By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Intermittent applauses are par for the course whenever Angela Davis orates on hot button issues. No matter the venue, one can expect straight talk from her and a rousing response.
That was precisely the case on Jan. 14 when the noted activist talked about Donald Trump, capitalism, feminism, communism, and mass incarceration at First Congregational Church in Midtown.
Davis’s 40-minute address was ripe for the mixed audience of hundreds that swelled the church’s sanctuary, including the balcony, to celebrate the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center’s 35th anniversary and annual fundraising banquet.
“We thought who better in these kinds of troubled times to get everybody focused on the work there is to come than Angela Davis,” said Brad Watkins, the center’s executive director. “We want to make sure we’re always connecting the future of this movement to the past.”
The theme – “Living the Legacy of Nonviolence” – evoked the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said Davis, adding, “I come to realize that his legacy is not the legacy of an individual; it’s a collective legacy.”
Dr. King would never have become an internationally recognized figure if it had not been for poor black women and domestic workers, the professor emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz said.
The audience erupted in applause.
“We celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, but in doing so we celebrate our own potential as agents of history in a collective quest for freedom at a time when the forces of capitalism – fueled as they are by racism and hetero-patriarchy – threatens to push us back unless we say there is no other way to make America great again,” said Davis, referencing Trump’s campaign slogan.
“You know what we have to do. Considering the person who will be occupying The White House over the next four years represents precisely those forces of capitalism that have impoverished so many people who decided to vote for him.”
Not known to mince words, Davis said she really didn’t come to Memphis to talk about Trump, but couldn’t resist weaving him into the conversation. The Trump swipe was met with an ovation.
“His victory was predicated on an institution called the Electoral College, which is an institution of slavery,” she said. “In many ways, the inheritance of slavery is still with us.”
Davis also ventured into the area of race. “What was once claimed as the advent of a post racial era… that turned out to mark the new beginning of a new militancy…the recognition of structural racism, and a new approach to structural justice that recognizes the intersectionality of all of our struggles.”
Davis’s nonconforming views drew the attention of a 100-year-old wheelchair-bound supporter who was transported to the church from the King’s Daughters & Sons nursing home in Bartlett.
“I wanted to hear Angela Davis,” said Mary Robinson, a retired Internal Revenue Service employee and former board member of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.
“I always admired her. She sticks to what she believes. She works for it, which is really important,” said Robinson, who has followed Davis since the ’60s.
“I don’t get around much, but I’m trying to keep up,” she said, adding: “I never thought about being 100, but I’m glad I’m here.”
An educator, author, social and political activist, Davis was a lightening rod of controversy in the ’60s when she led the Communist Party USA. She also associated with the Black Panther Party.
Davis rose to worldwide fame – albeit infamously – after a Superior Court judge charged her in 1970 with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder” in the death of a judge. She avoided arrest and landed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted fugitives list.
Davis proclaimed her innocence. Supporters took to the streets, prompting a nationwide movement urging the powers-that-be to free Davis from jail.
Songs written in support of Davis played in rotation across the airwaves. A high-profile trial ensued in 1972 and an all-white jury acquitted Davis on all counts.
“We need to build communities, rebuild communities. We need new organizations, new struggles,” she said. “We need to consolidate our communities. We need to recognize that we will have to struggle over the coming period like we’ve never struggled before.”
Davis concluded her speech with an old protest song and title of her latest book: “Freedom, after all, is a constant struggle.”
A panel discussion followed. Afterward, Davis signed posters and copies of her book.