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Angela Davis Lecture Highlights Series of Events Commemorating Black History Month

by Davidson College

Photographic exhibitions, written reflections, panel discussions, and  film screenings commemorate Black History Month Celebration at Davidson.

Angela DavisDavidson College commemorated Black History Month with a focus on the influence of the civil rights movement both nationally and abroad. The Wearn Lecture by Angela Davis attracted a standing room-only crowd.

Davis’ name conjures up a time some older Americans would just as soon forget. The country was wracked by a succession of urban riots, slain leaders, police brutality, and violent anti-Vietnam War protests. Formerly quiet minority citizens marched through the streets demanding institution of newly legislated rights. The majority of them adhered to non-violence, but new organizations like the Black Panthers threatened to respond to police violence with violence of their own. It seemed that America was falling into chaos.

Davis, a scholar of German philosophy turned communist and Black Panther leader, became a strident, articulate voice for justice, speaking beneath an enormous Afro hair-do that seemed to taunt the establishment she sought to overthrow.

Four decades beyond those inflammatory times, Davis is still speaking for freedom, but with a gentler voice and to mostly sympathetic audiences.

Speaking at Davidson, Davis acknowledged that time heals wounds. “History is a strange thing,” she said. “What at one point provoked horror from people now provokes applause in the 21st century.”

Her talk was an autobiographical review, peppered with examples of continuing injustice. She insisted that the work to relieve the plight of the poor, hungry, unemployed, sick, and uneducated is far from over.

She takes a broad view of the freedom movement today, insisting that all injustices are linked. “Civil rights are important, but we also must struggle for immigrant rights, the rights of prisoners, and marriage rights, and the right to health care, and affordable housing, and education,” she said. “Freedom is more expansive than just civil rights. Civil rights is just one stop on the journey to freedom.”

Davis works primarily these days to shed light on the “prison-industrial complex” wherein large corporations have a financial incentive to increase their inmate populations. She noted that the overwhelming majority of the 2.5 million people behind bars in the U.S. are people of color. “There are more black men in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850,” she said soberly. “That tells us we have a long way to go.”

She concluded with a call to action. “We confronted issues in the 1960s that should have been solved in the 1860s. What will happen when 2060 comes around? Will we be dealing with the same issues? People say, ‘if it takes that long, I’ll be dead.’ So what? Everyone dies. We have to learn how to imagine the future in terms that aren’t restricted to our own lifetimes.”

Commorating an Era

Africana American WW II GIs
African-American soldiers faced racism at home while fighting to restore democracy in Europe during WWII.

The celebration included a half-dozen other events organized by Assistant Professor of History Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan. Many occurred on the backdrop of an award-winning exhibit titled “The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GI’s and Germany” that stood in the Alvarez College Union Brown Atrium throughout the month.

The exhibition was created by Vassar College Professor of History Maria Höhn and Heidelberg Center for American Studies Associate Researcher Martin Klimke. Höhn visited Davidson to present the exhibition’s opening lecture.

Consisting of photographic prints, written reflections, and video clips, it described the role that African Americans played in extending the civil rights movement outside the U.S.—especially to West Germany. It chronicled the injustice many African American soldiers felt during World War II as they fought proudly to restore democracy to European countries, while still facing blatant racism in their home country. During the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and 1970s, African American soldiers found sympathetic audiences primarily in Germany and France for their complaints about second-class citizenship, and soldiers and their European sympathizers staged massive protests.

Angela Davis was involved with many of them from 1965 to 1967 while she was in Germany studying philosophy.

African-American veterans were additionally celebrated during the month with a panel discussion that featured recollections of Ross Walker, an 88-year-old World War II African-American veteran from Charlotte who worked in supply depots. Germany’s Consul to the State of North Carolina, Kurt Waldthausen, attended the event and thanked Walker and all African- American veterans for ending the war.

The same gathering featured professor and lawyer Larry Little, former leader of the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party. Little’s chilling insider’s testimony about harassment, imprisonment, and violence against African-American activists by FBI, police, and individual citizens painted a vivid picture of the price of freedom.

Black History Month also dealt with the civil rights movement on a local level, with a group of panelists sharing their personal accounts of the college and the town during a time of uncertainty and discord. Pegelow-Kaplan and Armfield Professor of English Brenda Flanagan introduced the panel. Leslie Brown ’68, one of Davidson’s first two African-American students, recalled it as a time on campus that was unclear but not unsafe. Professor Emeritus of English Tony Abbott talked about his involvement in the civil rights movement as a white faculty member. Other panelists were Joe Howell ’64, author of a book titled Civil Rights Journey,  and President Emeritus John Kuykendall ’59.

Audience members were eager to learn more, and the panelists were ready to share. The question and answer portion of the event could very well have lasted all afternoon.

Finally, Black History Month included the screening of two films. In The Black Power Mix Tape 1967–1975, a Scandinavian film crew chronicled the manifestations and repercussions of the civil rights movement in America during that troubled decade, including coverage of and interviews with Angela Davis. The presentation 1967–72 Revolts in Film: Competing Representations in West Germany and the United States, also compared views of the civil rights movement at home and abroad.

Photo Credit: Vassar College Digital Archive, Oral History Collection and Research Project