The Early Activism of Angela Davis

Angela Davis at Juneteenth protest in Oakland, June 20, 2020 (Flickr)

On October 13, 1970, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Angela Davis in New York facing indictments for kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. These charges were connected to the August 7, 1970, Marin County Courthouse shootout where Jonathan Jackson, who was Davis’s bodyguard and younger brother of imprisoned intellectual George Jackson, engaged in a shootout with law enforcement with weapons that were registered to Davis. Davis’s arrest galvanized a diverse group of people in the United States and internationally who saw her prosecution as a miscarriage of justice and evidence of how the powerful organized the American legal system to support the exploitation of Black, brown, and working-class people. It also subsequently inspired a massive campaign to “Free Angela Davis.” While Davis’s imprisonment and the campaign waged for her freedom has garnered popular and scholarly attention, her prior activism has been largely disregarded. Davis’s early life activism reveals the links between her and a past generation of Black radicals who inspired her desegregation, anti-police violence, Black economic uplift, and prison organizing activism and demonstrates the significance of intergenerational organizing.

Davis’s mother Sallye B. Davis and Birmingham’s Black community shaped Davis’s activist beginnings.  Sallye B. Davis organized with the Birmingham’s Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), a left-leaning youth group affiliated with the Communist Party. SNYC organized for civil rights, against police violence, for Black economic justice, and the wrongful imprisonment of Black women. Organizing with SYNC placed Sallye B. within a network of prominent Black radicals such as Ester Cooper and James Jackson, Louise Thompson and William L. Patterson, and Dorothy and Louis Burnham. Likely due to the influence of Sallye B. and her friends, as a child Angela Davis began challenging class exploitation and racial segregation in Birmingham. While she attended the segregated Carrie A. Tuggle Elementary School, she noticed that some of her classmates could not afford to eat lunch. In a small act of rebellion, she stole money from her father and distributed it to those students. Davis recalled that this experience was her first education about class differences within the Black community. She also found ways to challenge segregation. In solidarity with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, “on a few occasions” she and a group of students “spontaneously decided” to sit down in the white-only section in the front of a Birmingham bus, until the white bus driver forced them to the back. A year later in 1956 when Davis was 12, she continued to challenge racial segregation by organizing an interracial study group, which she recalled was “busted up by the police.”1 Davis credited her mother with much of her activism: “My mother had been active in left causes for many years, and she would always, when I was growing up, tell me that I should dare to be different…that I should not be afraid to stand up for what I believed.” During her childhood, Davis’s modeled herself after her mother and an older generation of Black activists. She would continue to draw on the activism and politics of her mother’s generation as she faced her own political challenges.

Moving to New York further shaped Davis’s activism as she became friends with the children of her mother’s radical friends. At the age of 15 in 1959, the American Friends Service Committee awarded Davis a scholarship to attend Elisabeth Irwin High School. Bettina Aptheker, daughter of Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, invited Davis to join Advance, a multiracial Communist-affiliated youth group. Among the groups members included children of her mother’s Black radical friends such as Margaret and Linda Burnham, Harriet and Kathy Jackson, and Marylouise Patterson.2 Davis participated in Advance’s anti-war and civil rights demonstrations. In 1960, she recalled picketing the Woolworth’s store on Forty-Second Street in solidarity the sit-ins that were happening in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the rest of the South. Davis found her activist home in a communist-affiliated youth organization just like her mother and other Black activists in Birmingham did over a decade earlier.

In early 1968 Davis joined the Black Panther Political Party (BPPP) which eventually was renamed the Los Angeles Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (L.A. SNCC). She led the group’s liberation school, organized a bail campaign for political prisoners, and galvanized community support around the police killing of an unarmed Black man named Gregory Clark. After the organization began embracing a strict adherence to Black nationalism, Davis left L.A. SNCC. Like her mother, Davis strongly believed in multiracial organizing, which was something she stressed in a letter her parents around the mid-1960s, stating that she was organizing to “improve the condition, not only of black people—but of all people.”3 These youth activist experiences reflect how Sallye B. and a community of Black activist shaped Davis’s own challenges to her generation’s issues of racism, capitalism, and state-sanctioned violence.

Davis’s organizing in the Che-Lumumba Club and with the Soledad Defense Committee further illustrates how Davis learned from her mother’s generation and came to organize alongside them. In July 1968, Davis found her political home in the Che-Lumumba Club, which resembled the SNYC that her mother had joined decades earlier. The Che-Lumumba Club was an all-Black arm of the Los Angles Communist Party. The first chair of the Che-Lumumba Club was Charlene Mitchell, a long-time organizer who was a Communist Party official. Charlene Mitchell had participated in the defense efforts for the Scottsboro Boys decades earlier and was instrumental in developing a prisoner defense campaign strategy as a central organizing tool in the Club’s activism. Mitchell was also a key person who convinced Davis to join the Che-Lumumba Club. Davis would later state that Mitchell offered the “most lucid analysis I had encountered of the way to organize people around their own daily problems….” Drawing from the organizing experience of Mitchell, Davis became a lead organizer with the Soledad Defense Committee, which fought to defend the Soledad Brothers (George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo) from the alleged charges of murdering a prison guard at Soledad Prison. Like her mother and SYNC activist years earlier, Davis’s membership in the Che-Lumumba Club and Soledad Defense Committee signaled her commitment to fighting for economic justice, challenging state violence, and organizing within a community of elders. These forms of community organizing would directly influence Davis’s later prison activism and ideas about carceral state abolition.

Davis’s record of activism before she became internationally known highlights the links between her and past generation of activist and how they shaped her own political trajectory and maturation. As a young activist who was inspired by Davis’s activism and ideas, I wrongly believed that young people like her and others involved in the Black Power Movement wholeheartedly rejected the ideas and activism of their elders who they saw out of touch. Likewise, I initially disregarded the role of elders in movements, wearing shirts stating that, “This Ain’t Yo Mama’s  Civil Rights Movement.” However, learning from movement veterans has enriched both my sense of place within a long trajectory of movement organizing as well as shaped my ideas on where we go from here. Indeed, today’s activist continue to learn from the social movement wisdom of older generations like Davis as her presence in the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests attests to. The early activism of Angela Davis powerfully illustrates the power in intergenerational movement building and organizing.

  1. “The Path of Angela Davis: From Promising Childhood to Desperate Flight,” Life, September 11, 1970, Vol. 69, No. 11, Box 49, Folder 6, Jessica Mitford Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, 23.
  2. Margaret and Linda Burnham were daughters of Louis and Dorothy Burnham. Harriet and Kathy Jackson were daughters of Esther and James Jackson. Marylouise Patterson was the daughter of Louise Thompson and William L. Patterson.
  3. Letter from Angela Davis to parents, ca.1966. MC 940, folder 13.3. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
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Joshua L. Crutchfield

Joshua L. Crutchfield is a scholar of Black freedom movements, Black intellectual history, African American women's history, and abolition studies. He is a PhD candidate at the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin where he’s completing his dissertation project titled, “Imprisoned Black Women Intellectuals: Mae Mallory, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Safiya Bukhari and the Black Power Seeds of Abolition, 1955-1980.” Crutchfield is managing editor of the award-winning blog Black Perspectives. You can follow him at @Crutch4.