On April 4, 1968, civil rights activist Angela Davis was working with the Los Angeles chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when news of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death reached her. SNCC members responded quickly, declaring a day of mourning for Los Angeles, calling on businesses throughout the city to close, and organizing pickets of businesses that remained open.
“We knew that if the response to the assassination was not organized, there would be a mass, spontaneous outpouring of rage,” Davis recalled. “But we were a group of 40 or 50 young people, and we had the audacity to declare a day of mourning for the entire city and ask every business to close.”
The day of mourning quelled violent outbursts by providing a constructive means for people to express their grief and shock. Despite a few incidents, including a police break-in at SNCC’s offices, Davis recalled that the gesture was useful – it kept the lid on a potentially violent situation – as well as cathartic.
Now a professor at the University of California – Santa Cruz, where she holds the University of California Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies, Davis still believes in the power of non-violent protest to effect change. But despite the fact that a black man and a woman are among the three frontrunners in the 2008 presidential election, according to Davis, “We Are Not Now Living the Dream” that King described eloquently in his most famous speech.
Davis emphasized that the “dream” of what she terms “the freedom movement” of the 1960s applied to all Americans, because it challenged “economic conditions that left people of all racial backgrounds impoverished” both in terms of material goods and education. “Dr. King was the most prominent spokesperson of a freedom movement that had clearly moved beyond a civil rights paradigm,” she said. “We were building a poor people’s movement and expanding the frame beyond nations.”
But 40 years later, Davis points to another famous speech King delivered during the last year of his life, entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” as “resonating powerfully with our current conditions,” particularly the ongoing war in Iraq. In that speech, King explained that he opposed the war in Vietnam not only because it involved invading another country for the questionable purpose of imposing an American-styled government, but also because it had diminished the energy and resources the country needed to deal with serious domestic social issues.
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube,” King told his audience. “So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
In addition to engaging in what Davis termed a similarly resource-draining war in Iraq, she faulted America’s federal and state governments for their use of incarceration as a substitute for programs designed to achieve substantive and positive social changes. She pointed to the facts that more Americans – 1 in 100 people, according to recent Pew research – are incarcerated, a higher proportion of the population than any other country in the world; that people of color are disproportionately represented among those incarcerated; and that in many states, convicted felons are disenfranchised as evidence that King’s dream of a colorblind America has yet to be realized. “The United States continues to permit race to determine who has access to education and who has access to incarceration,” she said. “The invisible work of racism influences the life chances of millions of people.”
Davis, a civil rights activist who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, joined the faculty of the University of California-Santa Cruz in 1994. She delivered the law school’s annual Burch Lecture, an endowed lecture series that recognizes the contributions of Charles N. Burch, who graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in 1889, to the school, its students and to the legal profession, on April 4. Professor Davis’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Robert Penn Warren Center and Vanderbilt University’s Philosophy Department, and was part of a series of events commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.