite the media’s unique depiction of a black woman as an important political figure, the New York Times also depicted Davis as an emotionally volatile chain-smoker, both of which worked against the privilege of respectability that education would usually provide. An article titled “Miss Davis Does Not Feel She Will Get a Fair Trial” stated that “she smokes as many as 80 cigarettes a day” while also underlining her “anger that lasted but a moment…there were times when she laughed and others when she nearly cried.” The article goes further in discussing her communist leanings, stating “later, when accused of Communist party membership, she chose to admit it. She did so ‘because I felt I had a certain responsibility to do it. I felt that it was time that we assumed aggressive postures in the face of repression’.”
Davis’s arguments of injustice and cruelty were explicitly denied by the state and implicitly denied by the mainstream press. Additionally, the press tended to associate Davis with masculinity when discussing her political views, particularly when it was making the case that she was lacking in respectability. For instance, on December 28th, 1971, an article titled “Miss Davis Does Not Feel She Will Get a Fair Trial” was published with a large photo of her face with a cigarette in hand; by displaying her smoking, a habit which at the time was almost always associated with men, the publication’s intentions were questionable at best. However, she was ultimately believed by the jury, thereby winning her case. Through analysis of the mainstream press, it is theorized that she was able to escape this fate because of her credibility and status as a former academic professor.
The case of Angela Davis expanded the public’s understanding of black womanhood, and more importantly, developed a narrative of complexity and depth for black women themselves. As black women continue to push ideological boundaries, it is imperative to remain cognizant as well as critical of the media’s ability to influence societal understandings of black women and entire populations beyond.
Emily is a recent graduate of Boston University and is currently working for the AIDS Action Committee. Email her here.