Angela Davis: 'Rekindle the Flame'

By Elaine Davenport

Vol. 12, No. 1, 1990, pp. 10-11

Angela Davis, one of America's best known activists of the 1960s and 1970s, encouraged an overflow crowd in Austin, Texas, on Martin Luther King Day to renew a commitment to activism in the 1990s--to "rekindle the flame."

In 1972 Davis was acquitted of charges of murder and conspiracy stemming from a shootout involving Black Panther prisoners at a courthouse in San Rafael California. She emerged as a symbol of the American left and became a popular speaker at rallies and a lobbyist for change. "I'm asked what it was like then," said Davis. "I tell them we worked hard, that it didn't just happen. It's called organization and continuity from one event to the next." She said that today's goals can be achieved only through an activist struggle: "Our activist efforts must unfold on all fronts ...We must be aware of how the issues interconnect. You must join and be on call to be seen and heard."

  • "We must fight for free, universally available, quality child care for all," Davis told her Austin audience. Women can't afford to work when they earn 510,000 a year and the cost of child care is 53,000 a year per child.
  • "Violence against women in the home and against children has to stop." The portrayal of women in today's rap music--"this idea that women are to be trampled upon and treated as sexual objects"--has to change, she said, suggesting that people write to their local radio stations.
  • Blacks must tackle problems in their own communities, she said, including AIDS. "We have not done whet we ought to have done to help those with AIDS." Since blacks make up the overwhelming majority of AIDS victims, why is it that black churches in East Oakland can't find buddies to spend time with black people who have AIDS? "This upsets me more than almost any other issue that we currently face."
  • "The reproductive rights movement is still too white." The federal government will pay for sterilization, but is rolling back the right to abortions. "It's this simple: it is a woman's right to determine what happens to her body."
  • A higher minimum wage is possible by saying "no to the corporate system that gives us no economic hope." We may have rights, she said, but if we're too poor to exercise those rights, we might as well not have the rights.
  • "We must begin to fight for mandatory courses on African- American history and Latino history on U.S. campuses," she said. This brought a large number of people to their feet, based perhaps on the longstanding conflict at the University of Texas over upgrading the African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center into a bonafide department.

The crowd of more than 3,000 overflowed the Performing Arts Center at the University of Texas. The PAC is often filled with with [sic] mostly white audiences attending the symphony, ballet or opera. But the atmosphere on this occasion resembled that of a community gathering, as the racially mixed audience heard songs by the Webb Elementary School Choir, a welcome by the president of the University of Texas, who was heckled because of the university's South African policy, and a dramatic interpretation by Miss Black Austin. The group also participated in singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Davis, a polished orator, spoke slowly and rhythmically, often repeating her last few words or last phrase as members of the audience began to shorthand clap.

Her list of crises facing blacks and other Americans was long:

  • "Drugs, prison and violence are a murderous cycle for our young black people," she said. "We're talking about a genocidal situation in this country." With homicide the leading cause of death for black men and women ages fifteen to thirty-four, blacks making up 44 percent of the murder victims in the country, with the majority of those

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    with AIDS black, and with large numbers of black men permanently unemployed, "is it hard to understand why they drift to drugs?"
  • "The U.S. government is solidly on the side of apartheid," she said. If the United States had asked for total economic sanctions against South Africa ten years ago, apartheid would no longer exist.

Davis reminded the audience that by circulating petitions, marching and writing to elected representatives, they had achieved a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King. "This national holiday is a living example of the possibility of our activism. We are living in history. Yesterday informs today." Martin Luther King was not 'the' movement. He emerged from the movement and others will emerge from the movement, too, she said. She reminded the crowd that it was a group of women in Montgomery, including Jo Ann Robinson, who provided the organizational structure to successfully mount the Montgomery bus boycott. "What the sisters did in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, we can do in 1990. The issue then was desegregation, but Martin Luther King soon realized it had economic roots. In 1990, the interconnectedness of all the issues is much more pronounced than before. It is no longer possible to separate all the struggles. We're all in this together."

One tactic she suggested was to occupy Washington, D.C. "Prepare to stay there and force the government to negotiate with us." There is a revolutionary spirit all around the world, she said. "If they can rise up in Eastern Europe, then so can we."

Elaine Davenport is a Southern Changes contributing editor. She lives in Austin, Texas. Angela Davis currently teaches courses in philosophy, aesthetics and women's studies at San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Art Institute. Angela Davis: An Autobiography from Random House was a 1974 best-seller. SO has also written Women, Race and Class (Random House, 1982); her latest book is Women, Culture and Politics (Random House, 1989).