Growing up in 1950s Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Davis and the other children in her segregated neighborhood made a game of running across the racially divided street to climb their white neighbors’ porch steps, ring the doorbell and return to the safety of their side of the street without getting caught.
“We weren’t necessarily aware of the fact that we were challenging the laws of segregation, but that is what we were doing,” Davis told an overflow crowd Wednesday in the grand ballroom of Southeastern Louisiana University’s student union. Davis was the featured speaker for the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice’s 10th annual Social Justice Speaker Series.
The simple childhood game was the earliest instance to which Davis could point in explaining how she became a social activist and scholar in racial and gender equality, Marxism and a movement to end the prison industrial complex.
Once listed among the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives, Davis is no stranger to the prison system. She was imprisoned for months in 1970 on charges of murder and kidnapping in the death of a Marin County, California, judge whose courtroom was taken over by a young man wielding guns registered in Davis’ name.
Davis was later acquitted of the charges but before her trial she spent months in a women’s detention center in Greenwich Village, New York, not far from where she had gone to high school.
Davis recalled hearing the “disembodied voices” of women in that same prison calling out to her as she walked past on her way to Elisabeth Irwin High School each day, and the embarrassment she felt in not responding to them.
Much of Davis’ work, through the Critical Resistance organization she cofounded in 1997, now focuses on dismantling the prison system that she said focuses resources on punishment, in some cases for profit, rather than addressing underlying socioeconomic needs.
Davis said, “We live with many inheritances” that perpetuate violence and social and economic injustices. “We need to figure out how to struggle with those inheritances,” she said.
Asked what students can do to organize and advocate for social justice, Davis said, “That’s a question you have to answer. We didn’t have a blueprint or look to past formulas.”
She encouraged students to use the tools they have, including social media and technology, but also warned that organizing is not easy. Organizers must be persistent, patient and flexible enough to allow people to participate in ways that channel their own passions for the larger cause, she said.
“You never know what the consequences of your work are going to be,” Davis said. “You do the work you need to do to guarantee a little more justice for more people … . Act as if it were possible. That has to be your daily practice.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.