When Angela Davis recently spoke at the University of Texas at El Paso, she opened with a statement that was timely and meaningful for this border community.
“No human is illegal,” she said.
The crowd responded with a big round of applause. Chicano Studies Professor Irma Montelongo said it was an important show of solidarity by Davis, an iconic black rights activist, with El Paso’s largely Hispanic community.
“We’re all in a big struggle right now and unless we can come together across metaphorical boundaries then the struggle is that much harder. We need to come together,” Montelongo said.
Davis spoke at UTEP in January as part of university’s African American Studies Program lecture series. More than 2,000 people turned out to see Davis, a scholar known for her political activism in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and continued work for civil rights and women’s rights.The crowd at the Undergraduate Learning Center auditorium was so large that organizers had to set up four more rooms for viewing the lecture.
Davis’ lecture encompassed a range of topics and was not limited to the observance of Black History Month. She addressed current views of immigration policies, the Trump administration, racism, and sexual violence.
UTEP’s director of African American Studies, Dr. Michael Williams, said Davis’ message of speaking out for social justice is a powerful call to action.
“I grew up reading her works, listening to her speeches and just the sheer determination to stand and resist oppression, to resist injustice, to resist all those things that try to classify people as second-class citizens. And to just stand strong. That was something that always inspired me and I’ve always remembered and lived my life in that kind of aspect,” he said.
Davis became most famous after being charged with murder and conspiracy after a deadly 1970 courthouse shootout involved guns registered in her name. She was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List and faced the death penalty. After her capture she spent 18 months in jail and eventually was acquitted in June 1972.
Communist organizers and thinkers influenced her intellectual development. However, she would draw from her experiences with discrimination growing up in segregated Alabama to shape her ideals toward racial prejudice. Davis would later earn her master’s degree in special education from the University of California and PhD in philosophy from the Humbolt University in East Berlin.
During her speech at UTEP, Davis talked about the importance of Black History Month.
“It is about the uplift of the community,” Davis said. “I think we have to name individuals and their achievements but celebrate the communities behind the struggle. Black people fought for freedom. Black history is the history of the United States.”
Davis said the terms used to define groups are also important to consider.
“I prefer the term Black as opposed to African American because it is so much more inclusive. African American places national boundaries on a people,” Davis said.
Americans need to reexamine their perspectives on what we value as freedom, Davis explained.
“How do we challenge the white washing of history?” asked Davis. “Whiteness has always been the unacknowledged standard. Freedom is a white state of being. To be human is to collectively struggle to be free.”
Montelongo said Davis’ story and community involvement influence all people across community lines.
“She has totally impacted me as a woman of color. As an ethnic studies professor, her work is incredibly important to all communities of color,” Montelongo said. “Her philosophy, her story, her experiences are something all people can learn from. Men and women, all genders.”
Montelongo said she didn’t think she would be where she is now if it weren’t for people like Angela Davis.
“Definitely opened doors for women of color, especially at the university. We stand on her shoulders,” Montelongo said.
Davis addressed negative remarks from the Trump administration toward Haiti and African nations, pointing out that some in the United States forget this nation’s struggles with human rights abuses.
“Somebody should sit him down and make him read, because by his own admission he doesn’t read. He is determined to use his authority to drag us back to the past and make America great again. How can America be great again when America was never great to begin with?” Davis said.
Davis is currently working to abolish the prison-industrial complex. Her latest published work Are Prisons Obsolete? provides several alternatives to mass incarceration and the penitentiary system.
She referenced the “MeToo” Movement in terms of how women, and men, behind bars are powerless against abusers.
“Sexual violence is institutionalized in the prison system,” Davis said, giving examples of abuses that even included doctors taking advantage of prisoners during physical exams. “It could not have happened without complicity.”
Davis reflected on when she was on trial in Santa Clara County and the jury was all white except for one Chicano man. Without the Chicano community, she believes she likely would not have been acquitted. It shows the importance of having everyone from all backgrounds participate in advancing our nation.
“It is those who are most marginalized that represent the most radical possibility for change,” Davis said. “The most profound message is that if Black lives are to matter in the world then all lives are to matter.”