News

The Path to Public Service at SEAS

News

Should Supreme Court Justices Have Term Limits? That ‘Would Be Fine,’ Breyer Says at Harvard IOP Forum

News

Harvard Right to Life Hosts Anti-Abortion Event With Students For Life President

News

Harvard Researchers Debunk Popular Sleep Myths in New Study

News

Journalists Discuss Trump’s Effect on the GOP at Harvard IOP Forum

Angela and SCLC: 'We're black and we're proud and we're broke, but gutsy and we'll survive.'

By Tony Hill

NOT LONG after a predominantly female jury cleared her of coneptracy in the massacre at the Marin County Hall of Justice. Angela Davis appeared in Dallas as the Keynote speaker of the 15th annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. To climax the convention, she followed Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, the dour-looking, gentle man who succeeded Martin Luther King as president of the conference. Abernathy's stirring introduction had many of the 500 delegates on their feet when Angela came on stage, smiling her round, closed, Eleanor Roosevelt smile. A special affection was in the air, flowing between Angela and her cheering audience as she stood with Abernathy at the podium. Angela Yvonne Davis is many things to many people, but she is something special to the black Southerners of SCLC, and they are something special to her. There was a warm paternal glow in the pooly black eyes of Ralph Abernathy as he looked up at the long, lithe and gifted young women smiling beside him. As one delegate who watched then put it later, "Angela had come home."

At the time, it was significant enough that Angela Davis--once the FBI's most-wanted fugutive, and then later. America's most controversial unconvicted captive--was free to come at all, free, in fact, to go anywhere she pleased. Her acquitaly after a lengthy trial, as important as it was bizarre, and her current freedom loomed as the ralient realities that night she spoke in Dalles. But, what may be even more significant about Angela's appearance at the SGLC convention is that it may have been the outrider of what is possibly one of the most important developments in the black movement since the death of Martin Luther King.

IT WAS A restless SCLC convention that Angela Davis addressed in August, one devoid of those softening luxuries that had made most previous conventions more noteworthy for their cuisine than for their resolutions. In fact, there was even some grumbling this year about the menu at the usually lavish annual banquet. Instead of feasting upon healthy portions of some exquisite gourmet's delight, delegates were served a spare repas of turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, green peas and rice pudding. There wasn't even a salad, because SCLC supports the boycott on lettuce. The reason for both the thin menu and much of the general restlessness at the convention is the same: SCLC is broke.

"Don't get discouraged because we're broke," Ralph Abernathy told the delegates. "We've always been broke. When did black folks let white folks upset us because we're broke? God will make a way, don't you lose hope."

But, the doubts and misgivings of many of the 500 delegates were not so easily calmed. Over the four years since King's death, SCLC has endured a steady attrition not limited only to the conference's financial resources. The size of the organization's paid staff has been cut in half, as the annual operating budget has diminished from $2 million in the peak years of 1967 and 1968 to $600,000 this year. Moreover, in that time, SCLC has also lost several of its top staffers, including Jesse Jackson, who left the organization last year to form his own group. PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), Fred Bennette, and SCLC's former executive director, Rev. Andrew Young. But, perhaps more important than the loss of these talented, young leaders, is the fact that SCLC has lost many of its own followers, and, most importantly, a sure sense of its own direction.

Nonetheless, broke, divided and uncertain. SCLC is still a formidable organization, determined to carry on. As one of the delegates in Dallas put it. "We're black and we're proud and we're broke, but gutsy and we'll survive."

In many ways, Angela Davis's "homecoming" at the SCLC convention is testimony to the conference's enduring strength, for as Angela herself said, she would not have won her freedom without the help of SCLC. But, equally important is the fact that had it not been for SCLC. Angela Davis might not have undergone the political development that led her to the point where she needed defending.

"DYNAMITE HILL" is what they call the part of Birmingham, Alabama, where Angela Davis grew up. They call it that because, during the long battle of Birmingham in the early '60s. Bull Conner's boys used to take their recreation blowing off firebombs under the homes of the prosperous and uppity blacks who live there. It was the people of Dynamite Hill who were the local black leaders in the struggle in Birmingham, and it was also they who lost the most.

Angela Davis came of age knowing something of this loss. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a successful service station owner, she grew up in comfortable circumstances, enjoying the opportunities and encouragement many black children are denied. At age two, her schoolteacher another started her on piano lessons, and four years later, her parents rewarded the diligence with which she had practised by giving her a Wurlitner console. "She was so serious-minded," her mother recalls. "It was our feeling that if we kept her directed in the right channels, we would have nothing to worry about."

Growing up black in the South in the '50s, Angela was aware of and involved in the civil rights movement. "When I was 12," she says, "I helped organize interracial study groups...but they were busted up by the police." As a teen-ager she worked for SNCC in the voter registration campaigns and on the picket lines during the long struggle in Birmingham.

BIRMINGHAM was, in many ways, a turning point for the civil rights movement. It was the first movement in which children and young people played a starring role. "Suffer the little children." Martin King said, as the little black faces poured out of the segregated schools and into the fight in the street. But, in Birmingham, it was the little children who suffered.

As a child, Angela Davis attended church and Sunday school at the name Baptist church on 16th Street that was later devastated in the infamous firebombing in 1963 that took the lives of four little black girls. In fact, she had known some of the dead girls well. Looking back on the bombing and her own early participation in the movement, she said recently. "I would say my current political involvement items from my experience in the South." It was there that she learned how radical the final solution would have to be.

I remember travelling in the South not long after the four little girls in burnt lace were removed from the rubble in Birmingham. One Saturday night, in Charlotte, N.C., I went with my father to visit a dynamic preacher-dentist, Rev. Dr. Reginald Hawkins, who was leading the school integration fight in Charlotte-Machlenburg that would eventually result in the Supreme Court's important Swann decision. I remember sitting that night in the Hawkins' well-furnished living-room, watching Johnny Carson on their color T.V., while my father and Rev. Hawkins talked on into the morning about the black struggle in Charlotte. I do not remember what, if anything, came out of their conversation. But, I do remember that a week later, when my father and I were back in the North, we got a letter from Rev. Hawkins saying he thought we might like to know that the night after we visited him, his house was blown to splinters. As it happened, no one was home at the time, but from the cross left burning in the yard, the Hawkins knew who had come to call while they were out. He enclosed an 6 * 10 glossy of a news-photo of the wreckage. I also remember that from that time on. I have had certain immutable reservations about the universal applicability of non-violence.

In fact, there were many black people, particularly in the Deep South, who were entertaining doubts that the moral persuasion of non-violent demonstrations would be sufficient torque to bring success to the movement. Out of this doubt evolved the decisions by SCLC. SNCC, and other Southern-based groups to become involved in more direct political action. Out of this doubt also came Angela Davis's own conversion to Marxian, and her ultimate embracement of the Communist Party.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags