Davis was a thorn in the government’s side as a political activist and scholar, who rose to become a civil rights icon, challenging what America understood about race, gender roles and the prison system.
A product of the South, Davis was born in 1944 in segregated Birmingham, Ala., to a father who owned a service station, and a mother who was an elementary school teacher and an active member of the NAACP.
The family lived in a comfortable, middle-class black neighborhood that happened to be called “Dynamite Hill,” because of all the Ku Klux Klan bombings that occurred there.
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In fact, it was one bombing — the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that left four little black girls dead — that set her political activism wheels in motion. Not long after the tragedy, Davis joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and then the Black Panther Party, before becoming a member of the American Communist Party.
And thus the trouble began as Davis’ Communist ties led to her dismissal from her teaching position at UCLA.
She picked up another cause and took an interest in those caught up in the American prison system. Specifically, the Soledad Brothers.
Davis became a strong supporter of the three African-American Soledad Prison inmates — John W. Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Jackson. The Soledad Brothers were accused of killing a white prison guard in a 1970 prison riot at the Soledad Prison in California that also left three African-American inmates dead.
On Aug. 7, 1970, George Jackson’s 17-year-old brother Jonathan burst into a California courtroom and abducted a judge, a prosecutor and three jurors, in an attempt to free his brother George and two inmates from prison. Jonathan Jackson, who was killed in a shootout, along with Judge Harold Haley, had hoped to exchange the hostages for his brother George.
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Davis, who had purchased Jonathan Jackson’s gun two days earlier, was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder although she was not present.
She went into hiding for two months, earning her place on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. She was captured and arrested on Oct. 13, in New York City, where she faced kidnapping and murder charges. In congratulating the FBI, Nixon praised their "capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis."
During trial, legal experts said the prosecution put together a weak case and Davis was being used to make an example and strike fear into the heart of militants.
An all-white jury found her not guilty on all of the charges.
“(Prison) relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society,” Davis said after her acquittal, “especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”
Davis celebrated her 74th birthday in late January, and while she may have traded in her trademark Afro for a crown of softer blondish-brown curls, make no mistake the civil rights activist still holds her own.
She is the author of several books, including an autobiography, and pieces touching on women, race and the government. After Donald Trump’s inauguration as president last year, Davis was a featured speaker at the Women’s March on Washington with a message of resistance.
“We dedicate ourselves to collective resistance,” Davis said. “Resistance to the billionaire mortgage profiteers and gentrifiers. Resistance to the health care privateers. Resistance to the attacks on Muslims and on immigrants. Resistance to attacks on disabled people. Resistance to state violence perpetrated by the police and through the prison industrial complex. Resistance to institutional and intimate gender violence, especially against transwomen of color.”
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.