By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On Sunday June 4, 1972, Angela Yvonne Davis, a 28-year-old (born January 26, 1944) African-American woman, was found not guilty of criminal conspiracy, kidnapping and murder after a 14-week trial.
Davis, a former professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) had been charged with conspiracy for murder and kidnapping in the 1970 death of a judge in Marin County. She had been hounded by the American government through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its sinister offshoot Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) for months before she was captured on October 13, 1970.
She first made national news in 1969 when then California Republican governor, Ronald Reagan (later U.S. President), began his campaign to end her professorship at UCLA. At the time, Reagan claimed that his antagonism and spite towards Davis was because she had identified herself as a communist.
On June 19, 1970, Reagan issued this statement:
“This memorandum is to inform everyone that, through extensive court cases and rebuttals, Angela Davis, Professor of Philosophy, will no longer be a part of the UCLA staff. As the head of the Board of Regents, I, nor the board, will not tolerate any Communist activities at any state institution. Communists are an endangerment to this wonderful system of government that we all share and are proud of.”
At that time Davis was also active in several African-American organizations, including the Black Panther Party, which were targets of the American government and under constant surveillance and threats through the FBI. The FBI had harassed and targeted generations of African-Americans before the 1970s, including Marcus Mosiah Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s.
It seems that the American government was determined to destroy any individual or organization which sought to lift African-Americans out of the slave mentality to which they had been relegated (brainwashed) since the first African had been taken to America chained in a slave ship.
Davis became an international symbol of African-American revolution in the 1970s. During the two months (August 16 to October 13, 1970) that Davis was being hunted as a fugitive, she was also placed on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list of the FBI.
Davis, unlike many African-American academics of the time, was involved in organizations – like the Black Panther Party – which struggled and sacrificed to bring about economic, social and political equity. All racialized people and even White people (whether or not they choose to recognize this) in the U.S. have benefitted from the work and sacrifices of revolutionary African-American organizations and individuals.
In early 1970, Davis helped organize the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee to free the “Soledad Brothers” from the Soledad Prison in California. Davis eventually became the leader of the movement to free the Soledad Brothers. The three African-American men who became known as the Soledad Brothers (John Clutchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Jackson) were accused of killing a Soledad prison guard.
It was widely held that Clutchette, Drumgo and Jackson were charged with murder not because there was any substantial evidence of their guilt, but because they had been previously identified as African-American militants by the prison authorities. Jackson was a member of the Black Panther Party. If convicted, the three men would face a mandatory death penalty under the California penal code.
The plight of the Soledad Brothers received international attention, especially from Pan-Africanists including Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney, who wrote in November 1971 after George Jackson was killed by prison guards in San Quentin Prison (August 21, 1971):
“To most readers in this continent, starved of authentic information by the imperialist news agencies, the name of George Jackson is either unfamiliar or just a name. George Jackson was jailed ostensibly for stealing 70 dollars. He was given a sentence of one year to life because he was Black, and he was kept incarcerated for years under the most dehumanizing conditions because he discovered that Blackness need not be a badge of servility but rather could be a banner for uncompromising revolutionary struggle. He was murdered because he was doing too much to pass this attitude on to fellow prisoners. George Jackson was a political prisoner and a Black freedom fighter. He died at the hands of the enemy.”
On August 7, 1970, George Jackson’s 17-year-old brother, Jonathan Jackson, in a bid to secure the freedom of the Soledad Brothers, freed three San Quentin prisoners and took hostage a Superior Court Judge, a Deputy District Attorney and three jurors in a courtroom at the Marin County Civic Center. During police intervention, Jonathan Jackson, the judge and two of the prisoners were killed. Davis was implicated when it was discovered that guns registered in her name were used by the teenager.
Davis did not deny that she owned several guns but shared during her trial that it was a holdover from her childhood growing up on “Dynamite Hill, Birmingham” where as she explained:
“My father had to keep guns because he was afraid that he would be the next target of racial violence.”
On March 27, 1972, Davis made her opening defense statement in the Santa Clara County Superior Courthouse, California. Superior Court Judge Richard E. Arnason presided and the prosecutor was Assistant Attorney General Albert W. Harris Jr.
Harris had earlier outlined his case to the all-White jury promising them evidence that proved Davis was involved in a criminal conspiracy and that the weapons used in the courthouse shootout and kidnapping at the Marin County Civic Center on August 7, 1970 had been purchased by Davis. In her one hour and 20 minutes defense statement, Davis argued that the case was based on “a network of false assumptions”.
During the months of incarceration and eventual trial, Davis became an international symbol of resistance. She was viewed as a proud African-American woman under political siege in the U.S. With the image of Davis’ fist clenched defiantly, raised above her six-inch Afro, her story captured international attention. By the time she was acquitted of all charges on June 4, 1972, Davis had become a folk hero with the words “Free Angela Davis” a slogan in far flung places – the result of a massive, worldwide movement formed to free her from jail.
In an article entitled “The Campaign to Free Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee” published in The New York Times on June 27, 1971, Sol Stern wrote that there were “Free Angela” demonstrations internationally with reports that 2,500 women in Sri Lanka held a three-day vigil in front of the American embassy.
He also wrote that the committee formed to handle the campaign to free Angela Davis received:
“A telegram demanding Angela’s freedom signed by the entire cast and crew of the film ‘Z,’ including Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, director Costa Gavras and composer Mikis Theodorakis.”
He quoted Rob Baker, the publicity director of the campaign:
“We have received 100,000 pieces of mail from East Germany alone. They’re lying around in hundreds of mail bags unopened – because we don’t have a big enough staff to do the work.”
While watching the documentary, Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, last year I have to admit that some people in the audience were not amused when I cheered loudly at the sight of a group of women in Guyana demonstrating while holding a “Free Angela Davis” banner.
Forty-one years after her acquittal, the documentary, Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners (released in 2012), about the work that catapulted Davis to international recognition was seen by many who had never heard of her or just knew her as a symbol of an Afro-wearing African-American women.
These were comments I heard from some seemingly “aware” African-Canadians. However, I do recognize that we are all at different places of being “aware” of our history, our heroes and sheroes.
The important thing is that we remain open to learning by listening and reading. Davis continues to advocate on behalf of political prisoners and as recently as May 3, was speaking out against the American government’s (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCuj2pvFPY4) $2 million bounty on the head of Assata Shakur.