At a lecture on campus Monday night, former Black Panther Angela Davis explored the correlation between the university’s low black student and faculty population and slavery’s lingering effects.
Davis, a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, discussed her life as an activist as well as issues affecting the University of Tennessee.
“If we look at the situation on this campus and the relatively small number of black students and the infinitesimal number of black faculty, we can argue that that’s a holdover from slavery,” she said.
Davis also said she doubts a constitutional amendment — that did not define slavery and what it meant to end it — could put an end to the practice’s effects, emphasizing how extensive it was and how it had infiltrated the lives of so many individuals.
“Coerced labor is just one aspect of it,” Davis said.
The 14th Amendment doesn’t mention social death or civil death, she said.
“If slavery had been abolished, there would not have been a need for a Civil Rights Movement,” Davis said.
The amendment does not address the ideological issue of racism, which was the underpinning of the slave system, and the U.S. Constitution does not deal with racism either, Davis said.
“Still, in the 21st century, we are living with the consequences and the vestiges of slavery,” said Davis, who added that many people do not understand how that is possible.
Davis said her childhood was full of stories of people whose lives were claimed by the prison systems or capital punishment. During the late 60s, she worked on numerous cases that attempted to free political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela, Huey Newton and the Soledad Brothers.
“In connection with the case of the Soledad Brothers, I actually woke up one morning and found that I was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list,” Davis said.
That, she said, led her to make punitive issues a theme of her life, although it had not been an initial focus of her activism. Prison had become a form of political subjugation, she said.
The Soledad Brothers were three black prisoners charged with murdering a prison guard during a riot in 1970. The prisoners, George Jackson, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo, were well-known, outspoken activists for prisoners’ rights and spoke out against racism.
“There were three people singled out and charged with murder,” Davis said. “When I read about that case, I immediately sought to contribute whatever I could.”
By then she was starting a teaching job at the philosophy department at the University of California-Los Angeles. She had joined the Communist Party two years earlier, and one student wrote an article about her being a party member.
She didn’t attempt to conceal her political affiliations because, she argued, she “had the right to join any political party that she wanted to.” She was also hired to teach Marxism but was fired by the Board of Regents and had to get a court injunction in order to continue teaching at UCLA.
Through that experience, she saw the connection between herself and the Soledad Brothers.
“But, they were going to lose their lives if they were not successful,” she said, noting that she would only lose her job.
She then began to make the connection between the prison system’s political suppression and similar suppression by the educational system.
Davis received death threats so frequently that she had to have a security detail wherever she went on and off campus.
She said one of the members of her security detail happened to be George Jackson’s younger brother, and he took one of the guns registered in her name to a courtroom where a shoot-out occurred. Four people, including a federal judge and Jackson’s younger brother, were killed.
Davis was charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy.
“As soon as I discovered what happened, I basically had to go underground,” she said.
Davis said she did this because there were numerous cases of people surrendering to the police being killed.
Eventually, Davis was acquitted of all charges due to a large campaign in her support.
“There were people organizing a campaign to free me,” she said. “This campaign was the most amazing collective effort of people from all racial backgrounds.”
She said there were more than 200 committees attempting to free her and that she was fortunate to have such strong support.
“It appeared to be insurmountable, and people didn’t accept that (and) they fought back,” Davis said.
For one audience member, having Davis speak on campus was an honor.
“I thought she was really amazing. I thought she said a lot of good things,” Ruba Nuwayhid, a junior in sociology, said. “I think she’s done a lot of cool things with her life. It was just an honor to hear her speak.”