Angela Davis talks activism, communism and ‘wokeness’ at UTC MLK Day event

Contributed Photo by Angela Foster/UTC / Angela Davis was the MLK Day series speaker Tuesday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the Roland Hayes Auditorium.
Contributed Photo by Angela Foster/UTC / Angela Davis was the MLK Day series speaker Tuesday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the Roland Hayes Auditorium.

Human rights activist Angela Davis spoke Tuesday at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she discussed her life as a political activist and the future of progressivism.

Davis' appearance marked the 10th year of the university's Martin Luther King Jr. Day speaker series and was the first time the event had been held in person since 2020 due to COVID-19.

Every seat in the Roland Hayes Concert Hall was taken. Attendees included community members, UTC staff and students and high schoolers from The Howard School and Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences.

UTC's Communications Department head, Felicia McGhee, interviewed Davis on stage, asking about her past, her views on "wokeness" and her affiliation with the Communist Party.

Davis was born on Jan. 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama. She was an active member in the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party and a prominent figure during the civil rights movement.

She is most famous for her involvement with three inmates, known as the Soledad brothers, who were charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of a California prison guard in 1970. Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder of a judge following an incident connected with the case and went into hiding, landing her on the FBI's Most Wanted list. She was later acquitted of those charges.

Since, she has authored 10 books and numerous articles and essays. She is the distinguished professor emerita of history of consciousness -- an interdisciplinary doctoral program -- and of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. During the past 25 years, she has lectured in all 50 states in the U.S., Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the former Soviet Union.

"I can't remember a time when I was not aware that we needed to change our world," Davis said. "Whenever we as children complained about things that we were not able to do, because Black children weren't allowed to go to amusement parks, Black children weren't allowed to go to the museums. Our schools were segregated schools, (they) were broken-down wooden shacks. So, whenever I would complain about that, my mother would always say, 'This is not the way things are supposed to be, and they will change.'"

She said while the event was to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the fight for Black liberation wasn't fought alone.

"We never gave up," she said. "Hundreds of years and Black people still never gave up, then managed to pass down that impulse to fight for freedom from one generation to the next."

In 1980 and 1984, she unsuccessfully ran for U.S. vice president on a Communist Party ticket.

"When you say the word 'communism,' people don't like that," McGhee said. "Why do you think that word causes so many connotations?"

"It's because of the fact that we live in a capitalist society, a society, that is, that values profit more than people," Davis replied. "Capitalism, by the way, was produced by slavery. That was the first primitive accumulation of capital."

McGhee asked Davis how she feels when she hears the word "woke."

"It's great to wake up, isn't it?" Davis said. "But we should always be aware that no change that really makes a difference is going to be without its detractors, is going to be without those who want to conserve the old way of doing things."

She made mention of recent efforts across the nation by conservative groups to ban books and limit discussions of race in public schools.

"And now they want to tell us how Black history is to be taught," Davis said. "And Black studies emerged out of an effort to be more critical in the way we think about history, the way we think about culture, the way we think about the world. And I believe the majority of the people in this country are on the right track. I really do."

She encouraged the youth in the audience to never stop questioning.

"I do think it is always important to think critically, to think in ways that question the text that you're reading, that question the conditions of your life," Davis said. "I think raising questions is the most important aspect of education."

She concluded the interview with three pieces of advice:

-- Combine patience with urgency.

-- Take leadership from young people because young people are closest to the future.

-- Be critical and self-critical.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327.