Angela Davis speaks at UF on executions and political icons
Transcribed by Chris Zurheide.
February 2006

Angela Davis, scholar, activist/organizer, writer and professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, spoke in Gainesville January 15 at UF at the Black Graduate Student Organization's Martin Luther King Jr. banquet.

According to UF professor Amy Ongiri, who introduced her at the event, Davis's political activism began when she was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, and continued through her high school years in New York. In 1969 she came to national attention after being removed from her teaching position in the Philosophy Department at UCLA as a result of her social activism and her membership in the Communist Party, USA. In 1970, she was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List on false charges, and was the subject of an intense police search that drove her underground, and that culminated in one of the most famous trials in recent U.S. history. During her 16-month incarceration, a massive international "Free Angela Davis" campaign was organized, leading to her acquittal in 1972.

Davis' commitment to prisoners' rights dates back to her involvement in the campaign to free the Soledad Brothers, which led to her own arrest and imprisonment. She remains an advocate of prison abolition and has developed a powerful critique of racism in the criminal justice system. She is working on a comparative study of women's imprisonment in the U.S., the Netherlands, and Cuba, and she is a member of the Advisory Board of the Prison Activist Resource Center.

Davis is a tenured professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, despite the fact that former California Governor Ronald Reagan once vowed that Angela Davis would never again teach in the University of California system.

At UF, Davis spoke about the continuing U.S. execution of prisoners, a practice which puts us among just a few barbaric countries around the world. She also reflected on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s political legacy, and the making of political icons:

"Recently we were called upon to mourn the death of Rosa Parks, and we also witnessed her elevation to the status of a national hero. She was the 31st person in the history of this country who was honored by a viewing of her body in the Capitol Rotunda.

"I have to confess my deep ambivalence about this honor because of the official symbolic meaning of "Rosa Parks, national hero." Her story, it seems to me, as it became narrated by that final act, became the story of discrimination put to rest, of racism overcome, of democracy triumphant. But if we refer to her own narration of her life story, she always emphasized the ongoing part of the struggle. Democracy has not yet been achieved, and she certainly would not have been satisfied by the version of democracy that the US military is currently attempting to install in Iraq. But Rosa Parks always emphasized struggle and activism and ongoing challenges to racism.

"I'd also like to read her response to this very bizarre myth that emerged around her act of defiance, that she was a tired old seamstress. [Or] a tired old domestic worker, I think that's another version of the narrative. "People always say," she indicated herself, "that I didn't give up my seat 'because I was tired.' But that is not true. I was not tired physically, no more tired than I usually was at the end of the day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me being old then. I was 42. No," she said, "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

"Rosa Parks was an activist. Her decision was a conscious one. As a matter of fact, it was the organizing work of women like Rosa Parks and others, who are consistently excluded from the established historical record, that created the conditions for the emergence of the young Dr. Martin Luther King as a leader.

"Progressive change is not created by heroic individuals. In fact, their status as heroes both depends on, and at the same time erases, the contributions of those who are rendered anonymous by historians and the media.

"I want to talk for a moment about one person, one such anonymous person. One person who should not have been relegated to a status of anonymity, even by historians and the media. Her name is Jo Ann Robinson. Does that name sound familiar? A few said yes. More than anyone else, Jo Ann Robinson was behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. The problem may be that she was not a moving orator, as was Dr. King, or perhaps that she did not have the opportunity under the gendered order of that period to develop her oratorical skills. And her actions were not conventionally dramatic. They did not serve to push her, as an individual, into the limelight. At the same time, Jo Ann Robinson was the key figure in the development of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and her name is recognized by a minority of people in this country. Those who know about her work are primarily people from Montgomery, locals who participated in the struggle, or researchers. I would actually recommend to all of you the memoir that she wrote, "The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It." It was published I believe in 1987 before she passed away.

"Jo Ann Robinson was a teacher of English at Alabama State College. In 1955, she had been the president for a number of years of an organization of Black women called the Women's Political Council. She said that earlier she had been accosted by a bus driver for sitting in the 5th row of a bus that was almost empty. I should say that any of us who grew up during that period in the South will have many memories of that experience, of being compelled to ride segregated public transportation. I can still remember the placard that said colored on one side and white on the other side that the driver would consistently move toward the back so the Black people would have to stand and there were many empty seats in the front. But Jo Ann Robinson from the early '50s on began to protest seating practices and the conduct of drivers, and began to submit these protests to the Montgomery city commission. As a matter of fact, four days after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in "Brown v. Board of Education" Jo Ann Robinson submitted a letter to the mayor of Montgomery in which she threatened a boycott if conditions did not change for black riders.

"When Rosa Parks was arrested, Jo Ann Robinson was the first to respond. She immediately wrote the text of a leaflet, and she got two of her students to help her mimeograph tens of thousands--I'm not talking about Xerox; this is a lot harder than that. You had to cut the stencil--she and two students stayed up all night long mimeographing thousands and thousands of fliers. It said, "Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail..." Constantly black women were engaged in confrontations with bus drivers around seating practices. "...Because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time, it may be you, or your daughter, or mother."

"This flier called upon Black people in the community to stay off the buses Monday, the 5th of December, which was the day of Rosa Parks' trial. And in response to this, a meeting was called at Dexter Street Baptist Church where the young Dr. King had just arrived as the new minister. He emerged of course as the spokesperson of this movement. The point I am making is that if not for people like Jo Ann Robinson, no one would know the name of Dr. Martin Luther King. Eventually, Jo Ann Robinson was fired, by the state. Alabama State College of course--well, you know about state universities.... She was eventually fired because of her work with the sit-ins, and had to leave Montgomery, and spent the rest of her life in Los Angeles as a public school teacher.

"But I recount this narrative, which you can find in various accounts of the boycott, but which is invariably omitted in established narratives about Dr. King's or even Rosa Parks' contributions, in order to make the point that the heart of this movement that successfully challenged segregation practices in the South was not necessarily those who were the most visible. I mention Jo Ann Robinson not only because it is important to remember her name, and to remember her courage and her dedication and her willingness to remain in the background, but also because I believe that there are potentially so many Jo Ann Robinsons among us today. We often assume that the extraordinary person is the leader, the orator, the public face, the person who does the press conferences. But as a matter of fact, if that leader is true to the cause which he or she represents, then he or she will be translating and transmitting the sentiment of the masses of people who are involved in that movement. If there is nothing to translate, then regardless of the qualities one might have as a leader or potential leader, it will never come to fruition.

"I mention this because often we assume--I guess I'm talking to younger people who sometimes stand in awe of these historical figures and have a hard time imagining themselves as a Martin Luther King or a Malcolm X or [audience members say "Angela Davis"] Well, somebody just mentioned my name, and the only reason you're here this evening, the only reason I got invited here, was because there were people many years ago who were committed to the struggle to free me. No one would've known my name otherwise. And so I try to transmit that message. It's not so much what I did, or--I was in jail during that period so I didn't do too much of anything at all. It was the passionate organizing that went on all over this country and all over the world that made it possible for me to become a spokesperson, one of many spokespersons, for the movement for radical change."

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