Angela Davis on the power of protest: ‘We can’t do anything without optimism’

“The last time Angela Davis was in Birmingham, Alabama, she caught up with childhood friends and her Sunday school teacher. While many of us would reminisce about favourite classes and first kisses, they discussed bombs. ‘We talked about what it was like to grow up in a city where there were bombings all the time,’ she says. Most notoriously, in September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist church, killing four girls. It wasn’t a one-off, says the legendary radical feminist, communist and former Black Panther. ‘People’s homes were bombed, synagogues were bombed, other churches were bombed. People think of that as a single event, but it was more indicative of the pervasive terror at that time in Birmingham.’ When the girls were killed, Davis was 19, a brilliant young scholar travelling through Europe. She read about the attack in newspapers. ‘It was one of the most devastating experiences of my life. My sister was very close with one of the girls, Carole Robertson. I just recently spent time with Carole’s sister, Diane, who was one of my close friends growing up.’ When Davis managed to phone her family from France, her mother told her she had driven Carole’s mother to the church after the bombing. ‘And, of course, she received the terrible, terrible news …’ She trails off. ‘The back yard of one of the other girls almost abutted ours. We were neighbours and friends. And my mother taught yet another of the girls. So we had connections with three of the four girls who were killed on that day.’ By 1965, the FBI had the names of the bombers, but there were no prosecutions until 1977. Is this what turned her into a revolutionary? ‘I experienced it as a deeply personal assault, and it was a little while before I could stand back and think about the larger impact of it; the way it represented an effort to wipe out the resistance of youth. I think it was probably one of the moments that helped me find that path.’ Does she think Birmingham shaped her politics? …”

About 1960s: Days of Rage

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