If the FBI and the federal government believed that imprisoning Angela Davis would scare her into disavowing her political positions and push her into hiding, the years since her incarceration are a clear illustration that that strategy failed.
Davis, a renowned author, educator and human rights activist, lectures widely in the United States and elsewhere around the world, speaking truth to power on issues of race, economic disparities, the vagaries of capitalism and the scourge of white supremacy.
Last Thursday, Davis, 69, addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Gallaudet University's Elstad Auditorium, about these issues but she returned often to the idea of intersectionalism. This is a term describing the reality that everyone belongs to one or more categories including race, gender and sexual orientation. Davis encouraged the audience to reach across artificial barriers to learn about each other and find common ground.
"... As someone who has studied feminist theory, I believe that we should think together things that are often kept apart," said Davis. "... the indivisibility of justice implies that we cannot separate different posits, different struggles. It is counter productive and contradictory to choose whether to support justice for people of color, for black people, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, or justice for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. It is also wrong ..."
Davis said it's wrong for anyone who is able-bodied to believe that justice is on their side alone. She also said that while it's wrong to exclude deaf communities and the disabled from the "circle of justice," the discrimination against these groups will not be corrected if they are suddenly included in the mainstream.
Davis –Distinguished Professor Emerita of History and Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Clara and author of nine books – was at Gallaudet at the invitation of the University Office of Diversity and Inclusion as a part of Black History Month. Her lecture was titled "The Indivisibility of Justice."
The theme of her presentation, she said, came from a statement by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King that justice is indivisible.
"He said injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere and as people on this campus have demonstrated through the defense of the rights of deaf people and the foraging of a vibrant deaf culture, including a black deaf culture, history reveals the expanding parameters of justice," said Davis to thunderous applause. "We cannot [assume] that democracy can work if it is confined only to a specific group of people."
She used the 2012 election as an example.
"Affluent, white, straight, hearing men used to control this country. But the recent election showed that even though the majority of white men voted for Mitt Romney, they did not get their will," said Davis. "Ninety-seven percent of black women, 87 percent of Latina women and the majority of white women voted for President [Barack] Obama. This means that it's a new day in the United States of America."
The Birmingham, Ala., native said Black History Month is tied to struggles for freedom everywhere.
"Black History Month is the history of the quest for liberation and belongs to all of us who cherish history and ongoing struggles," she explained. "It's infused with the spirit of resistance and the activist spirit of protest and transformation. It's important to acknowledge these firsts but we celebrate black history because it's a centuries-old struggle to achieve and expand for all. Black history is American history. Black history is world history."
Davis remains deeply involved in movements for social justice globally. She is a vocal opponent of racism, white imperialism and mass incarceration. Much of her recent work has focused on the plethora of social problems associated with the rise of the prison-industrial complex, and the criminalization of black and brown people who are already most affected by poverty and racial discrimination.
She discussed the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment and generated audience laughter when she gently derided the Emancipation Proclamation.
"... How many of you celebrated? Many of you didn't because the Emancipation Proclamation [has] a fraudulent aspect," said Davis. "It really wasn't an act to emancipate the slaves. It was a military strategy, not a measure to free human beings from a racist, immoral system."
Davis laments that so few Americans know about Reconstruction, the period right after the Civil War which saw blacks assume political office, introduce new laws, progressive laws for women which allowed them to own property and become deeply involved in the struggle to provide education for all children in the South.
"This is the most radical era in the history of this country, and most know absolutely nothing about this short period," she said. "All of these efforts came during the era of radical reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation. Everyone should be learning about this period."
Davis said the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and voluntary servitude, is a critically important law which she credits Lincoln for. She said it's fanciful to believe that by simply signing a document freeing slaves, all the attendant strains of racism, discrimination and related ills would disappear.
"... In the mid-20th century, the movements for justice and freedom were necessary. There was slavery and abolition, and then there was the civil rights movement which would have been unnecessary if slavery had been fully abolished," she explained.
But what followed was a violent backlash against Reconstruction with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the introduction of the punishment system in the form of massive prison plantations, the convict lease system and Jim Crow, Davis said.
These practices were the precursors to the prison-industrial complex that envelopes the United States at present, Davis said. The disestablishment of the welfare state and human services, the transfer of capital to profitable sectors of the economy, the decision by the political elite to abandon everything else and the privation of education, health care and the prison system are some vital reasons for the development of the prison-industrial complex, Davis added.
"It's the need to control and manage unemployed black bodies," she said.
While the U.S. comprises five percent of the world's population, Davis said, 25 percent of the (world's prison) population – 2.5 million people – is incarcerated and one in every 37 people are under the control of criminal justice agencies. Davis said she is dedicated to dismantling the prison-industrial complex and called on the audience to form mass movements to assert their rights and bring about change.
Angela McCaskill, Ph.D., a professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies, bubbled with excitement."It was awesome. I'm just so inspired. It's history happening here. I can't describe how her being here feels," she said. "The issues she raised were right on the money. I feel like I'm on Cloud Nine. I hope this will be a catalyst for more dialogue."
Faculty member Laurene Simms, Ph.D., agreed.
"It was fabulous, just awesome. I'm elated. She's just timeless. I feel like I'm in church ... it's a constant reminder to me that in terms of people, I have to treat everyone the same, regardless of who they are."