"Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners"

7-Davis.jpg

Angela Y. Davis

“Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners”

Bay Area United Committee to Free Angela Davis, [1970].

Original offset poster, 445 x 570 mm, in near fine condition.

ABOUT THIS POSTER

“The struggle against racism, against all the evils engendered by U.S. capitalism, must be carried forth wherever we find ourselves. My role, [in prison] is to assist in the creation of another front of struggle.

Numbers are important to any successful defense campaign. The demand to free all political prisoners must burst out of a movement encompassing the broad masses of people. Although quantity is of paramount importance, alone it is insufficient. The political content of a defense movement must be crystal clear at all times. In this context, I would insist that the rallying cry of the campaign not be limited to ‘Free Angela Davis.’ Everyone participating must realize that I cannot be truly free as long as there exists another political prisoner. And, in turn, political prisoners will not know freedom until the last starving black child in Mississippi is assured nourishment, clothing and shelter.”

The most striking element of this poster of Angela Davis, made to raise awareness about her incarceration and eventual trial for murder in 1972, is its combination of word and image. The image itself—based on a photograph by Michelle Vignes of Davis at a news conference in 1969 at Mills College, Oakland—was used repeatedly in the “Free Angela Davis” campaign, but here it is combined with Davis’s own words. Davis’s demand to free all political prisoners was based on her own experience in the Women’s House of Detention in New York, and her work as an activist and Black Panther, which made her painfully aware of the trials of Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale in 1969, and of the Soledad Brothers in 1970. While in prison in New York, Davis describes in An Autobiography that she even circulated copies of George Jackson’s prison letters, Soledad Brother, to her fellow inmates to raise awareness. Also described with incredible detail in the Autobiography is Davis’s resilience during the years on trial, the work she accomplished while incarcerated, finishing the manuscript for If They Come in the Morning, and working on her own defense. The brilliance of her statement here is informed by such hard work, and her connection between the concept of freedom and the effects of racism throughout the United States—of which Mississippi is emblematic—espouse an understanding of systems of oppression that was intersectional before the term had been coined.

In an article by Ben Marks about the history of “Free Angela Davis” posters, Lisbet Tellefsen, who has built the largest archive of Davis-related material in the world, describes depictions of Davis like this as aiding in “the promotion of her image as a strong black sister.” This poster is part of a powerful campaign of books, newsletters, postcards, buttons, and flyers advertising rallies to raise both awareness and funds to work against Davis’s unjust treatment. It was printed by the Bay Area United Committee to Free Angela Davis and the Angela Davis Legal Defense Fund and seems to be scarcely held by institutions. Only one copy is explicitly listed in OCLC at Yale University, although another copy survives and is digitised in the All of Us Or None Archive at the Oakland Museum of California. If other copies do exist, they might be found in Tellefsen’s incredible archive of black excellence and activism, “The Art of Revolution;” the Angela Davis ephemera collection at the University of Alabama; or Davis’s own archive, which she donated to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University in 2018. Other posters calling for her freedom—drawn from different photographs, without her words—were printed by both the People’s Printing Collective and the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis in Los Angeles. The “Free Angela Davis” campaign was widely influential, with branches in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. The campaign’s cross-country coordination made Davis into a powerful, prolific icon; brought international attention to her case; and even attracted the notice of Aretha Franklin, who offered to post Davis’s bail, and The Beatles and Rolling Stones, who wrote songs about her. Shola Lynch’s documentary about the 1972 trial, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, captures the moment in American history well.

After Davis was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury, she decided to go on a speaking tour to ensure that her political message was not diluted nor the momentum of her campaign limited to her own experience. “My freedom was not yet a week old when I left,” she writes in An Autobiography:

“An enormous political responsibility had been thrust upon me—and I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life because I knew that human lives were at stake. Our ability to keep the movement alive offered the only hope to our sisters and brothers behind walls. In the mass meetings, attended by predominantly Black people, I explained that my presence before them signified nothing more and nothing less than the tremendous power of united, organized people to transform their will into reality. Many others also deserved to be the beneficiaries of their power.”

As Davis’s own words and career make clear, this poster is as relevant as the day it was printed. Many people remain incarcerated for political purposes, including Ruchell Cinque Magee, whom Davis was tried alongside and who now is the longest held political prisoner in the world. For over 40 years, Davis’s activism—bolstered by the legacy of the Black Panthers, and work of legal scholars—has only made greater and more urgent the case for freeing political prisoners, and as she argues more recently in her speaking tours, to abolish all prisons.

FURTHER READING

Angela Y. Davis, An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1975).

Ben Marks, “Trailing Angela Davis, from FBI Flyers to ‘Radical Chic’ Art,” Collectors Weekly, 3 July 2013.  https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/angela-davis-from-fbi-flyers-to-radical-chic-art/

All of Us or None Archive, compiled by Michael Rossman, now at the Oakland Museum of California. http://collections.museumca.org/?q=list/taxonomy/term/154&page=11.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

Brooke Palmieri