On Feb. 6, the students of AAAS 130b: Black Brandeis, Black History organized a lecture about the legacy of Angela Davis ’65, a feminist political activist, philosopher and academic who currently teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The course, taught by Prof. Chad Williams (AAAS), explores the history of African Americans and other people of African descent at Brandeis from 1948 to present.

Prof. Williams reflected on the importance of speaking about activists like Davis. He emphasized the significance of discussions about free speech on Brandeis’ campus in light of the protests against the war in Gaza last semester that ended in seven arrests: “Brandeis likes to tell stories about itself. Brandeis tells very interesting stories about itself, particularly at this 75th anniversary moment, particularly at this time of questioning freedom of speech, freedom of expression. Brandeis has told very interesting stories about its history, about its identity. Who matters at Brandeis?”

Williams continued, “When we think about Brandeis identity, I would argue, no one embodies Brandeis identity, and what Brandeis should stand for more than Angela Davis.” Students in the course shared an encompassing lecture of Davis’ early life, experiences at Brandeis, activism, controversies and scholarship. 

Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis experienced racial tensions throughout her early childhood, especially considering that she belonged to the only Black family in an all-white neighborhood that came to be known as “Dynamite Hill” after frequent Ku Klux Klan bombings. 

Attending a predominantly Jewish high school in New York was a transformative moment for Davis and inspired her decision to attend Brandeis. Davis also wanted to attend a co-ed institution of higher education and received a full scholarship to attend the University.

One of only three Black girls in her class, Davis felt isolated at Brandeis but ultimately found friendships amongst international students who were experiencing a culture shock similar to Davis, who had moved from the South to the North. 

In her autobiography, Davis describes her alienation at Brandeis: “There were no roads leading outside.” She also explains the intense emotions the alienation caused: “I felt alienated, angry and alone, and I would have left the campus if I had the courage and had known where to go.” 

However, Davis also had “remarkable experiences on campus that were very transformative in terms of her political consciousness as well as her racial consciousness,” Prof. Williams explained. From 1962 to 1963, many significant civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Malcolm X visited campus, inspiring Davis to become involved in Black communities in Boston.

Brandeis is also where Davis met Herbert Marcuse, a German-American professor at Brandeis known for his radical philosophical contributions and associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. His tenure at Brandeis was characterized by the Cold War, and his critical theory contributions influenced students and faculty alike. Marcuse became Davis’ mentor and inspired her to study philosophy in Germany with Theodore Adorno and some of his other colleagues for two years.

Upon her return to America, she continued to work with Marcuse at University of California, San Diego, where he taught her that she could be an activist and a scholar simultaneously. She lived in southern California at the height of the Black Power Movement and made many connections to Black activists in Los Angeles, leading to her first teaching position at University of California, Los Angeles during the era of McCarthyism. 

Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, did not approve of Davis being a professor at UCLA because she was publicly known as a communist, which went against a clause in her contract. The Board of Trustees dismissed her, and Davis sued, thrusting her into the national spotlight over free speech debates. The court sided with Davis — although she would later be fired for her language.

During her time in California, Davis also joined the Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. She focused on political and electoral issues as well as organized the education program.

Around the same time that she lost her job, Davis became involved in fighting for justice for George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette — popularly known as the Soledad Brothers — who were three inmates at Soledad prison falsely accused with the murder of a prison guard in 1970. Davis was especially close to Jackson.

Davis was linked to purchasing a firearm for George’s brother, Jonathan Jackson, who was shot by the police when he stormed into a courthouse and took several hostages to barter for his brother’s release. 

The Soledad Brothers were transferred to San Quentin and attempted to escape with three other inmates, earning them the name the San Quentin Six. During the escape attempt, a prison guard shot George Jackson, who passed away. The remaining Soledad brothers were found to be innocent and released, although Clutchette was later assassinated.

“Angela Davis finds herself caught in this remarkable web of violence and liberation,” Prof. Williams said. 

When Marin County authorities confiscated a .380 automatic registered in her name, Davis was called in for questioning and arrested. The firearm was implicated in the killing of a judge during the hostage situation led by Jonathon Jackson and other convicts. The gun was in Jackson’s possession at the time of the killing; however, he was not responsible for the judge’s death.

Four days after Davis’ arrest, she was put on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Most Wanted” list — the third woman to make the list — and the Attorney General called for the death penalty. 

Davis was held in the Women’s Detention Center, initially in solitary confinement. The National Conference for Black Lawyers helped organize the legal team for her trial and obtained a court order to be released from the segregated area.

During her trial, a report revealed that the judge was actually killed by San Quentin guards, and Davis was acquitted a year later. 

“I wanted to participate in my own defense. It was my life. I felt like I understood the politics of it better than anyone else, so I need to be part of the team,” Davis later said about her trial.

A campaign of communist parties around the world advocated for her freedom.

Following her release, Davis became active in the prison reform movement, writing about the horrors she endured in prison in her autobiography. She also became a professor at San Francisco State in the Ethnic Studies Department, the first in the country. 

Prof. Williams and his students explored the concept of Angela Davis as an icon — and the inspiring and problematic connotations that come with that label. They discussed her afro hairstyle, which represented her autonomy over her own body and how she rejected white beauty standards. 

“While the commercialization of her likeness is a little problematic because it intersects with the same capitalist framework she critiques, it also serves to amplify her message across the globe. So I believe it’s more important to focus on the empowerment and awareness of her figure brought to political activism,” one student expressed.

The students also emphasized that Davis is a multifaceted activist, working with multiple human rights movements instead of fixating on one cause or party. Her articles and books demonstrate her intersectional approach to activism. Some of her more renowned works that the AAAS 130b students explored include “The Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” “Women, Race, and Class,” “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” “Are Prisons Obsolete?” and “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.” 

The students discussed Davis’ pro-Palestine activism and her emphasis on the intersections between the Black Lives Matter movement and Freedom for Palestine movement. “I’ve often pointed out that I first learned about Palestine when I was a student here at Brandeis,” Davis said during her keynote speech at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the AAAS Department. “I simultaneously learned about how important it is to challenge anti-semitism and to speak courageously against the continued perpetuation of anti-semitic ideas and practices and at the same time speak out for justice for Palestine.”

The teach-in concluded with a Q&A from the audience, in which students discussed how Brandeis contributes to the commodification of Davis’ legacy. They pointed out that Davis was omitted from the 75th anniversary speeches, yet she remains a top alumni on the University’s website. Students also expressed disdain that her autobiography is in the library but not on display for students to read. They shared that they related to her book and saw themselves in her writing as students of color. “What we do here as Black students matters,” one student said.