Angela Davis Exposed the Injustice at the Heart of the Criminal Justice System

In 1970, Angela Davis was arrested on suspicion of murder. She was already the victim of red-baiting witch hunts led by conservatives, but the trial — and her eventual victory — proved to everyone that the justice system was corrupt.

Angela Davis attending her first news conference after being released on bail, February 24, 1972. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

In December of last year, activist, intellectual, and educator Angela Davis took the podium at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Nyack, New York. The church was not planners’ first choice, but scurrilous red-baiting campaigns led two venues to cancel. Waiting for the five-hundred-strong standing ovation to quiet, the former Communist Party member and political prisoner told her audience that “I think every day about the fact that I am associated with a people who refuse to give up, after centuries and centuries. Not only that, but who have created beauty in the process of struggling.”

As interviewer Amy Goodman noted on Democracy Now!, it was “a reprise” of what happened three years before in Davis’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Emphasizing words to underline her subject’s heroism, Goodman recalled an award that was canceled and reinstated after the granting organization was shamed for wavering. “You ended up doing an event outside the place you were actually invited, and so many more people turned up.” Davis admitted being stunned by the ways people misrepresent her. But more important, she told Goodman, “I’m concerned about the misrepresentation of movements against racism. Against gender inequality. For freedom.”

Indeed, misrepresentation followed Davis around throughout her public career. It was why she went on the lam in 1970, after a gun she bought to protect herself from death threats turned up in a Marin County courtroom. During an attempted prison break that turned bloody, after police opened fire on those involved, her gun was found on a young suspect. Afraid that, as a radical black intellectual, she would not get a fair trial, Davis fled to Chicago. As police closed in on her, she proceeded to Miami and New York. She was still in disguise when apprehended, and the trial of the decade began.

Her defense became a cause célèbre, winning support from Aretha Franklin and Jean Genet, and even inspiring a mediocre pop song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In her landmark Autobiography, rereleased in January 2022 by Haymarket Books, she stylishly recounts her ordeal, which eventually culminated in acquittal in 1973. Edited by Toni Morrison, who interviewed the imprisoned Davis during her trial, the Autobiography recounts how the philosopher became one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted.

Dynamite Hill to UCLA

Davis grew up in a part of Birmingham that was bombed so often by the Ku Klux Klan that it was renamed “Dynamite Hill.” Her mother told her, as Davis recounted to Shola Lynch in the documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, that “this was not the way things were supposed to be.” She held to that as a matter of faith. From her father she learned the importance of self-defense; he kept guns that Davis saw him brandish in response to each new threat. Coming of age in this atmosphere, Davis and her sister Fania tested the boundaries of Jim Crow, easing into French accents to break the color code in retail stores. After being well tended to despite local codes, they laughed in the face of hypocritical white store owners and left without buying anything — improvised Situationist boycott.

Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), her parents had been partially radicalized by friends and Birmingham neighbors, the Burnhams, a black family who, as members of the Communist Party, came south to spur anti-racist change. Angela would remain lifelong friends with several Burnhams, including Margaret, who would become an internationally renowned civil rights lawyer. Approaching high school, Davis found herself surrounded by students who were frequently taught by teachers who cared little for black history (in her textbook, the Civil War was renamed “the war for Southern Independence”). Having spent summers in New York with the Burnhams, Davis found a program that brought students from the segregated South to study in the North. Her timing was ironic, and she lamented missing Birmingham’s protests, regretting how she missed the radical change that came to her hometown.

In New York, Davis attended Elizabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village, where she was taught by teachers who had been blacklisted for their left-wing views by McCarthyites. In a Jim Crow version of foreign exchange study, she lived with a white, liberal, Christian Brooklyn family whose members she respected as longtime allies of the black liberation movement.

Davis earned a scholarship to Brandeis University, where she studied abroad in France and fell in love with critical theory and French literature. One of very few black students at Brandeis, she came under the spell of Herbert Marcuse, who had written One Dimensional Man, a critique of postwar capitalism and the closest thing the ’60s generation had to a philosophical manifesto. She would go on to work with Marcuse in Germany and then California.

She returned to the United States smoking Gauloises and by her own account stood out. The rampant penetration of left-wing groups by government agents served as a pretext for the emergence of an understandable distrust of the cosmopolitan and bilingual Davis. Her comrades, Davis admitted with regret, “thought I was an agent. You know, ‘Who is this Black woman who is coming from Europe and wanting to know what’s going on in the community?’”

She understood that she needed a collective. But finding herself drawn to groups like the Black Panthers and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she discovered yet more layers of the mistrust that accompanied her arrival in San Diego. The former’s nationalism and uninterrogated chauvinism sat especially uneasily with Davis.

Eventually, she fell in with Franklin and Kendra Alexander; the three were among the seed members of the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party, embedded within the Black Panther movement. She was invited to apply for a position at UCLA, which sought a scholar trained in continental European philosophy who could teach Marxism. When offered the job, she accepted, but her political affiliations meant that trouble followed Davis into the lecture hall.

One Hundred Years of Solitary

On July 1, 1969, in an article in the UCLA Daily Bruin, an undercover FBI agent leaked that the philosophy department had recently hired an assistant professor who “is well qualified for the post, and is also a member of the Communist Party.” Davis remained unnamed. But a week later, the San Francisco Examiner named Davis as the professor cited in the Bruin, labeling her a “known Maoist, according to U.S. intelligence reports, and active in the SDS and the Black Panthers. . . . ” Two thirds of this was bunk.

“That’s when all hell broke out,” Davis recalled. The California Regents directed UCLA’s chancellor “to determine whether Professor Davis was a member of the Communist Party, and not to sign any contracts with her pending receipt of this information.” The chancellor sent Davis a registered letter, requesting a response that same month, noting, “I am constrained by Regental policy to request that you inform me whether or not you are a member of the Communist Party.” The letter went to an old address and Davis never saw it.

As a result of the publicity, her first lecture (on the philosophy of Frederick Douglass) drew two thousand students. A white student interviewed by journalists after the lecture suggested that Davis was “trying to overthrow our system of government, and admits it.” Whether this sentiment was shared by her colleagues and the rest of the student body mattered little. Lieutenant Governor Ed Reinecke cited her membership in the party as reason to dismiss her, though an earlier case at UC Berkeley affirmed that political affiliations were protected under academic freedom.

Blocking the Way to the Gas Chamber

While she fought for her job, Davis grew enmeshed in the struggle for prisoners’ rights. The United States was cultivating the world’s largest per-capita prison population, and these prisoners were, in Davis’s opinion, political prisoners. A particular case in Soledad State Prison drew her attention.

Convicted for stealing seventy dollars in an armed robbery, George Jackson had spent seven of his eleven-year sentence in San Quentin State Prison’s brutal solitary confinement. Soon he became radicalized by reading Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Leon Trotsky, and Mao Zedong. In 1969, he was transferred to Soledad State, a two-hour drive south of San Francisco, where, on January 13, 1970, the guards did something shocking.

Though prisoners were typically segregated by racial identity, that day, in the prison yard, the guards placed together prisoners of color with members of the murderous Aryan Brotherhood. In the Autobiography, Davis accuses the guards of instigating the violence that broke out, during which Jackson’s friend and comrade was shot to death by a guard. When another guard was beaten and thrown from an upper prison tier, plunging to his death, it was seen as retaliation.

Jackson and two other prison reform activists — all black and all convicted for minor property crimes (one for stealing a television) — were “singled out” and charged with the killing. It was a capital offense; in the days of California’s death penalty, a successful conviction could end in the state’s gas chambers.

Davis met Jackson at a hearing and was drawn to both his in-person tenderness and his cogent prison writings. In a volley of letters, they grew close and ultimately fell in love. Left out of the Autobiography for understandable reasons (it was published quickly, in 1974), their love story is a minor through line in the documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners; Lynch develops it judiciously, using the encounter to humanize both figures against the backdrop of bleak events and violence unraveling around them.

Through her advocacy for Jackson, Davis also met his younger brother, Jonathan. Growing up with a beloved brother behind bars, Jonathan’s desperation worried his family; his activism was met with a shrug at school, frustrating him. In one letter, George described him as a loyal “man-child” and asked Davis to bring him into the movement.

On August 7, 1970, Jonathan smuggled a gun into a Marin County courtroom to free his brother and other prisoners. The incident ended in a bloodbath in the Marin County Civic Center parking lot — with Jonathan, two prisoners, and Judge Harold Haley shot in a white van (all but the judge by police snipers).

Showing solidarity with the Jackson family, thousands turned out for Jonathan’s funeral, where whispers confirmed that Davis had been implicated; the guns used were those she purchased to protect herself. But as Davis tells Lynch, “That was not the time to make myself available to the police for arrest.” The hunt for Angela Davis was under way.

FBI’s Most Wanted

During her flight, Walter Cronkite reported that the FBI put Davis on its Ten Most Wanted list. Wanted posters, straight out of cowboy films, accused her of murder, kidnapping, and interstate flight. Across the country, tall, young, black women who might or might not have had a space between their upper front teeth were rounded up and pulled into custody, while Davis planned her escape with little but the clothes she wore when she learned she was wanted.

She considered asylum in Cuba but did not want to live in exile, as it would likely have lasted the rest of her life; she wanted to live in her broken homeland and see its arc bent toward justice. In a wig, Davis flew from Las Vegas to Chicago, where she met trusted friend David Poindexter. They would guide each other into life underground. But while the two were planning Davis’s flight to safety, Poindexter got into an argument with a friend in his apartment building, which worried them.

The FBI called together its countless Communist Party informants, who, according to rumors, outnumbered ordinary members two to one. Against this backdrop, Poindexter feared that his harboring Davis might become known if agents questioned the disgruntled friend, so they fled to Miami. Holed up among palm trees, Davis worried about friends, family, and comrades. Every noise made her jump, she later recalled.

Unbeknownst to either, the police had identified the white Toyota in which the pair traveled. Poindexter’s mother was questioned in Florida, and the fugitives fled north to New York. In one of their abandoned crash pads, law enforcement found undeveloped film in the couch cushions. These photos gave away Davis’s disguise. Her iconic afro was covered by a wig; agents had pursued the wrong profile.

One afternoon, as she and Poindexter returned to a hotel, Davis’s ongoing fear that she was being surveilled was confirmed. A lurking agent leapt at her in the hallway, asking to lift her upper lip. “I’m looking for that gap,” he said. The glasses and wig she wore “they snatched . . . off the top of my head, repeating . . . ‘Are you Angela Davis?’ I did not say yes, I did not say no; I did not say anything at all. I only requested my telephone calls.”

When President Richard Nixon signed the Organized Crime Act a few days later, he boasted of Davis’s arrest, proudly declaring that his administration had brought a known terrorist to justice. Told that other inmates would despise her for her communism, she was placed in solitary confinement, ostensibly for her own protection. Once her lawyers ended this denial of her rights, she found fellow prisoners curious about or favorable toward socialism.

Southern Strategy Goes Global

One night in Greenwich Village — where supporters could be heard yelling slogans from the street below — police barged into her cell. Her lawyer wanted to discuss extradition, they said. It was 3:00 a.m., and she was skeptical. When she went along with them, she was forced violently to the floor, cuffed, and taken in a caravan to a New Jersey Air Force base. “If I so much as stumble,” she thought, “they will probably open fire on me and that will be the end.”

She was arraigned in the civic center where the shootings had erupted the summer before. The attorney general sought three death penalty charges. “That made me realize how serious they were. But it also made me realize that it wasn’t about me. Because, first of all, I couldn’t be killed three times. It was about the construction of this imaginary enemy. And I was the embodiment of that enemy,” Davis recounted.

Davis fought to write in prison (partly by joining her own legal counsel), striving to maintain “a sphere of freedom.” Her emotional relationship to Jackson, who was acquitted of the capital offense, grew “far more intense” while she, too, was behind bars. “Part of that passion consisted in our being able to imagine ourselves as comrades, ushering in a new world.” They conspired on legal strategy, occasionally using the privacy of a prison meeting room to flirt. And this flirtation salaciously entered into her FBI file, suggesting that her defense strategy meetings were illegally surveilled.

Davis’s lawyer, Howard Moore, described the difficult task of defending her: “I don’t know of any other cases in the last century that presented that degree of difficulty, where the courthouse itself was a crime scene, and the judge, the prosecutor, the jurors and the witnesses were all victims.” In response, Davis’s collective built what she terms a movement to free her and all political prisoners. One judge describes being moved by the number of letters and phone calls he received. But if it became a long trial, Davis feared that the campaign, led largely by Fania Davis, might dissipate.

Before the judge moved her trial to San Jose, Jackson was murdered in prison, latest in the Autobiography’s long list of comrades and beloved friends killed by police, some (like Gregory Clark) for the crime of driving while black. Davis was forced to grieve Jackson while defending herself.

As hers was a capital case, she was, de facto, denied bail. But as her trial loomed, California overturned the death penalty (though the ban would not last). Davis was freed, provided she could raise $100,000. Aretha Franklin had offered to front this, but was on tour abroad when bail was due. A white Fresno farmer, Roger MacAfee, whom Davis did not know, put up his farm as collateral. The immediate death threats he received led him to milk his cows and bale his hay with an AR-15 close to hand.

Crime of Passion?

From his opening statement, the prosecutor played to a neo-McCarthyite fear of subversion, alleging that Davis participated in the kidnapping as a political act and that it was a crime of passion, triggered by her lust for George Jackson. The prosecution moved to enter love letters between Jackson and Davis as evidence, likely a product of illegal surveillance of prisoners. When challenged, three key pages were allowed, in which Davis expressed helplessness, love, and her wish to free him. Hoping to overwhelm the jury with what happened on August 7, 1970, the prosecution called 104 witnesses.

In order to indict the sexism at the heart of the prosecution’s case, Davis’s lawyer pushed a risky gambit, asking Davis to make her own opening statement. Davis agreed, calling the prosecutor’s claim that her love for Jackson had led her to crime “utterly absurd, clear evidence of male chauvinism.”

One of Davis’s lawyers was a proponent of a theory, since borne out by data, that eyewitness testimony is wildly unreliable. He pursued this with a witness who asserted that Davis was present during the August 7 kidnappings. But when asked to identify her in the courtroom, the witness pointed to Kendra, friend and legal adviser, who also had natural hair and sat beside Davis.

In the defense’s closing statement, Davis’s lawyer reminded a jury that had met and gotten to know her that Davis wasn’t stupid enough to buy a gun in her own name, then use it in a conspiracy to kidnap a judge. He asked the jury to imagine themselves as black, in this country. Only then would they understand why she fled. If they knew how white America failed to uphold rights for black Americans, their only question, as one Lynch interviewee quips, would have been why she let herself get caught at all.

When cleared of all charges, Davis was relieved and elated, calling it the happiest day of her life. Citing the Nixon administration’s economic program alongside the dishonesty and brutality of its war on Vietnam, she called upon the press to underline that this is a repudiation of an assumption in the country that “whatever the government does is not, a priori, the truth.” Indeed, of Nixon’s Southern Strategy — which became Ronald Reagan’s blueprint — White House Counsel John Ehrlichman admitted that it was a lie:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Davis’s story helped to instill in liberals and radicals of the time a healthy skepticism toward the idea that the state and its institutions are neutral. This is a lesson which, during a time of racialized mass incarceration and rampant exploitation of the working class, is more valuable than ever.