Social justice icon Angela Davis addresses her legacy and ‘how change happens’ before large crowd at Mills College at Northeastern

angela davis speaking at mills college at northeastern
Angela Davis speaks with Cierra Russell, director of the Mills Center for Student Leadership, Equity and Excellence, at Littlefield Concert Hall at Mills College at Northeastern University. Photo by Marlena Sloss for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif.—When Angela Davis was a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, she noticed a Black woman on campus wearing an Angela Davis T-shirt. 

“What are you wearing that for,’” Davis asked, staring at her face from decades past, an image that has persisted as a symbol for freedom. The woman had a simple answer: whenever she wore the shirt, she felt powerful. 

“She didn’t know that much about me,” Davis recalled, “but she knew it was about power and change.”

Davis, 79, told this story in front of a packed 413-seat Littlefield Concert Hall on Thursday night as part of Mills College at Northeastern’s University’s first Peace and Social Justice week. 

Her keynote address, “We Are Enough: A Guide to Collective Action with Angela Davis,” was a moderated discussion led by Cierra Russell, director of the Mills Center for Student Leadership, Equity and Excellence, and rounded out a week of activities and dialogue focusing on Oakland’s activist roots.

“I still forget that I’m a recognizable person,” Davis said from her chair on stage, her once black halo of curls now white, rising from a gentle, smiling face.

Davis, self-effacing with a resonant, melodic voice, acknowledged the power of this image, how it took on a life of its own and galvanized a movement. But she still doesn’t like seeing herself on T-shirts.

“I realized it wasn’t just about me,” she said. 

The ‘dangerous terrorist’

In the 1970s Davis was arrested in association with fatal shootings in a Northern California courtroom. She was put on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List and President Richard Nixon called her “the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis.”

She was captured and imprisoned for 18 months, a time she remembers as terrifying, facing charges that carried the death penalty. She was 26 years old.

Davis’ imprisonment sparked media attention and a massive campaign to free her, which united thousands of activists, uniting to prove her innocence. John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote a song about her. Her face became the face of racial injustice. 

Davis spoke of many things from the stage on Thursday: dismantling racist institutions, the prison industrial complex, capitalism, critical race theory. But the concept she returned to again and again was thinking collectively rather than individually.

angela davis smiling while holding microphone
Photo by Marlena Sloss for Northeastern University

“Because of Western logic we have a hard time understanding how to come together,” she said. 

Davis, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, is the author of nine books and self-identifies as a scholar more so than a political radical. But her history as a communist—she ran twice as the communist party’s candidate for vice president in the 1980s—is a label she no longer claims, although she still believes capitalism stifles social progress. 

“I think of myself as a communist with a small ‘c’,” she said. “There is no future for this world as long as capitalism prevails.”

‘Anti-capitalist revolution’

Davis still hopes for an “anti-capitalist revolution.” She said she believes the short-sighted pursuit of profit over things like environmental preservation and prison reform will stagnate progress as long as capitalism survives—precisely because capitalism promotes individualism.

“It’s not because of one individual but masses of people coming together,” she said. “That’s how change happens.”

When an audience member read a pre-selected question asking how people can organize groups from disparate backgrounds who speak different languages, Davis said that can be overcome by accepting differences as assets, not barriers. 

“Difference can be a powerful glue holding us together,” she said.

The loudest audience response came when Davis spoke about Mills, an institution for which she has much affection, and one that has gone through significant change in the last few years, having merged with Northeastern University in 2022.

“I’ve spoken at Mills, I’ve taught at Mills, I’ve attended concerts at Mills,” she said, noting that she lives 10 minutes away from campus. 

She encouraged current students, still grappling with the merge, to talk to past students to keep Mills’ legacy alive. 

“Do a little research to see whose shoulders you stand on now,” she said. “It’s important to keep the legacy of Mills alive.”

Davis said it was vital to continue offering ethnic studies courses, especially since the Mills campus sits right in the center of Black and Latinx communities.

“Find out the history and preserve it,” she said to thunderous applause.

‘Finding Your Roots’

Davis shared that she recently taped an episode of “Finding Your Roots,” a PBS series that uncovers notable people’s ancestry through meticulous scouring of historical documents. 

One ancestor who was uncovered was a great, great uncle, who Davis said voted in the very first election that allowed black men to vote. She pondered from the stage the progress he must have felt in that moment, and marveled at the long journey ahead.

“How long did slaves think it would take to abolish racism and racist institutions?” she wondered. “We can’t think in these paltry terms of decades. We have to think in terms of centuries.”

Despite the long road ahead, Davis remained optimistic and cited the importance of mentors, but not in the way you might think.

“When I was a young activist the mentors I had the most respect for were those who took my ideas seriously,” she said, encouraging the audience to listen to their younger counterparts, those with “new ideas, courage and the excitement that often wanes with age.”

Davis is confronted with her younger self all the time: when she’s recognized in public, when she sees her likeness on a T-shirt. And yet it’s not what Davis thinks of her younger self, but exactly the opposite that keeps Davis moving forward.

“What my younger self would think about who I’ve become,” she said. “I think about that all the time.”

“Angela Davis – Seize The Time,” an art exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California, runs through June 11.