Political activist Angela Davis breaking down barriers


Photo Gallery: Angela Davis lecture at Williams College

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Political activist Angela Davis first spoke at Williams College about the American prison system on April 26, 2001.

Speaking to a packed auditorium at Chapin Hall on Saturday about "Leadership in the 21st Century," she said that she was saddened to report that "not a great deal has changed."

During her address, co-sponsored by the Black Student Union and the Davis Center, she asked the audience to "adopt a critical stance on the conventional notions of leadership and warned against the dangers of individualism."

"Leadership consists of this capacity to recognize the amazing power by collective struggles," she said, adding that one cannot overlook the "extraordinary power of ordinary human beings when they come together and struggle together."

Davis, who is known internationally for her work to combat all forms of oppression, came to national attention after being removed from her teaching position at UCLA as a result of her social activism and membership in the Communist Party USA.

Her efforts to free an African-American charged with the abduction and murder of a white prison guard in 1970 led to a 16-month incarceration, which sparked a massive international "Free Angela Davis" campaign. She was acquitted by an all-white jury in 1972. An author and professor, she remains an outspoken critic of racism in the criminal justice system.

On Saturday, Davis received applause when she suggested that leadership in the 21st century requires a "feminist" approach.

She also stated that leaders have to understand the relationship between change and pleasure.

"No one is going to want to be involved in a movement where people don't dance and sing," she said.

"If the challenge of leadership is to assist us to begin to grapple with the impact and consequences of racism," she said, "it would be important to recognize that races in this country are so complicated."

She challenged the assumption that the way to end racism is to pretend race does not exist.

Davis believes that South Africa has come much further than the United States in acknowledging and understanding their past, and they are not as afraid of talking about racism as Americans are.

"We certainly need some kind of leadership in order to guide us toward an understanding of the extent to which racism continues to infect the structures and psyches of people in this country," Davis said.

Davis inspired leaders to not be afraid to challenge existing institutions, structures, corporations, and governments no matter how powerful they may be. She challenged the privatization of education stating that education should be free. She also said that health care should be free and that it is not about "having the right to buy insurance."

She said that people have to figure out how to make lifelong struggles that will last for generations. She criticized capitalist ideology which "encourages us to only think about ourselves and our life-spans and not part of a process that will continue for generations."

Williamstown resident Trish Gorman said she admired Davis, "Especially for her willingness to talk about the things we as a country seem to want to avoid: individualism, racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, environmental exploitation, the prison-industrial complex ... the walls -- psychological and physical -- we in this country have erected between each other," she said. "She encourages us to tear these walls down and dare real conversation."

Buffy Lord, of Pittsfield, liked her bluntness.

"She was amazing. I really like that she just puts it out there," she said. "You may not agree with all that she is saying, but she is not afraid to say things."

The Rev. Rick Spalding, chaplain to the college, said he wasn't surprised Davis was so well received by the crowd, which spanned several generations.

"Serious students of our culture, regardless of their age, recognize that the struggles we associate with Ms. Davis are not just a matter of history, but a present reality -- and they won't be over until the poor, the disenfranchised, the incarcerated are no longer disproportionately people of color, as they are now," he said. "She reminded me that good will and good intentions, as valuable as they are, are not sufficient by themselves to dismantle the systems of inequality that still drive terrible wedges through our society, and inflict enormous suffering and injustice."


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