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January 29, 2008

Activist Angela Davis addresses packed house

[img id="80291" align="alignleft"] Activists, not leaders, must forge social movements if they hope to end racism and social inequality, said former Black Panther Angela Davis on Thursday at the 40th annual George E. Kent lecture, which commemorates the first black professor tenured at the University. The lecture, hosted by the Organization of Black Students, was part of the weeklong celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Davis told an audience of more than 1,500 University and community members gathered in Rockefeller Chapel that such changes only happen when “ordinary people become collectively aware of themselves as potential agents of social change.”

Currently a professor at the University of California– Santa Cruz, Davis was once on the FBI’s most wanted list in connection with the death of a judge, although she was later acquitted. During the 18 months she spent in prison, “Free Angela Davis” became a popular rallying cry for many radicals from Cuba to Moscow.

“What kind of change brings a greater magnitude of freedom to marginalized people?” Davis asked the audience. She said that she believes change must come from communities and not individuals.

Condoleezza Rice, the first black female Secretary of State, doesn’t count as an example of change under Davis’s definition, she said, because Rice is one black woman, not a community.

Despite King’s importance, Davis said that his current prominence in civil rights history downplays the role of the many foot soldiers who remain unrecognized, causing activists to conflate a popular movement with its charismatic leader.

“That movement was organized by women,” Davis said, paying homage to the many women who aided the burgeoning civil rights movement of the ’60s. “We have to rescue Dr. King from his official legacy.”

But despite the efforts of early civil rights activists, Davis said that “racism may be more entrenched in our institutions today than it was in the time of the civil rights movement.” To prove her point, she cited the 2.3 million formerly or currently incarcerated black men in the United States alone.

Davis also said that latent societal racism often emerges in racist “slips”—referring to the comments made by James D. Watson, U of C alumnus and co-discoverer of DNA, who suggested that blacks are less intelligent than whites. After listing several recent offenders, she asked the audience, “Who else?” Don Imus’s name was recognizable among the flood of audience responses.

But Davis was listing their names not to ridicule their slips but to point out the entrenched racism that she sought to illuminate.

“That’s the problem: We assume that they’re just slips,” she said. Rather, she said, these seemingly isolated slips reveal a “racism that infects the very foundations of society.”

Davis concluded that to combat entrenched racism and inequality, activists must focus on movement building, rather than just the energy generated by a single leader or individual. She also warned of “a very dangerous individualism” and argued that the U.S.’s capitalist economic system keeps poor people poor.

In an impromptu effort to illustrate her theme of movement building, Davis told Frank Edwards, an organizer of an anti-prison movement who had asked her a question, to stand in a corner after the show and encouraged audience members to sign up for his movement. Edwards reported that roughly 15 people spoke with him after the show.

Another man who addressed Davis claimed that a large proportion of black undergraduate biology majors had dropped out of the U of C. He suggested that the admissions department had accepted the students to improve its diversity profile, knowing meanwhile that the students were not academically capable. Without confirming his claims, Davis suggested that this man stand in another part of the chapel, but several interested students said they were unable to find him after the speech because he had apparently left.