28. July 2017

How the intellectual and activist Angela Davis became an icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, and simultaneously one of the most-wanted criminals.

By Tamara Marszalkowski

The little pink pig which bears the name “Powur” thrusts a needle labeled “Freedum” into her neck. Her neck is twisted like a corkscrew, her body penetrated by crosses, while the eyes of the black woman are distorted by pain, her mouth wide open, and her face is framed by a bluey-black cloud of frizzy hair: the “Natural” – her trademark, which made her an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Realside Productions, A film by Shola Lynch

Angela Davis repeatedly concerned herself with artist Peter Saul. It was the time of racial unrest; in the early 1960s the United States was a country that practiced apartheid. Thanks to the so-called “Jim Crow Laws” there was strict racial segregation. The most important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were murdered. Black Power and black nationalism were expressed in a violent form only in the Black Panther Party. 

Shooting in the court room 

Angela Davis begins her own biography by explaining that she was obliged to replace her iconic hairstyle with a wig. She went underground, and was on the run from the FBI, because suddenly she was one of the most-wanted criminals in the United States. Yet in 1969 she was still working as a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Princeton and Swarthmore had also tried to secure her. But at the time Davis was already known as a radical feminist and activist. Her contract with the university was cancelled in 1970 when it emerged she was a member of the Communist Party in the United States and that she was also briefly a member of the Black Panther group.

Peter Saul, San Quentin 1 (Angela Davis in San Quentin), 1971

When in 1970 there was a shooting incident in a courtroom Davis was accused of having procured the weapon, since it had been bought in her name. During the incident in August the 17-year old Jonathan Jackson tried to free his brother George and two co-defendants. A judge and three members of the jury were taken as hostages; three people were killed in front of the court during the escape. Afterwards, George Jackson and the other two men were taken to the high-security wing of San Quentin State Prison. Jackson spent 23 hours a day there in solitary confinement. He studied economics and wrote two books that became international bestsellers. 

Acquitted on all counts

Davis was placed on the list of dangerous criminals by the notorious Communist basher and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and arrested a few weeks later. Before her arrest she had lain low with friends and only gone only at night, but the FBI finally tracked her down in New York City. As she was accused of “supporting terrorism” she was under threat of the death penalty. She protested her innocence. Her arrest triggered a wave of public protest around the world. For example, thousands of people from the GDR sent her postcards with roses under the motto “A million roses for Angela Davis”. Davis was in prison for two years. And at the age of 28 she wrote her autobiography in prison. In 1972, she was found not guilty on all counts.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Realside Productions, A film by Shola Lynch

To mark the decisive court session a congress was hosted in Frankfurt/Main “The case of Angela Davis”, which explored the relationship of the political Left to power. And that is not the only connection Angela Davis has to Frankfurt. After graduating from Brandeis University in Massachusetts with magna cum laude, she came to Frankfurt through her mentor Herbert Marcuse (of German origin) in 1965 to study Philosophy and Sociology under Adorno and Horkheimer. Here she joined the Socialist German Students Union and took part in the protests against the Vietnam War. 

FBI Most Wanted 

In 2013, Davis returned to Frankfurt. For two weeks she held a guest professorship which bore her name at Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Subsequently a professorship was created to be awarded annually by the “Cornelia Goethe Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. In 2012, filmmaker Shola Lynch made a documentary film about Davis’ story. “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” is a chronicle about the young college professor, and shows how her social activism led to her landing on the FBI’s most wanted list. During the Peter Saul exhibition, the SCHIRN is showing the film on 17 August in the open-air cinema. There is free admission for those with a valid Peter Saul ticket.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Realside Productions, A film by Shola Lynch