-- Angela Davis Legal defense collection (2024)

The Angela Davis Legal Defense Collection documents the initial phase of the legal defense as well as the support activities generated by the incarceration and trial of Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. The case, which became a major cause célebre in the early 1970s, garnered national and international attention and thrust Davis, then in her 20s, into the leadership of the black liberation movement.

Born in Alabama in 1944 to a middle class family, Davis was the oldest of three children. She attended the segregated schools of Alabama until the age of 15, when she received a scholarship from the American Friends Service Committee to attend Elizabeth Irwin High School, a progressive private school in New York City. While at Elizabeth Irwin, Davis joined Advance, a Marxist-Leninist youth group with ties to the Communist Party. Although probably not her first exposure to communism (family friends in Alabama and New York City were members of the Party), her experience in Advance may have provided Davis with her first formal introduction to Marxist-Leninist literature and philosophy.

After graduating from high school Davis won a scholarship to Brandeis University, where she majored in French literature. She spent her junior year (1962) at the Sorbonne in Paris, witnessed firsthand the Algerian conflict being waged in the streets there, and attended the Communist Youth Festival in Helsinki which had a significant impact on her political development. In 1965 she graduated from Brandeis with honors and went to Frankfurt, Germany to study philosophy at Goethe University. At the University she continued her activism and joined a socialist student group opposed to the war in Vietnam. In her autobiography, Davis notes that she spent time in East Germany, which served to deepen her commitment to socialism.

Upon her return to the U.S. Davis joined the black liberation movement and the struggle against the Vietnam war in San Diego and Los Angeles. In 1969, while completing her doctoral studies at the University of California at La Jolla, she was offered and accepted a one year temporary appointment at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in the Philosophy Department. Following the publication of an anonymous letter in the student newspaper, The Daily Bruin,and articles in newspapers in San Francisco and Los Angeles in which it was revealed that Davis was a communist (although she had not officially joined the party), the Regents of the University of California terminated her contract. Davis sued the Regents and was reinstated. In 1970 the Philosophy Department recommended to retain Davis for another year, but the Regents declined to renew her appointment, using her speeches on behalf of the Soledad Brothers as the main reason for their decision.

According to her autobiography, Davis first became aware of the Soledad Brothers after reading a February 1970 article in the Los Angeles Times.Three black inmates, George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, who had become known as the Soledad Brothers, had been accused of murdering a white prison guard in Soledad Prison. Davis believed that the three men were unjustly accused as there was no substantial evidence of their guilt, and became actively engaged in the struggle for their defense. She accepted the co-chair of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee and lectured throughout the state on the Soledad Brothers and prison conditions.

As a result of her activities and subsequent visits to Soledad Prison, Davis befriended the families of the Soledad Brothers and corresponded with the three men. She developed a special friendship with George Jackson who had been in prison for ten years and was serving a sentence for second degree armed robbery. Jackson had educated himself politically while in prison, and like Davis had developed a Marxist political outlook. He had joined the Black Panther Party, and wrote two books, Soledad Brother(1970) and Blood In My Eye(1972). On August 21, 1971 Jackson was killed in prison while allegedly trying to escape. That same year Drumgo and Cluchette were acquitted of the murder charge against them.

On August 3, 1970, an event occurred which would profoundly alter Davis' life. Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson's seventeen year old brother who idolized him, tried to assist James McClain, on trial for an alleged attempt to stab an officer, escape from the courthouse. During the escape attempt Jonathan Jackson, with William Christmas and Ruchell Magee, two prisoners who were in the courtroom as witnesses for McClain, took five hostages: three jurors, the district attorney, and the judge. To effect their escape, Jackson and his associates taped a shotgun to the judge's neck. As they were leaving the Marin County courthouse with the hostages, Jackson and the others were reported to have shouted, “We want the Soledad Brothers freed by 12:30 today!,” thus indelibly imprinting in the public mind a relationship between the kidnapping and the Soledad Brothers.

During the escape attempt the judge, Jackson and Christmas were killed in a shootout with the police; one juror and the district attorney were wounded. The guns used in the kidnapping were traced to Davis, implicating her in the escape attempt. A California warrant was issued for Davis' arrest in which she was charged as an accomplice to murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy. She fled Los Angeles and evaded arrest by seeking refuge in several places including New York City. A federal fugitive warrant was subsequently issued and she was placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's ten most wanted list.

Two months later Davis was captured in New York City accompanied by a friend, David Rudolph Poindexter, who was charged with harboring a fugitive. When Davis was extradited to California she was charged, along with Ruchell Magee (a survivor of the courthouse kidnapping attempt). While awaiting trial, and after a few joint court appearances, Davis separated her case from Magee's and their cases were tried separately. Magee wanted his trial held in a federal court while Davis wanted her trial held in California's state court. Davis' trial was moved from Marin County, a primarily white upper middle class community to San Jose, California which was an ethnically and racially more diverse city, in an effort to secure a fair trial with a less biased jury.

Almost immediately a groundswell of support developed in favor of Davis' and Magee's release. Davis in particular, received widespread national and international support from the black community, liberals and the progressive left. The Communist Party mounted a major political campaign and held rallies in the United States and abroad, published articles, pamphlets and posters, issued petitions, distributed postcards, and requested that the public mail cards and letters on Davis' behalf. The National Council of Black Lawyers offered Davis assistance with her trial and the Presbyterian Church gave the Davis Defense Fund $10,000. Singer Aretha Franklin had offered to pay Davis' bail but was out of the country when Davis had her bail hearing. A white farmer from Fresno County who sympathized with Davis gave her the money she needed for bail, and on February 23, 1972, five days before her trial, Davis was released on $102,000 bail after serving seventeen months in jail.

Leading the defense team were Oakland attorney Howard Moore Jr. and Davis childhood friend Margaret Burnham. The other attorneys on the team were Leo Branton, Jr., Doris Brin Walker, Sheldon Otis, Michael Tigar, Dennis Roberts and Allan Brotsky. Representatives from the National Council of Black Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Lawyers Guild assisted with the preparation of pre-trial motions.

After a trial by jury, consisting of eleven whites and one Latino, Davis was acquitted of all charges. Following her acquittal Davis taught at San Francisco State University for several years. From 1973 until the early 1990s she served on the board of the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, an organization she helped found with Charlene Mitchell. In the Fall of 1995, she was appointed to the University of California at Santa Cruz Presidential Chair and became a consultant to the Ph.D program there. Davis has written several books on gender and class issues, and is a major figure in the orthodox Communist Party. -- Angela Davis Legal defense collection (2024)


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