Social justice activist and political scholar Angela Davis received a standing ovation before she even reached the podium as she walked onto the stage at Emerson College’s Cutler Majestic Theater on September 21. She received two more before the conclusion of her keynote speaking event.
Davis spoke about activism, popular music, and culture, as part of an event co-hosted by Emerson and Berklee College of Music and inspired by students’ protests last year against racism on college campuses. The day before, Berklee honored Davis at the Black Lives Matter: Meaning of Freedom concert at the Berklee Performing Arts Center.
“Struggles for justice inspire new music, and music inspires struggles for justice,” the activist, educator, and author said to a packed room.
Today, Davis is a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz. But 46 years ago, at the height of the Black Panther movement, she became the third woman to be named to the FBI’s most-wanted list on false charges of murder and kidnapping. She was later acquitted, following international outcry demanding her release.
“To be human is to collectively struggle to be free,” Davis said at the Cutler Majestic Theater event.
Davis paid homage to the young men whose deaths have become central initiators of the Black Lives Matter movement, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and brought the conversation full circle to discuss the shooting this summer of a black man by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Davis emphasized the connections between movements like anti-racism, feminism, and environmentalism, and her push to dismantle the United States’ prison industrial complex through her organization Critical Resistance.
“Prisons are gendering apparatuses,” she said. “To abolish prisons is to abolish the policing of gender.”
Sheba Wood ’17 noted the importance of talks like Davis’ on college campuses, especially at institutions like Emerson, where diversity and inclusion are priorities. She explained that when faced with deep political or ideological divisions, acceptance of “all points of view” enables bigotry.
“I can tell you that I have no time for racism, for sexism, for homophobia, and I think it’s about time we stop saying that that point of view is O.K. and start educating about why it is not, relentlessly,” Wood said.
In March, Davis told Democracy Now! that she would not be formally endorsing a presidential candidate because she feels the country needs a new party all together. Although she did not offer an endorsement in her speech, she did reflect on how the current election has impacted Black Lives Matter and other social movements.
“At the moment, we are experiencing the strike-back of those who call to ‘make America great again,’” she said, making reference to Republican Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. She told the crowd that activists have a responsibility to do “everything in their power” to keep him from being elected, even if they are not pleased with their alternative choice. “At the same time,” she advised, “we need to continue to build radical movements.”
Hundreds of students and community members gathered to hear Davis’ speech and ask questions. People waited for hours for the doors of the Cutler Majestic to open, and the line to get into the venue wrapped around the corner of Tremont Street and extended down Boylston Street, past Piano Row. The room was filled with activists and allies from a multitude of generations, who asked about everything from Nina Simone, to the Obamas, to Palestine.
Kiara Tiner, 24, traveled to Boston all the way from Denver, Colorado, to see Davis speak and share her own social media movement, #CallMeMissDavis — inspired by an upcoming biographical film about Davis — with her and the allies in the room.
“It’s life-changing just to be able to see her in person,” Tiner said. “Everything that comes out of her mouth is filled with so much wisdom. It hits you in such a smooth way. There’s only one Angela Davis.”
Wood shared similar thoughts following Davis’ talk.
“I know that Angela Davis has helped pave the way for me and other women of color to be active in education, in social justice, in life, and I needed to be with her spirit, because these are violent times, and it is so easy to lose hope and vision and purpose,” she said.