Activist, scholar and author Angela Davis told a University of Michigan audience Jan. 20 that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would agree the civil rights movement was far bigger than just one person.

So in her Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium memorial keynote lecture, Davis highlighted the contributions of the 20th century black freedom movement’s unsung heroes, such as the domestic workers who participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“I think it is important for us to learn how to pay tribute to those whose names we don’t necessarily know, and to recognize that the agents of history are not so much the leaders and the spokespeople, but rather the masses of people who develop a collective imagination regarding the possibility for a new future,” she said.   

Photo of Angela Davis
Activist, scholar and author Angela Davis delivered the memorial keynote lecture for the 34th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Davis also touched on criminal justice reform, women’s rights and the importance of civic engagement during the 34th annual MLK keynote, delivered to a packed Hill Auditorium.

Davis has been involved in social justice for decades. She rose to national prominence 50 years ago for her arrest — and subsequent acquittal — in a high-profile criminal case that involved the shooting death of a judge.

Today, she is a renowned author of 10 books and a Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness and of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A focus of her recent work has been the social problems associated with the incarceration and criminalization of communities most impacted by poverty and racism.

Watch the MLIK Symposium keynote event.

Hundreds of people stood in line on a chilly morning as they waited for Hill Auditorium’s doors to open. The program kicked off with remarks from university leaders and a performance by The Guild, a poetry collective that used desks to create a classroom scene in a skit that played off the symposium’s theme, “The (Mis)Education of US.” 

Davis said many Americans remember King warmly, but have sanitized and trivialized his message and life.

“They remember Dr. King the great orator, but not Dr. King the disturber of unjust peace,” she said, citing the preface of the 2010 edition of “The Trumpet of Conscience,” a collection of King’s lectures.

Davis said there have been major advances since King’s era in how activists think about what they need to accomplish in the future.

She said standing against racism involves saying no to the repression of immigrants, standing up against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and recognizing “the deeply racist policies of the state of Israel.” 

Davis also mentioned climate change — while taking a dig at President Donald Trump.

“Today, we recognize that the Ground Zero of justice is the planet, climate change. We recognize here in this country that we owe it to the planet to guarantee that the current occupant of the White House is removed Nov. 3,” she said to applause.

Angela Davis spoke to a packed Hill Auditorium for the MLK Symposium’s keynote event Jan. 20. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Davis noted the critical role that everyday people played in advancing civil rights. She said black maids were responsible for the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the catalyst for the mid-20th century black freedom movement.

Davis also talked about the prison industrial complex and efforts to abolish it.

“Abolitionists have come to recognize that our advocacy has to identify much more than the institution of the prison for the site of abolition,” she said. “It is not possible to tear down prisons but leave everything else intact, including structural racism.”

The Guild, a U-M poetry collective, performed during the MLK Symposium keynote event. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Davis closed by encouraging civic engagement.   

“What we most need now is to generate hope, hope that must be continually regenerated and reinvigorated,” she said. “This is, I think, the collective challenge of today.”

As a young activist, Davis made headlines in 1969 after being removed from her teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles because of her social activism and membership in the Communist Party, according to a biography on the University of California, Santa Cruz’s website.

In 1970, she was charged with purchasing a gun that was used to kill a judge in California. She went into hiding and was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. After she was apprehended, she was incarcerated for more than a year until a jury acquitted her in 1972.

While Davis was locked up, Louis Saalbach was a graduate student at U-M. He wore a “Free Angela” button on his jacket at the time to show his support for her.

Five decades later, Saalbach, who now lives in Scio Township, returned to campus to hear Davis speak. He was turned away from Hill because the venue was at capacity, but watched the speech on a screen in Rackham Auditorium.

“She reinforced everything that I believed, about women’s rights, minority rights,” Saalbach said afterward. “She hasn’t wavered from the truth. I appreciate that.”

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