MLK keynote speaker Angela Davis: “What we need now is to generate hope”

Monday, January 20, 2020 - 5:22pm

Angela Davis, an activist, author, and distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King, Jr. symposium at Hill Auditorium Monday morning.

Angela Davis, an activist, author, and distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King, Jr. symposium at Hill Auditorium Monday morning. Buy this photo
Ryan Little/Daily

It is important for us to learn how to pay tribute to those whose names we don’t necessarily know,” activist and Martin Luther King Jr. symposium keynote speaker Angela Davis said in her lecture Monday morning at Hill Auditorium. 

“And to recognize that the agents of history are not so much the leaders and the spokespeople but rather the masses of people who develop a collective imagination regarding the possibility of a new future.

Hill Auditorium was filled to capacity for Davis, a prominent activist, author and distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

The Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives (OAMI), among other University of Michigan departments, sponsored The Martin Luther King Jr. symposium. The theme of the symposium was “The (Mis)Education of US.”

Davis has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, Syracuse University, Vassar College, Stanford University and others. Davis is also the author of novels such as “Are Prisons Obsolete?” and a collection of essays called “The Meaning of Freedom.”

Davis was once on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Ten Most-Wanted Fugitives list and a registered member of the Communist Party for over 30 years. She was also involved with the Black Panther Party and feminist movements.

The anticipated turnout was accounted for by overflow rooms in the Michigan League and Hatcher Auditorium. Robert M. Sellers, vice provost for Equity and Inclusion, and University President Mark Schissel provided opening remarks before Davis took the stage. Jeryne Fish, Business graduate student and student-athlete, introduced Davis by talking about Davis’ life as an activist and how that has affected her work. 

The Guild, a poetry collective, kicked off the event with a skit and poem about highlighting narratives often overlooked in American classrooms. 

Guild member Candace Jackson, Rackham student, told The Daily the message of the performance was to show different perspectives in history that have been sugarcoated. 

“A lot of the events that happened throughout the Civil Rights Movement and beyond with indigenous people are usually sugarcoated, they're not usually the truth,” Jackson said. “They're typically skewed to favor the dominant, white, upper-class perspective. So we're just trying to shed light on that perspective.”

Davis was welcomed onto the stage with a standing ovation. She started her speech speaking about King, mentioning the fact that King spoke at the University in 1962. She noted having seen King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X in her youth, adding that elementary students even asked her if she had met Harriet Tubman.

In her talk, Davis emphasized celebrating King’s birthday as a symbol of achievement after the struggle for Black freedom. 

“With MLK Day, not only do we celebrate the spirit of a Civil Rights Movement, but also the fact that the declaration of King’s birthday as an official holiday,” Davis said. “Because this is the outcome of a very long struggle.”

Sellers recognized that the land the University campus resides on belonged to indigenous people. Davis said other universities she’s spoken at have not made that same acknowledgement. 

Davis also discussed the role indigenous people played in helping the Black struggle for freedom, referencing slave rebellions in South Carolina and Hispaniola.

“In each of those uprisings, African people were assisted by indigenous people,” Davis said. “You can not accurately narrate the history of the Black struggle for freedom without taking into account the pivotal role that the indigenous people played in that struggle.”

LSA freshman Clara Paz Núñez-Regueiro said she felt it was important that Davis acknowledged the connection between the struggles of indigenous people and Black people. 

“One of the things that really stood out to me, especially as a woman of indigenous descent, is the fact that she spoke about the solidarity between Black and indigenous people and how our struggle for liberation and for equality is so much more than that,” Núñez-Regueiro said. “It’s so intertwined and intrinsically connected, and that was incredible. I feel so cleansed after seeing that.”

One of Davis’ passions is prison reform, as she spent 18 months in jail and on trial during the 1970s. She touched on the issues of the prison system and how companies are making profits from deportations and building larger prisons. Davis shared an example of how the company G4S is making a profit from the prison system and deportation services. 

“One of the largest corporations in the world, G4S, is self-identified as the world’s leading global integrated, security company … G4S has owned for-profit prisons all over the country and all over the world,” Davis said. “Most of its custodial, education services, immigration and border services and its rehabilitation services … are services for profit.”

Davis spoke about abolishing the prison system, linking it to the system of slavery. 

Abolition is not simply about abolishing the institution of the prison as a discrete institution,” Davis said. “It is not enough to focus on abolition in the narrow sense and this we learned as lessons from the so-called abolition of slavery.”

LSA freshman Binta Wilson told The Daily Davis’ words on incarceration changed her perspective on the government’s role within the prison system. 

“I resonated with (her talk) because it just changed my viewpoint on a lot of things in the government, in the country as a whole and other countries,” Wilson said. “She basically alluded that the prison system was like modern-day slavery and that is true. I do believe that and that touched me.” 

Davis also emphasized that many progressive achievements get universalized, implying more change than what actually occurred. She used women gaining the right to vote as an example — this historic achievement only granted white women the vote.

“This is the year 2020,” Davis said. “What significant centennial anniversary are we observing this year? … White women got the vote in 1920. That is what we should acknowledge, and that is very important, and I applaud that. But all women did not get the vote in 1920. Black women did not legally acquire the right to vote until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.”

In her ending remarks, Davis also discussed respecting those who identify with the LGTBQ+ movement and their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

Feminism is important not simply to acknowledge that women are affected by the prison system, (but) trans people and gender non-conforming people,” Davis said.

LSA freshman Will McClelland told The Daily Davis’ words about the LGBTQ community meant a lot to him because of his personal experiences. 

“What really stuck out to me was near the end when she started talking about trans and non-binary people, just because that's an issue especially close to home for me,” McClean said. “It’s really important to see a lot of these issues interconnected. I think she really emphasized how all of these social problems that we have are so firmly entrenched and the connections going between all of it, and I think a lot of that does fall under the capitalist institutions.” 

LSA freshman Mahnoor Imran said she admired how Davis spoke about multiple issues to show the audience how they are all interconnected. 

“She really hit every single point,” Imran said. “She brought up pretty much every marginalized and disenfranchised group. I thought it was a really powerful lecture. I feel like it’s difficult to pinpoint one thing because I think that the struggle for liberation is very interconnected.”

Davis reiterated that with the upcoming election, people have the power to make a change. 

“We all need to participate in the electoral,” Davis said. “So what we need now is to generate hope.”

Reporter Jasmin Lee can be reached at itsshlee@umich.edu