Angela Davis has been a prominent activist in the Black liberation and prison abolition movement since the 1960s. Born into a working-class family in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, Davis’ belief system is rooted in the experience of growing up in the segregated South, juxtaposed with her experiences studying abroad.
Davis grew up in the “Dynamite Hill” neighborhood of Birmingham in the 1950s, when the area was targeted by several bombings that were intended to drive out the growing population of middle-class Blacks who were moving there.
Community was a formative part of Davis’ growth and development. Her mother was an organizer by nature and kept company with communist organizers and thinkers.
In high school, Davis became active in the Black Panther Party, and the Communist Party and volunteered for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
She continued her activism when she attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts on scholarship, one of only three Black students at the college. While attending a rally about the Cuban Missile Crisis, she met philosopher Herbert Marcuse and soon became his student.
“Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary,” said Davis.
During her studies, Davis saved up for travel to France and Switzerland and attended a communist-sponsored event while abroad, which prompted the FBI to start keeping tabs on her. While she was in France, the KKK bombed a church in her hometown of Birmingham.
It was not long after when Davis was studying in France that the Birmingham church bombing was carried out by the KKK, leaving Davis to grieve the loss abroad. After earning her masters degree and a doctorate of philosophy, Davis became a professor and lecturer.
Targeted for her radical approach to activism, Davis was often at the center of controversy.
Davis was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list after weapons allegedly belonging to her were involved in a 1970 armed takeover of a courtroom where four people were killed. She was eventually charged with murder in a crime she did not commit and served 18 months in prison.
The case garnered international attention and resulted in an uprising and subsequent “Free Angela Davis” campaign that helped usher her back to freedom.
Despite being a target of the state, Davis became widely known and respected for her influence and activism on racial justice, women’s rights, and criminal justice reform. She’s authored several books on civil rights and social justice and continues to be a prominent voice in both academia and the work of Black liberation.