Grads see how one person’s struggles bring change

Near the start of her address to Pitzer College graduates on Sunday, May 13, Angela Davis (world-famous political activist, author and educator) shared a quote that was surprisingly pessimistic for a commencement speech.

Ms. Davis, who studied French during her undergraduate years at Brandeis University, recalled an observation by the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”

Noting the words are a bit dark for a graduation ceremony, she asked the newly-minted Pitzer alums to instead ponder the opposite. “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every defeat turns into a victory.”

To illustrate the point, she described the events that took her from academic exile to professor emeritus of history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Claremont Colleges figured prominently in that journey.

In 1969 Ms. Davis, who had gained notoriety for her membership in the Black Panther Party, was hired to teach in the philosophy department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

At an Oakland Black Panther Party rally in November that year, during which time she spoke against racism and the Vietnam War, she said, “If keeping my job means that I have to make any compromises in the liberation struggles in this country, then I’ll gladly leave my job.”

A few months later, Ms. Davis was fired after the FBI tipped off the California Board of Regents, headed by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, that she was a member of the American Communist Party.

After a state judge ruled her dismissal unconstitutional, Ms. Davis was re-instated, but was fired again in June of 1970 for her “offensive” and “inflammatory” speeches. Ronald Reagan famously vowed that Ms. Davis would never again teach in California.

“History has a sense of humor,” says Ms. Davis, who since that time has lectured at Bryn Mawr College and San Francisco State, Stanford, Syracuse and UC Santa Cruz. 

Her dismissal was just the beginning of a firestorm that culminated with Ms. Davis being accused of kidnapping and murder later that same year.

The charges came after a 17-year-old political associate took a gun Ms. Davis owned into a Marin County courthouse in an attempt to free 3 men accused of killing a prison guard. The shootout ended in the deaths of the teenaged perpetrator, the judge and 2 others. Upon being charged, Ms. Davis fled, landing on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list before being arrested 2 months later. She was later acquitted of all charges.

Many in Pitzer’s graduating class, which selected Ms. Davis as the college’s 48th commencement speaker, cheered when she noted her onetime FBI status, which has come to be viewed as a badge of honor among those who celebrate her activism.

A Claremont comeback

In 1975, Ms. Davis was brought to the Claremont Colleges as a part-time visiting professor at the cross-consortium Black Studies Center. The administrator who hired her was fired the same day Claremont Colleges administrators learned of Ms. Davis’ employment.

The college’s governing body voted to withdraw the job offer, but Ms. Davis had already signed. 

“The thought has crossed our mind that the intention may have been to embarrass us,” then-Harvey Mudd president Joseph B. Platt said of Ms. Davis’ appointment. Meanwhile, several Claremont College alumni and donors protested the hire, some threatening to terminate their endowments.

A November 1975 Time magazine article reported on the controversy. “One rich supporter rewrote his will to cancel a $1 million bequest; a school official received a hate letter addressed ‘Dear Communist Pimp.’ The reason? A black-studies director at Claremont Colleges near Los Angeles had hired Communist Angela Davis as a part-time lecturer.”

Despite the outcry, the college determined it was better to follow through with the hire than to face a costly lawsuit. They took steps to minimize publicity and controversy by all but hiding Ms. Davis’ class, “Black Women and the Development of the Black Community.”

Ms. Davis’ first formal classroom appearance in 6 years consisted of 5 weekend lectures, held on Friday evenings and on Saturdays. Enrollment was limited to 25 students, who were sworn to secrecy as to the location of the lectures.

“We were all trying to learn under siege, but that was a different era,” Ms. Davis said.

Despite the conditions, Ms. Davis credits her post at the Claremont Colleges—“an exceedingly important moment in [her] life”—with jumpstarting her stalled academic career.

“As you can see, it is possible to turn a defeat into a victory,” she said.

Momentous changes

Once Ms. Davis finished telling her story, she asked students to consider their own, celebrating the fact that their college years were marked by world-changing events.

“In 2022 or 2032, you will still be linked together as the Pitzer College class that graduated at this particular conjunction of history.”

Among historical happenings of the last 4 years, she cited the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first African-American president; the emergence of the Occupy movement, which she said has “made it possible for us to talk about capitalism in a frank and candid way”; and the first time a sitting president has voiced support for same-sex marriage, “thus legitimizing this important 21st century civil rights movement.”

In recent years, Ms. Davis has advocated for immigration reform, prison reform and the abolishment of the death penalty. She ended her speech by entreating Pitzer grads to use their freedom to help the disenfranchised of the world.

“The function of freedom is to free someone else,” Ms. Davis said, quoting Toni Morrison.

It was a revolutionary speech for the largest graduating class in the college’s history, a group Pitzer President Laura Trombley called “multi-lingual, multidimensional and impossible to sum up with statistics.”

Graduation is about change, and, as Ms. Trombley noted, “Change at its core is revolutionary.”

—Sarah Torribio



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