BLACK HISTORY—Angela Davis addresses the audience at the University of Pittsburgh. (Photos by J.L. Martello)
As a former leader of the Communist Party USA who was tied to the Black Panther Party during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, 69-year-old political activist, scholar and author Angela Davis has been one of the African-American community’s most militant voices throughout history. Labeled by President Richard Nixon as a “dangerous terrorist,” Davis was once charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder, and spent 18 months in prison before being acquitted in 1972.
Today, Davis serves as a distinguished professor emerita at the University of California at Santa Cruz, but still finds time to be active in the prison abolishment and Occupy movements, in between lecturing at colleges and universities around the country. On Jan. 24, she visited the University of Pittsburgh for the Black Action Society’s Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture.
“This has been a very unique Martin Luther King Jr. Day period because it coincided with the second inauguration of the first African-American president,” Davis said referring to President Barack Obama. “While we celebrate the historic occasion of Obama’s second term, it’s important to reflect on the conditions that led to it.”
Davis was tasked with providing the students and community attendees in the Alumni Hall auditorium with little known facts about King and the Civil Rights Movement. She responded by probing King’s legacy, how his beliefs are often misrepresented and other misconceptions throughout African-American history.
“As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are actually paying tribute to the millions of people who joined the struggle for freedom,” Davis said. “Martin Luther King Jr. could not have emerged as the powerful figure had it not been for ordinary people.”
In light of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Davis revealed the truth behind the document signed by President Abraham Lincoln, not delved into in high school history classes. While the document is touted as the end of slavery, Davis said it was used to bolster troop numbers in the Civil War by encouraging Blacks in Confederate states to join Union Army forces.
“I think we should be celebrating it, but critically celebrating it, understanding that it was a military strategy,” Davis said. “We often act as if the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves, but it was only slaves in states that had seceded from the union.”
Following her remarks, many in the audience questioned Davis on how to advocate for change in the areas of racial equality, capitalism, poverty, the prison industrial complex, gun control, torture, and more. While both the audience and Davis criticized President Obama’s inaction on these issues, she said the public should take the lead in demonstrating for the changes they want to see.
“What was most important about the election of Obama was the people. I’m totally opposed to many of the policies and Obama’s failure to act, but I still want to support him,” Davis said. “We need to organize the kinds of demonstrations that let him know that we do not agree with his failure to address issues of race.”
For her part, Davis continues to take part in demonstrations on the issues most important to her, particularly prison abolishment. Two days after her lecture at Pitt, on Jan. 26, her birthday, Davis was involved in protests at two of the largest women’s prisons in the country.