Fifty-one years ago, on Aug. 7, 1970, a summer day like today, a shooting took place at a courthouse in Marin County, California. The incident put Angela Davis behind bars. Everyone in our country knows this name.
Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. As a child, she attended Sunday school at a Baptist church and was a Girl Scout. She graduated from the Little Red School House high school in Manhattan, where Robert De Niro was also a student. In high school, Davis joined the Young Communist League. Davis enrolled at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, after graduation, where only three other girls enrolled with her. It wasn’t easy for an African American to get a college education in the 1960s.
In October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Davis attended a student anti-war protest. It was here that 18-year-old Davis first heard Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse speak. The encounter was fateful, as Marcuse became her mentor. “Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic and an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary,” Davis would say in an interview many years later.
In her sophomore year, Davis decided to study French and went to France. She read Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud in their native language. She was interested in the books of Albert Camus and the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre. She took her junior year abroad in France through Hamilton College, lived with a French family on Rue Duret in Paris, and attended classes at the Sorbonne. She has spoken fluent French ever since. In France, Davis realized that her true vocation was Marxist philosophy. Back in the U.S., she enrolled in Marcuse’s philosophy course at Brandeis.
After graduating with honors, Davis spent the next two years in Germany. Her interest in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and Karl Marx led her to Goethe University in Frankfurt, where she attended lectures by Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas. Davis later returned to the States and accepted an invitation from Marcuse to enroll in graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, where she earned a master’s degree in philosophy in 1968. At the same time, she earned a doctorate in philosophy at Humboldt University in what was East Berlin.
In 1969, Davis began teaching as a philosophy professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, but did not stay for long. Her membership in the American Communist Party and her political activism led to her dismissal in 1970.
California Gov. Ronald Reagan strongly insisted on her ouster. As a political activist and feminist, Davis opposed the Vietnam War and was a member of the Black Panther Party, whose members were fighting on behalf of Black people. In those years, this left-wing organization filled the role that the Black Lives Matter movement occupies today.
This is where the main story begins — namely, the story of her arrest. Everyone remembers how Davis became a political martyr in the Soviet Union. She was simply necessary for the Soviet establishment to produce the same level of political propaganda as the United States.
This was especially true because it was not only Davis’s Communist Party comrades who opposed the administration of Richard Nixon, but all kinds of forces in the United States and abroad, who perceived Davis’ arrest as being politically motivated. As we know, John Lennon wrote the song “Angela” about her, a song that begins with the words, “Angela, they put you in prison, they shot down your man, you’re one of the millions of political prisoners in the world.”
Her actions had political overtones, of course, but, let’s face it, it wasn’t her human rights work that sent Davis to prison — it was love. Davis’ boyfriend, Black Panther activist George Jackson, was serving time at San Quentin. Somehow, Davis became involved in the attempt to free him. On Aug. 7, 1970, George’s younger brother, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, entered the courthouse in Marin County heavily armed. He freed three Black prisoners and took the judge hostage. The police opened fire, killing the judge, Jackson, and two people he was trying to free. The registered owner of Jackson’s gun was Davis.
Davis hid from police for two months. Her name was on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list, and on Oct. 13, 1970, Davis was finally arrested by the FBI at a hotel in New York City. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle published the day after the arrest reported that Davis had purchased and registered the sawed-off shotgun, carbine and two pistols used in the shooting. This information had little effect on public opinion about Davis. The activist’s arrest set off a wave of social unrest. On Oct. 26, 1970, Newsweek published a cover photo of Davis in handcuffs, headlined, “Angela Davis Black Revolutionary.” American rhythm and blues star Aretha Franklin offered to pay Davis’ bail; her associates in the American Communist Party were not far behind, writing in their underground newspapers about the Black woman’s struggle for freedom from American imperialism. The People’s Tribune of the California Communist League newspaper wrote, “Free Angela Davis! Free the Negro Nation!” No translation was necessary. The Soviet press joined the media frenzy. Rallies were held, and signatures were collected in support of Davis.
The struggle for Davis’ release took the form of a powerful civil movement around the world. It is the moment when Lennon wrote “Angela.” Numerous human rights committees in the U.S. and abroad raised such a media frenzy that the California justice system had no choice but to back down. Davis spent one year and four months in prison. On Feb. 23, 1972, it was not the singer Franklin but a dairy farmer from Fresno who posted $100,000 bail for Davis. On June 4, 1972, Davis was tried in Santa Clara County, California, and was acquitted by an all-white jury after 13 hours of deliberation. Jackson, Davis’ lover and the reason for all the trouble, had tried to escape from prison two weeks after his brother’s unsuccessful attempt to free him. On Aug. 21, 1970, he was shot and killed in the courtyard of San Quentin State Prison. In 1971, a year before Lennon and “Angela,” Bob Dylan wrote a song about Jackson.
While still in prison, Davis began to write in the good old communist tradition. In 1974, her autobiography was published in English. In 1978, the autobiography, translated into Russian, was published in the Soviet Union. In 1981, a book by Davis entitled “Women, Race & Class” was published in the United States; in 1987, it was translated into Russian and published in the Soviet Union. I found this book in the private library of my father, a university professor of humanities. It is how I began to understand the history of American feminism. A foreword to Davis’ book was written by Yasesn Nikolaevich Zasursky, the legendary dean of the journalism faculty at Moscow State University. Zasursky writes about meeting Davis at the University of California in Berkeley, and describes how Davis told him the book was literally an imprint of her suffering. Zasursky passed away a week ago, on Aug. 1, 2021. He was 91 years old.
“Women, Race & Class” is a book about the women’s rights movement. In it, Davis rebels against the fact that the women’s rights movement is led by white, middle-class women. The most important subject Davis addresses is the forced sterilization program for women in the United States. Davis describes the historical reasons for the introduction of this program, which was fueled by a variety of sources, including Franklin Roosevelt’s initiatives to preserve racial purity and Margaret Sanger’s work to organize the American Birth Control League, an amazing fusion of eugenics and feminist ideas in the first third of the 20th century. By the early 1930s, more than half the states had passed mandatory sterilization laws. The extent of sterilization among African Americans in the 1970s was such that 20% of all unmarried Black women permanently lost any chance of having children. Davis describes the legal trap that victimized many African American women in the program. In 1977, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, ending federal funding for abortion. As a result, many poor Black women, along with Puerto Rican, Mexican and Native American women, were denied the right to legal abortion. Government funded sterilization was their only choice.
Today, President Joe Biden is trying to repeal the Hyde Amendment and design an abortion fee structure similar to the one that exists today in Russia. In November 2020, the Russian Ministry of Health declined to support an initiative to remove abortions from the Compulsory Medical Insurance System. That is why the state still pays for abortions in Russia.
I think the Hyde Amendment is necessary for modern Russia. A woman who decides to kill her unborn fetus should not have the state and its medicine involved in this arbitrary act. Abortion is an individual choice, made by someone who is willing to suffer spiritual harm. So in a metaphysical sense, abortion will never be free. To make abortion free is to use money to cover up the problem, to multiply the immorality of the procedure itself.
One should be grateful to the Soviet ideological propaganda system, which has given us this book. It has much revolutionary pathos, but it was written by a woman with a great philosophical background. I respect Davis as a writer and philosopher. Her book allows you to feel her cultural roots. Its philosophical background sets it apart from many of the books on feminism today.
Davis visited the Soviet Union more than once. She met with Leonid Brezhnev, and was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize and Star of Peoples’ Friendship. In an interview with Soviet television in 1979, Davis discussed the women’s agenda in our country, saying that the Soviet Union was in the vanguard of the women’s movement. Such politically correct language was nothing more than a tribute to her politesse; the Soviet Union was the world leader in the number of abortions back then.
Davis ran for vice president in 1980 and 1984. She ran against the death penalty, and in 1997, at the age of 53, Davis came out as gay. In 2012, she announced that she was vegan. The documentary “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners” was released the same year. On Jan. 17, 2017, Davis had the honor of presiding over the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. She was joined by well-known human rights activists Gloria Steinem, Harry Belafonte and Dolores Huerta, who, incidentally, came up with the slogan “Yes, we can,” that Barack Obama used in his presidential campaign to win the election in 2008. In 2020, Time magazine named Davis as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.