Activists around the world have long turned to Angela Davis for scholarly guidance when discussing systems of oppression and power.
This week in New York, the radical feminist activist issued a rallying cry to Americans: to avoid a Donald Trump presidency, “we have to do whatever is necessary.”
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis became a household name in 1969 when she was removed from her teaching post at the University of California Los Angeles for social justice work and her affiliation with the Communist Party. She made the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted list on false charges soon after, starting the 1970s with a 16-month incarceration and trial that sparked an international campaign when the world demanded that the United States government “Free Angela Davis.”
Former California Governor Ronald Reagan swore then that the philosophy professor would never teach in the University of California system again.
Nine books and four decades later, a vocal Davis is now Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness at U.C. Santa Cruz – an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program the likes of which are only possible because of the radical scholarship she laid as groundwork. Her unparalleled efforts to combat economic, racial and gender inequality continue today as the iconic 72-year-old presses the world to envision a world without prisons, work Davis has deemed the “twenty-first century abolition movement.”
At a ceremony at the Brooklyn Museum in New York on Friday, Davis was honored with the 2016 Sackler Center First Award for her commitment to advocacy. Elizabeth Sackler, who has also bestowed the annual feminist award to Anita Hill and Toni Morrison, told Fusion it was a timely fit for the icon, as the year was “ripe with active dialogue and vocal calls for justice and personal freedom.”
Before a rapt crowd, New York First Lady Chirlane McCray introduced Davis, who then joined by fellow noted feminist Gloria Steinem to discuss personal legacy and the political moments of past and present.
Contemporary societies may address the complexities of power, class, race and gender at a rate unmatched, but Davis stressed that apathy cannot outweigh the power of incendiary people like Donald Trump, whose name alone makes her feel as if she’s “conjuring up some figure.”
“We talked about the emergence of new movements, but what we haven’t referred to is the extent to which racism has been revealed and in ways that many of us, who are seasoned activists, had thought to be consigned to dustbin of history,” Davis said in her distinct tenor, sentiments met by much applause.
Admiration for Davis was clear among attendees, who murmured in agreement with the professor throughout the discussion. Autumn Marie, invited to attend as a representative from Black Lives Matter NYC, said Davis delivers messages of justice “unapologetically,” and that the movement is “inspired by her tenacity, her will to exist…to be and to thrive, no matter the conditions.”
To a younger generation in the heat of a new era of activism, Davis serves as a reminder: “We are not alone,” said Marie.
The sold-out event honored four additional organizations in line with Davis’ ongoing missions, affording seats to members of Women’s Prison Association, College and Community Fellowship, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, and Bard Prison Initiative. A social action panel of celebrities and artists was also assembled in solidarity.
Alli Maloney is a writer.