"Hell, Yes, We Are Subversive": The Legacy of Angela DavisHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Angela Davis, Communist Party, radical history, George Jackson
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern. She is the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. (September 2022)
Angela Davis: An Autobiography by Angela Y. Davis, Haymarket, 358 pp., $28.95
Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing, edited by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean, Verso, 323 pp., $29.95 (paper)
In 1969 a UCLA student who was also an undercover FBI agent revealed in the campus newspaper that the school’s philosophy department had recently hired a member of the Communist Party. A week later, the San Francisco Examiner reported that that person was a twenty-five-year-old professor named Angela Davis.
The University of California Board of Regents confronted Davis and asked if she was a Communist. Yes, she replied. “While I think this membership requires no justification,” she wrote the board, “I want you to know that as a black woman I feel an urgent need to find radical solutions to the problems of racial and national minorities in white capitalist United States.” The board fired her, putting her into the national spotlight over questions of academic freedom and the lingering effects of cold war anticommunism.
A judge disagreed with the board’s decision, finding that it had no right to terminate Davis because of her political affiliations. During the appeals process, she was permitted to teach (to glowing reviews). But some months later the board, led by then governor Ronald Reagan, fired Davis again. This time, they claimed her political speech was unbefitting a university professor, citing her statement, “Hell, yes, we are subversive…and we’re going to continue to be subversive until we have subverted the whole damn system of oppression.”
As Davis’s professorial fate wended its way through the courts, she grew involved in a campaign demanding justice for three prisoners known as the Soledad Brothers, who were accused of a retaliatory murder of a white prison guard. One of the brothers was the well-known writer and Black Panther George Jackson, with whom Davis would be romantically involved.
In August 1970, just a few months after Davis’s second firing, Jackson’s seventeen-year-old brother, Jonathan, held up a courthouse in Marin County. He interrupted the trial of a Black inmate, gave him a gun, and the two—alongside two other Black inmates, who had been in the courtroom to serve as witnesses—attempted to kidnap the judge, an assistant district attorney, and three members of the jury. Guards opened fire. Jonathan Jackson, the judge, and two of the inmates were killed. The district attorney was paralyzed for life.
The guns Jonathan Jackson used were registered to Davis. She had purchased them long before he stormed the courthouse, out of concern for her safety. Since the Examiner article, Davis had received daily death threats. Further, as a member of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles, she had seen the efforts of police to destroy the group. In December 1969 three hundred police used grenades and dynamite in a siege of the party’s LA headquarters. The following May, National Guard troops killed unarmed college students at Kent State in Ohio, and police killed student protesters at Jackson State College in Mississippi. The repression of the left, especially the Black radical left, was intensifying.
So when news of the courthouse shooting reached Davis, she calculated that it was best to go on the run.
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