Transcription: Angela Davis ‘Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Closures and Continuities’

by | 25 Nov 2013

Birkbeck Annual Law lecture, London 25 October 2013. This is an unofficial transcription from an audio recording available at the Backdoor Broadcasting Company.

Angela Davis delivers the Birkbeck Annual Law Lecture

Angela Davis delivers the Birkbeck Annual Law Lecture: ‘Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Closures and Continuities’. Photo by Sarah Keenan.

They say that freedom is a constant struggle. They say that freedom is a constant struggle. They say that freedom is a constant struggle, O Lord, we’ve struggled so long we must be free.

I’d like to thank the school of law at Birkbeck and Executive Dean Patricia Tuitt for having invited me to speak to you this evening (I’ll do some other things as well). Professor Patrick Hanafin for the wonderful introduction. He ended with a song. I began with a song. And I’d like to thank Yvette Vanson for having initially asked me to speak here in connection with her honorary research fellowship and artist in residence project, which is called ‘Barriers to Freedom’. And then of course I’d like to thank Michael Mansfield for agreeing to respond. I met Yvette and Michael when I served on the Russel Tribunal on Palestine along with Michael Mansfield.

So the title of my talk is drawn from a freedom song, which was repeatedly sung in the southern United States during the twentieth century freedom movement. The other verses of that song evoke crying, sorrow, mourning, dying—they say freedom is a constant dying, we’ve died so long we must be free.

And I like the irony of the last line of each of the verses: we’ve struggled so long, we’ve cried so long, we’ve sorrowed so long, we’ve moaned so long, we’ve died so long, we must be free, we must be free. And of course there’s simultaneously resignation and promise in that line, there is critique and inspiration: we must be free, we must be free but are we really free?

In 2007 I was invited by Baroness Lola Young to speak here in London on the occasion of the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery in the UK. But at the last minute I was unable to make the trip because my mother passed on the day I was scheduled to leave for London. Serendipitously, this is also a year of major anniversaries; anniversaries in the US that reflect the history of the black freedom struggle. So I’ve been asked to speak about the meaning of freedom in the sesquicentennial year of the US emancipation proclamation and during the fiftieth anniversary year of pivotal events in the twentieth century black freedom struggle in the United States.

So let me begin by evoking some of the fiftieth anniversary events. This is the fiftieth anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, in which he defended his decision to organize in Birmingham where he was accused of being an outside agitator in this way: ‘I am cognizant’, he wrote,

of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

And you are probably familiar with that quote. ‘We are caught’, he wrote, ‘in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’

And then he proceeds to evoke history:

For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.

We’re also observing the fiftieth anniversary year of the Birmingham children’s crusade. It may not be so widely known that the success of the Birmingham campaign was possible because vast numbers of school children—girls and boys—at the beginning of May in 1963 faced police dogs and high-power hoses. Their televised demonstrations—and incidentally, television was quite young and it was really the first time that people outside of the South had the opportunity to witness these demonstrations—revealed to the world the determination with which black people continued to struggle for freedom.

Nineteen sixty-three was also the year of the March on Washington, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was attended by some 250,000 people. At that time it was the largest ever human assembly in Washington.

This past August, there were two marches in Washington, one of which was addressed by Presidents Obama and Clinton, and the other by figures who represent themselves as current civil rights leaders; I won’t go into their names.

And there were series of events that marked the fiftieth anniversary. Many people did not know which march to attend (I think one was on the 24th and one was on the 28th). But last month in September a number of events took place in Birmingham, Alabama, which as you heard is where I was born and where I grew up.

These events observe the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the killing of four young black girls. The height of the observances was the bestowal of the highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, on the families of the four girls killed in the bombing; although the sister of one of the girls, Sarah Collins (sister of Addie Mae Collins), she did not die but she lost an eye and was severely injured and to this day she has received no official assistance with her medical bills.

What I fear about many of these observances is that they tend to enact historical closures. They are represented as historical high points on a road to an ultimately triumphant democracy; one which can be displayed as a model for the world; one which perhaps can serve as justification for military incursions, including the increased use of drones in the so-called war on terror, which has resulted in the killing of vast numbers of people, especially in Pakistan.

While criticizing the Obama administration for the increased used of drones, I must at the same time acknowledge his speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for its attempt to represent freedom struggles as unfinished and for at least attempting to focus on continuities rather than closures. But invoking the old adage, I must say actions really do speak louder than words.

No one can deny that global popular culture is saturated with references to the twentieth century Black Freedom Movement. We know that Dr Martin Luther King Jr is one of the most widely known historical figures in the world. Inside the US there are more than 900 streets named after Dr King in 40 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico. But as has been suggested by geographers who have studied these naming practices, they’ve been used to deflect attention from persisting social problems—the lack of education, housing, jobs, and the use of carceral strategies to conceal the continued presence of these problems.

There are more than 900 streets named after Dr King but there’re also some 2.5 million people in US jails, prisons, youth facilities, military prisons and jails in Indian country. The population of those facilities constitute 25% of the world’s incarcerated population as compared to 5% of the planets population at large. Twenty-five percent of the world’s population serves as fodder for a vast prison industrial complex with global dimensions that profits from strategies designed to hide social problems that have remained unaddressed since the era of slavery.

Moreover, police violence and racist vigilante violence is at its height. The Trayvon Martin case in the US recalls the Stephen Lawrence case here. But also Islamophobic violence is nurtured by histories of anti-black racist violence. There is simultaneously a saturated geographical presence of the culture of the Black Freedom Movement and a lack of anything more than abstract knowledge about that movement.

I would dare say that most people who are familiar with Dr Martin Luther King—and the vast majority of people in the world are familiar with him I think—they know little more than the fact that he had a dream. And of course all of us have had dreams. And as a matter of fact the ‘I have a dream’ speech is the most widely circulated of all of his orations.

Relatively few people are aware of the Riverside Church speech on Vietnam and the way he came to recognize the intersections and interconnections of the Black Liberation Movement and the campaign to end the war in Vietnam. Therefore understandings of the twentieth century freedom movement that help us cultivate more complicated ideas of the geographies and temporalities of freedom are suppressed.

Dominant representations of the Black Freedom Movement are a discreet series of historical moments largely produced by the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. And somehow, although Martin Luther King Jr himself began to emerge to prominence as a consequence of that boycott, he is seen as always already the orator and leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

Even though numbers of books, both scholarly and popular, have been written on the role of women in the 1955 Boycott, Dr King, who was actually invited to be a spokesperson for a movement when he was entirely unknown—the movement had already formed—Dr King remains the dominant figure.

And I wonder will we ever truly recognize the collective subject of history that was itself produced by radical organizing—early on during the 1930s/1940s, and I am referring, for example, to an organization which was known as the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which has largely been excised from the official historical record because some of its key leaders were communist.

As Carole Boyce Davies has pointed out in her wonderful book on Claudia Jones, Left of Karl Marx, Claudia Jones was one of the leaders of the Negro Youth Congress (the American Negro Youth Congress and the Southern Youth Congress). And I mention Jones both because of her important work in the US and because she became a pivotal figure in the organizing of Caribbean communities here in Britain after she was arrested for the work she did in the US and eventually deported.

How can we counteract the representation of historical agents as powerful individuals, powerful male individuals, in order to reveal the part played, for example, by black women domestic workers in the Black Freedom Movement?

Regimes of racial segregation were not disestablished because of the work of leaders and presidents and legislators but rather because of the fact that ordinary people adopted a critical stance in the way in which they perceived their relationship to reality. Social realities that may have appeared inalterable, impenetrable, came to be viewed as malleable and transformable; and people learned how to imagine what it might mean to live in a world that was not so exclusively governed by the principle of white supremacy. This collective consciousness emerged within the context of social struggles.

Orlando Patterson has argued that the very concept of freedom—which is held so dear throughout the West, which has inspired so many world historical revolutions—that very concept of freedom must have been first imagined by slaves. During the era of the twentieth century Black Freedom Movement, the human beings whose predicament most approximated that of slaves, that of the slaves from whom they were descended, were black women domestic workers. We’re referring to women who cleaned house, who cooked, who were laundry women.

As a matter of fact during the 1950s some 90% of all black women were domestic workers. And given the fact that the majority of people who road buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 were black domestic workers, why is it so difficult to imagine and acknowledge what must have been, among these black women domestic workers, this amazing collective imagination of a future world without racial and gender and economic oppression.

Even though we may not know the names of all of those women who refused to ride the bus from poor black communities to affluent white communities in Montgomery, Alabama, it seems that we should at least acknowledge their collective accomplishment. That boycott would not have been successful without their refusals, without their critical refusals. And thus a figure like Dr Martin Luther King Jr might never have emerged into prominence.

Fanny Lou Hamer—some of you may have studied the history of the US Civil Rights Movement, the US freedom movement—she was a share cropper and a domestic worker. She was a timekeeper on a cotton plantation in the 1960s. And she emerged as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and as a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She said, ‘all my life, I have been sick and tired. Now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.’

In 1964, she achieved national prominence when she demanded that members of her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was a racially integrated party, be seated at the national Democratic Party convention at the expense of seats that were given to the all-white Democratic Party delegation. In many ways, she paved the way for Barack Obama. But that’s another story.

This is not only a year of fiftieth anniversary celebrations, but it is also the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Interestingly, unfortunately, we have not been called upon to participate in any nationwide anniversary event. I remembered when you here at least had the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery and, of course I think your figure is Wilberforce, so you had to also question the fact that a figure like Wilberforce would be symbolic of the abolition of slavery here.

But we haven’t even been really asked to participate in any major celebrations. Perhaps the closest we’ve come to that was the popular film Lincoln, which actually focuses on the effort to pass the 13th amendment. The sesquicentennial of that passage will be coming up in two years, in 1865. The historical significance of the Proclamation is not so much that it enacted the emancipation of people of African descent; on the contrary, it was a military strategy. But if we examine the meaning of this historical moment we might better be able to grasp the failures as well as the successes of emancipation.

I have thought that perhaps we were not asked to reflect on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation because we might realize that we were never really emancipated. But anyway, at least we may be able to understand the dialectics of emancipation; because we still live the popular myth that Lincoln freed the slaves and that this continues to be perpetuated in popular culture, even by the film Lincoln. Lincoln did not free the slaves.

We also live with the myth that the mid-twentieth century Civil Rights Movement freed the second-class citizens. Civil rights, of course, constitute an essential element of the freedom that was demanded at that time, but it was not the whole story, but maybe we’ll get to that later. Eric Foner, in his book called The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, wrote that, and I am quoting:

The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. It also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage.

And of course popular narratives about the end of slavery produced by the pronouncing of this emancipation document by Abraham Lincoln erase the agency of black people themselves. But, there is something for which Lincoln should be applauded, I believe. And it is that he was shrewd enough to know that the only hope of winning the Civil War resided in creating the opportunity to fight for there own freedom, and that was the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

And as matter of fact … do you remember one of the first scenes, which consists of a conversation with two black soldiers? I think that perhaps is the most important scene in the film, so people who arrived late missed the most important moment in the film.

And in this connection I’d like to evoke W. E. B. Du Bois and chapter four of Black Reconstruction, which defined the consequence of the Emancipation Proclamation as a general strike. He uses the vocabulary of the labor movement. And as a matter of fact, chapter four ‘The General Strike’ is described in the following manner:

How the Civil War meant emancipation and how the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader, in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force.

And so Du Bois argues that it was the withdrawal and bestowal of labor by slaves that won the war. And what he calls ‘this army of striking labor’ eventually provided the 200,000 soldiers, quote: ‘whose evident ability to fight decided the war’. And these soldiers included women like Hariet Tubman, who was a soldier and a spy and had to fight for many years in order to be granted later on a soldier’s pension.

In the aftermath of the war, we find one of the most hidden eras of US history; and that is the period of radical reconstruction. It certainly remains the most radical era in the entire history of the United States of America. And this is an era that is rarely acknowledged in historical texts. We had black elected officials, the development of public education (as a matter of fact, former slaves fought for the right of public education, that is to say, education that did not cost money as your education here costs … I’ll say parenthetically! … The fight was for non-commodified education and as a matter of fact white children in the south, poor white children who had not had education gained access to education as a direct result of the struggles of former slaves). There were progressive laws passed challenging male supremacy. This is an era that is rarely acknowledged.

During that era of course we had the creation of what we now call historically black colleges and universities and there was economic development. This period didn’t last very long. From the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, we might take 1865 as that day until 1877 when a radical reconstruction was overturned—and not only was it overturned but it was erased from the historical record—and so in the 1960s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860s. One hundred years later.

As a matter of fact, the Klu Klux Klan and the racial segregation that was so dramatically challenged during the mid-twentieth century freedom movement was produced not during slavery but rather in an attempt to manage free black people who would have been far more successful in pushing forward democracy for all.

And so we see this dialectical development of the black liberation movement. There is this freedom movement and then there is an attempt to narrow the freedom movement so that it fits into a much smaller frame, the frame of civil rights. Not that civil rights is not immensely important, but freedom is more expansive that civil rights.

And as that movement grew and developed it was inspired by and in turn inspired liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australia. It was not only a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in society, but rather it was also about substantive rights—it was about jobs, free education, free health care, affordable housing, and also about ending the racist police occupation of black communities.

And so in the 1960s organizations like the Black Panther Party were created. And I should say that the Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, which means there should be a fiftieth anniversary celebration coming up!

And so I wonder how are we going to address, for example, the ten-point program of the Black Panther Party and I’ll just summarize the ten-point program and you might get an idea why there are not efforts underway to guarantee a large fiftieth anniversary celebration for the Black Panther Party.

  • Number one was we want freedom.
  • Two, full employment.
  • Three, an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities — it was anti-capitalist!
  • Number four, we want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
  • Number five, we want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in present day society.
  • And number six—which is especially significant in relation to the right-wing effort to undo the very small efforts made by the Obama administration to produce health care for poor people in the US—we want completely free health care for all black and oppressed people.
  • Number seven, we want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of black people, other people of color, and all oppressed people inside the United States.
  • Number eight, we want an immediate end to all wars of aggression—you see how current this still sounds.
  • Number nine: we want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in US Federal state, county, city, and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.
  • And finally, number ten: we want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.

What is so interesting about this manifesto is that it recapitulates nineteenth century abolitionist agendas and of course the most advanced abolitionists in the nineteenth century recognized that slavery could not be ended by simply negatively abolishing slavery but rather that institutions had to be produced that would incorporate former slaves into a new and developing democracy.

The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, the program recapitulates abolitionist agendas from the nineteenth century and it continues to resonate with respect to abolitionist agendas in the twenty-first century.

A member of the Black Panther Party, Herman Wallace, who, some of you may be familiar with, he was known as—in circles that continue to engage in campaigns to free political prisoners—as one of the Angola Three. He was released on the first of this month, having spent forty-one years in solitary confinement and he died on October 4th, three days after being released. If you’re interested in Herman Wallace, you might look at the work in which he collaborated, an art piece called the ‘House that Herman Built’. He was asked by an artist to imagine what kind of house he wanted to live in; and this in the context of having inhabited a 6 x 9 foot cell for almost a half a century.

At the age of sixty-six, another member of the Blank Panther Party, Assata Shakur, who received political asylum in Cuba after escaping from a US prison during the 1980s, she was just recently designated one of the ten most wanted terrorists in the world. Assata Shakur who is a writer and an artist and who had made a life for herself in Cuba now has to fear Blackwater-type mercenaries who might want to claim the two million dollar reward that has been offered in connection with placing her on the ten most wanted terrorists list.

(And I should say parenthetically, when I learned about this in May, I remembered when I was placed on the ten most wanted. I didn’t make the ten most wanted terrorist list, I think they didn’t have one at that time, but I made the most wanted criminal list. And I was represented as armed and dangerous. And you know one of the things I remember thinking to myself, you know, what is this all about? What could I possibly do? And then I realized it wasn’t about me at all, it wasn’t about the individual at all. It was about sending a message to large numbers of people who they thought they could discourage from involvement in the freedom struggles at that time.)

Assata Shakur is one of the ten most dangerous terrorists in the world according to Homeland Security and the FBI, and then when I think about the violence of my own youth in Birmingham, Alabama, where bombs were planted repeatedly and houses were destroyed and churches were destroyed and lives were destroyed and we have yet to refer to those acts as the acts of terrorists.

You know terrorism which is represented as external, as outside, is very much a domestic phenomenon. Terrorism very much shaped the history of the United States of America. Acknowledging continuities between nineteenth century anti-slavery struggles, twentieth century civil rights struggles, twenty-first century abolitionist struggles—and when I say abolitionist struggles I’m referring to the abolition of imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment, the abolition of the prison industrial complex—acknowledging these continuities requires a challenge to the closures that isolate the freedom movement of the twentieth century from the century preceding and the century following.

It is incumbent upon us not only to recognize these temporal continuities but also to recognize the horizontal continuities, links with a whole range of movements and struggles today. And I want very specifically to mention the ongoing sovereignty struggles in Palestine. In Palestine where not too long ago, Palestinian freedom riders set out to contest the apartheid practices of the state of Israel.

But I have been speaking too long. And despite my critique of closures I am compelled by time restrictions to close my talk this evening. So I want to close with an opening.

All around the world people are saying that we want to struggle to continue as global communities, to create a world free of xenophonbia and racism, a world from which poverty has been expunged, and the availability of food is not subject to the demands of capitalist profit. I would say a world where a corporation like Monsanto would be deemed criminal. Where homophobia and transphobia can truly be called historical relics along with the punishment of incarceration and institutions of confinement for disabled people; and where everyone learns how to respect the environment and all of the creatures, human and non-human alike, with whom we cohabit our worlds.

Thank you very much.


  1. Not a single comment to this post -especially here!

    • Absolutely brilliant and inspiring! Angela is not only a towering intellect, but, a phenomenal visionary.

  2. This is a beautifully inspiring speech by an American hero. I’m so proud to be from the same state she is. Fearless truth seems to drop effortlessly from her lips.


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