Yesterday’s (11 August 2020) announcement that US Senator Kamala Harris, former California Attorney General, would be Joe Biden’s running mate in November led many to label her the first black woman to run for the US vice presidency. But that’s not true. There have been a number of African-American presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the past.
One of the most famous is US communist and black liberation fighter, Angela Davis, who ran on the Communist Party ticket in 1980. Here we reproduce a short biography of her life and contribution to the struggle originally compiled for the YCL’s 2019 International Women’s Day Series.
Angela Yvonne Davis (1944) was born in the USA’s deep south in Birmingham, capital of Alabama. Davis experienced the racial prejudice so prevalent in US society from a young age. The neighbourhood in which her family lived was termed ‘Dynamite Hill’ because white supremacist vigilantes would regularly bomb homes to drive out black residents. Davis attended segregated elementary and middle schools.
From an early age Davis was exposed to Communist politics and ideas. Angela Davis’ mother, Sallye Bell Davis, was a national officer in the Communist influenced Southern Negro Youth Congress. She also attributes some of her political development to her time as a girl scout during which she marched against segregation in the streets of Birmingham. Through a quaker program she was able to attend an integrated school in the North where she joined a Communist youth organisation.
Davis attended University in Massachusetts where she continued her political activism, protesting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. She saved money to travel to the 8th World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki in 1962, hosted by the World Federation of Democratic Youth. On her return to the USA she was placed on a watch list and questioned by the FBI about her attendance at the Festival.
Through her studies at the University of Frankfurt Davis was able to travel to East Berlin and participated in May Day celebrations. She noted how the determination of the East German Government to expunge fascism from society contrasted with West Germany where ardent Nazis were readily ‘rehabilitated’. During this time the intense struggles of the Civil Rights movement in the USA were ongoing.
On her return to the USA she completed her studies and became a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Davis joined the ‘Che-Lumumba’ Club, an all-black branch of the Communist Party USA. Davis was by this time well known as a militant feminist and Communist with links to the Black Panther Party. At the urging of arch-right winger, Governor of California and future President of the USA, Ronald Reagan, UCLA fired Davis due to her membership of the CPUSA.
Davis was heavily involved in championing the cause of black prisoners in the 1960s and ’70s, Davis grew particularly attached to a young revolutionary, George Jackson, one of the so-called Soledad Brothers. Jackson’s brother Jonathan was among the four persons killed—including the trial judge—in an abortive escape from the Hall of Justice in Marin county, California. The US Government seized on the opportunity and arrested Davis on trumped up charges of complicity in the alleged crimes. Knowing the nature of justice in the USA, Davis was forced to become a fugitive ending up on the FBI’s most wanted listed. Arrested in New York City in October 1970, she was returned to California to face charges of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. She was eventually acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.
Whilst she was behind bars a nation-wide campaign to ‘Free Angela Davis!’ developed across the USA winning support from a broad spectrum of society from civil rights activists, unions, farmers and church groups. But support and solidarity was also forthcoming from much further afield. Throughout her time in prison the socialist countries and particularly Cuba and the Soviet Union actively campaigned for her release. After she was freed she embarked on visits of the USSR, East Germany and Cuba. So enthusiastic was the greeting that she received in Cuba, Davis, a seasoned firebrand, was almost unable to address the crowd who came to hear her.
Davis remained an avowed Communist and defender of the socialist countries throughout, attracting bitter attacks from the US state and bourgeois intelligentsia. She ran for US Vice President on the Communist Party ticket in 1980. Davis later became a professor in the History of Consciousness at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1991 and has enjoyed a distinguished academic career since.
Although Angela Davis left the CPUSA in 1991 in the tumultuous period for the world Communist movement following the destruction of the Soviet Union, she remains “a lifelong Communist”. She retains a relationship with the Party and was a founder of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism which includes CPUSA members.
Today Angela Davis continues tireless activism speaking at many international events and campaigning in the USA on a broad range of issues including the prison industrial complex, women’s liberation and peace.
Angela Davis’ experience demonstrates the lengths the capitalist state is prepared to go to crush and discredit socialists fighting for progressive change. But her life is also a testament to the fact that even the daunting power of the brutal and racist US government can be overcome by a life long dedication to the class struggle and solidarity from the peoples of the world.
The inseparability of the fight for socialism, women’s liberation and racial equality is key to Angela Davis’ outlook. She has become living proof of this fact in her life and in her own struggles.
Challenge Editorial Team