Early Monday morning, Angela Davis visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. to reflect on her long career as an educator, author and political activist.
Hours later, she arrived at the University Union to speak about race and its impact on the prison industrial complex to a crowd of more than 600 members of the University community.
E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student affairs, introduced Davis. Harper noted that Davis’s autobiography has played an important role in helping her to understand her own life.
“She is a leader who has inspired generations through the clarity of her thinking and the content of her character,” Harper said.
Davis acknowledged that this particular Martin Luther King Jr. Day was one that was endowed with heavy symbolism, because it fell on the second inauguration of the first black president and occurred 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Having served 18 months in prison, Davis said she is particularly invested in the understanding of the prison industrial complex’s roots in racism and the rapid privatization of the expanding incarcerated population.
“When you look at the emergence of prisons,” Davis said, “(it is) very much connected to (the) development of the capitalist system and the development of slavery.”
Davis said a U.S. inmate population of 2.5 million has created a prison system with gross inequities like a disproportionally large population of black prisoners.
“Prison is an institution that devours people who have become part of a surplus population,” Davis said. “It allows you to ignore the problems that put those individuals in that position in the first place.”
Davis noted that, despite having a black president, racism remains ingrained in the fabric of U.S. society. She added that racism and other injustices in the United States have led her to question the capitalist economic system.
“What this means is that we have a lot of work to do with respect to rooting out racism in this country,” Davis said. “We have got to begin to ask about the whole society.”
Students Organizing Against Prisons, a group that advocates against the prison industrial complex, was one of the many groups that worked to bring Davis to the University.
Alex Kulick, SOAP member and LSA senior, said he was excited to see students come out to see Davis speak and engage in a conversation about race.
“(She) is one of those speakers and thinkers who can hold us accountable to what (this conversation) really means,” Kulick said. “(She makes us) progress forward and radically question our assumptions about societies.”
Kulick said Davis has inspired his work with SOAP.
“Her work has really combined everything that we stand for as student activists,” Kulick said. “(She) really bring(s) a critical lens to activism.”
LSA sophomore Christiana Allen echoed Kulick’s sentiments.
“We need to really work on (these) problems so that we can become better as a whole in America,” Allen said.
Darlene Nichols, the University librarian for Diversity Initiatives and Programs, worked on one of the committees that helped bring Davis to campus. She said Davis’s positions made her an attractive speaker for the Martin Luther King, Jr. symposium.
“(It is important) to bring someone who is thought-provoking, who can get the community motivated and energized,” Nichols said.
Nichols said she remembers growing up when Davis was an important figure in the civil rights community. For her, Davis was an important subject of conversation during her childhood.
“This is really an incredible moment to bring my childhood into the present and meet someone who is so prominent in my memory and my history of black social movements,” Nichols said.
Nichols added that she was proud of students’ attendance of the event.
“Seeing young people still engaged and interested and wanting to hear and learn more about what is going in the world … it is why we are here,” Nichols said.
—Hillary Crawford contributed to this report