Angela Davis’ powerful and controversial activism has deep roots in Oakland, California. Learn more about her history in the diverse city, and where to visit now to capture some of her spirit.
Oakland has always been unapologetically diverse. It’s a hipster haunt, with the funky, artistic Temescal district, the ever-hot Uptown and the revitalized Jack London Square, a waterfront locale with jazz spots and restaurants. Its history is deep and rich, and it was a hotbed of political activism in the ’60s and ’70s, replete with iconic figures like Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. Davis, an educator and activist from Birmingham, Alabama, is a central character in the Oakland story. She gave new meaning to the word radical. She joked in the past, “I’m really happy that I had the opportunity to grow up in such a racist place. It was a gift, I learned so much.”
Born in 1944, she grew up in a neighborhood that had the unfortunate distinction of being called ‘Dynamite Hill’ because so many of the homes owned by African Americans were bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Racial prejudice and discrimination shaped her worldview. She organized interracial study groups as a teen, which the police broke up. It’s not surprising that she would spend her life on the front lines battling the war against racism, sexism and political oppression. She was a member of the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party and no stranger to controversy. Davis was ousted from her teaching position in the philosophy department at UCLA because of her social activism and her membership in the Communist Party. She sued them and won. But in 1970 when her contract expired, she left.
That would prove a big year for her. What catapulted Davis into the national spotlight was her support for the Soledad Brothers, three prison inmates accused of killing a prison guard after several African American inmates had been killed in a fight with another guard. During inmate George Jackson’s trial in 1970, an escape attempt was made when his brother, Jonathan, entered the courtroom to claim hostages he could exchange for George. The incident led to a shootout that left Jonathan, a judge and two inmates dead. Davis was brought up on charges, including murder, for her role in the event. She hid and was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Within two months, she was caught. Her trial was the subject of much debate. During her nearly two-year incarceration, people in the US and around the world rallied behind her with a ‘Free Angela Davis’ campaign. She was acquitted in 1972.
She defied the odds. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan once vowed that she would never again teach in the University of California system. However, she is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was also appointed to the University of California Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies in 1994.
Davis continues to advocate for the abolition of prison. She helped found Critical Resistance, an organization dedicated to the dismantling of the US prison-industrial complex. She also is affiliated with Sisters Inside, an abolitionist organization based in Queensland, Australia, that works with women in the prison system. She has lectured all over the world and authored several books, including Women, Race, and Class; Are Prisons Obsolete? and The Meaning of Freedom.
Her imprint remains on the city. She was larger than life, with her fiery words and signature afro. She was a role model for young girls like me growing up in Oakland; her moxie inspired. Years later, during an internship for the black-owned Sun Reporter newspaper in San Francisco, I had an opportunity to interview her in person. It was epic – she had so much smarts, sophistication, seriousness and passion. Here are some of the places to catch some of her indestructible spirit in her Oakland stomping grounds.
This black-owned bakery on Martin Luther King Jr Way in North Oakland is on the site of what was the first headquarters for the Black Panther Party. You’ll find Davis among the photographs and articles lining the walls.
In 1972, this was the site of the Black Panther Party Black Community Survival Program, in which Davis participated. The Panthers’ mission included providing free services and resources to the community. Their grocery giveaways were huge. The Beaux Arts-style landmark was built in 1914 and is being renovated and expected to reopen in 2021.
The Alameda County Courthouse was built in the 1930s and was the county’s fifth courthouse. As a gleaming white beacon along the edge of Lake Merritt, the courthouse is an example of Greco Deco – which is Art Deco style with Greek and Roman influences. Made of granite, concrete and terracotta, the courthouse’s imposing edifice looms with perfect symmetry. The Alameda County Courthouse is one of the most iconic Black Panther sites in Oakland. Free Huey rallies were held there during the trial of Huey Newton from 1967-1970. Not only did the trial capture the attention of the nation, but also Davis, who said seeing the pictures from the courthouse was her introduction to the Panthers.
Located one block from the Lake Merritt BART Station, the Oakland Museum of California(OMCA) is known as a Bay Area gem for its interactive approach to illustrating the story of California and its people with rooms upon rooms of history at your disposal. On the first Sunday of every month, admission is free, but every Friday night between 5-9pm, off 10th street you can eat your way through gourmet food trucks and dance through culture with a live band and your favorite local beer or wine specials. In 2016, the museum hosted a groundbreaking exhibition honoring the Panthers’ 50th anniversary. There is currently a Black Power exhibit on display, and in 2021 the museum will have an exhibition highlighting the life of Angela Davis.
Professor Davis taught at several colleges, including Mills in Oakland, UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. In 1969, she spoke at Mills on academic freedom and racism while on a speaking tour with her former teacher Herbert Marcuse, a noted political philosopher and author.
More than 20 years ago, Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, the radical national organization. The organization now has a spot in the trendy Temescal district. On the corner or 44th and Telegraph Streets, window banners mark local campaigns against police conferences and gang injunctions and lettering above the large corner storefront’s entrance proclaims their mission: “Building People Power.”
Since the ’70s, locals have flocked to this North Oakland café for breakfast or a piece of that legendary sweet potato pie. Davis was known to pass through back in the day. Now you might run into the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry and his wife, Ayesha.