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Free Angela 

Sweet Black Angel speaks truth to power

Angela Davis, the black radical activist, scholar and former member of the Communist Party, exhorted her audience to live the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last Tuesday, during her speech at Johnson C. Smith University.

Appearing at the university's Brayboy Gymnasium as part of their annual Lyceum Series, Davis, one the 1970s' most enduring icons of radical chic, spoke truth to power for the predominantly black and young audience assembled there. Even more effective than her beautifully restored, leonine Afro were Davis' intelligent discourse on the aftereffects of the South's "peculiar institution" on present day racism and fleet-footed thinking aloud on a range of subjects including her long-ago imprisonment and the December execution of LA ganglord Stanley "Tookie" Williams at San Quentin. Visiting Charlotte with words of wisdom as she did, it was significant and timely that Ms. Davis should enlighten local minds during the intercession between Dr. King's national holiday and the onset of Black History Month. As someone born during Davis' trial and the height of "Free Angela!" fervor, it is difficult for me not to bask in the revolutionary glow the woman's very name inspires.

What separates Ms. Davis from the bespoke "Free Angela" poster that adorned the wall of my childhood bedroom -- as well as from the aging pack of 1960s radical has-beens -- is that she insists upon living and acting in the present. Due to a lack of introduction at Brayboy, Davis was forced to briefly account for the back story behind her notoriety -- a timeworn narrative of her frustrated youth in Jim Crow Birmingham, AL; her downsizing from UCLA by then-governor of California Ronald Reagan due to her Communist party membership; and the trumped-up 1970 charges of conspiracy, kidnapping and homicide that made Davis a key enemy of the nation.

Many erstwhile black nationalists and firebrands from New Left activist circles have long been silenced or rendered irrelevant by political repression and personal corruption. Davis, reinstated to the UC system since the 1990s (at Santa Cruz' History of Consciousness doctoral program), displayed no loss of clarity about the American scene or failure of nerve during her speech. Davis' dialogue ably took in the grim Abu Ghraib-to-Katrina zeitgeist; horrific costs resulting from the persistence of the death penalty; the way "domestic enemies" are invented amongst the country's poor and immigrant populations to reflect terrorist foes abroad; and the recent remarks of former Vice President Al Gore about Bush's criminal wire-tapping of alleged dissidents.

Amongst the most important information imparted to a rising generation of new Southerners was Davis' perspective on the Civil Rights Movement as "the second American Revolution." Of course, she didn't shy away from probing the ways the Movement provoked hostility in the South and especially in North Carolina. She was clearly disturbed by how right-wingers are now so comfortable in their celebration of Dr. King and civil rights, while their government is daily committing human rights abuses across the globe.

One reason Davis' intent to delve into pressing issues of global human rights, the failures of President Bush, and other topics that would likely have preoccupied Dr. King today was impeded: The majority of the audience had never heard of Jo Ann Robinson. Doubtless because of the presence of many black undergraduates, Davis felt the need to illuminate the forgotten and obscured feminine face of the Civil Rights Movement. Jo Ann Robinson was the true catalyst for the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott, as her 1990 memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, makes plain. Although no skilled orator or leader, Robinson was an Alabama State teacher who submitted a letter to the Mayor of Montgomery after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, threatening a boycott. Robinson then reached out to young pastor King. For her pains, Robinson was ultimately fired from Alabama State, forced to relocate to Los Angeles, and has had her prime contributions to the movement obscured in favor of the deification of King and his counterparts.

One would hope that had Dr. King lived, his record on feminism would be more or less unimpeachable. Regardless, it's high time that the erasure by historians and the media of narratives about the common folk who lived and worked in struggle prior to the early 1970s cease altogether. This was Davis' overarching message -- that history is not made by a parade of heroic (male) figures but by regular people who do the yeoman's share of the work in liberation struggle.

Davis' hope that all people committed to American revolution think of themselves as agents of change within the contemporary framework shows admirable belief in the spirit of a nation that is daily allowing government to sell their rights down the river of no return.

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