Activist, author, and former Black Panther Angela Davis gently challenged students to find causes they are passionate about and to become “disturbers of the peace” during her keynote speech for Emerson College’s African American History Month celebration on February 16.
“Black history is about a struggle for freedom in which many of the most important contributions came from people whose names we do not know today,” she said.
She linked all causes, from prison reform to environment protection, with the struggle for freedom, repeating Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sentiment that “justice is indivisible.”
From recalling her time on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list in the early 1970s to describing her current drive to have all prisons abolished, Davis’s nearly 80-minute discussion of social justice at Emerson’s Semel Theater ranged widely from the far distant past of slavery to current issues of factory farming.
When asked if she contributed to Black history, Davis appeared uncomfortable, yet acknowledged that a worldwide drive to raise awareness of her imprisonment in California had mobilized a generation interested in social justice. She was charged with three capital crimes, each potentially punishable by the death penalty, in conjunction with the abduction and murder of a judge, because she had purchased weapons used in the crime. She was found not guilty in 1972. Songs were written about her case, including by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and the Rolling Stones.
“Think about it, Ronald Reagan was governor and Richard Nixon was President,” she said. “Nobody imagined it was possible to challenge the powers that be in that way. I tell this story because it can inspire us to create these kinds of communities of resistance today.”
Among her primary causes is the abolition of prisons, detailed in her 2003 book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” She said that redirecting public money to education and services will negate the need for prisons.
A longtime communist, she spoke against the privatization of many components of the economy and government, including the military, food production, education, healthcare, and prisons, all for the financial benefit of a few.
“Nobody imagined it was possible to challenge the powers that be in that way. I tell this story because it can inspire us to create these kinds of communities of resistance today.”
When a student asked about the connection between social injustice and the maltreatment of animals and the environment, Davis was at her most passionate. “It makes no sense to struggle against racism only to see the planetary world collapse,” she said. “We have to begin to talk about animal rights, to think about injustices done to the environment, and the way that is exacerbated by poverty and racism. We need to incorporate food into our quest for social justice.”
She called upon students to recognize the interconnectedness of issues and mobilize against injustice in its many forms.
Davis’s lecture was sponsored by Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests (E.B.O.N.I.), the Student Government Association, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Dean of Students, and the Office of Student Life.