Black Leaders Must Pass White-Approved Purity Tests That White Leaders Don’t. Ask Angela Davis

Angela Davis speaks at The 2013 Peace Ball: Voices of Hope And Resistance at Arena Stage on January 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Angela Davis speaks at The 2013 Peace Ball: Voices of Hope And Resistance at Arena Stage on January 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

If you haven’t heard, black civil rights icon Angela Davis should not be honored by civil rights organizations because she’s too impure.


Here’s a quick summary of the controversy from my colleague Michael Harriot:

The museum’s backtrack reportedly revolves around Davis’ support of the Boycott Divest and Sanctioning movement. Davis has been a vocal supporter of the BDS movement that urges individuals, companies, and organizations to boycott Israel because of the country’s repeated documented human rights violations of the Palestinian people. To be clear, Davis has not been accused of any anti-Semitic statements or actions. The BCRI reneged like a cheating spades player and rescinded an award honoring people who fight for human rights simply because Davis chose to fight for human rights.

I’m not surprised that even a well-respected civil rights museum such as the one in Birmingham, Ala., would do something like this. Anyone who dares support any kind of boycott against Israeli policy is likely to come under fire, from Republicans and establishment Democrats alike, and be deemed anti-Semitic even when all they are doing is protesting highly questionable decisions by a government that routinely harms already vulnerable people. Just ask Marc Lamont Hill if you doubt it.

But underneath this particular flareup of controversy is a deeper problem with how too many white people view iconic black figures. If the black figure doesn’t meet a particular white-centric metric of acceptability, that black figure simply can’t be worthy of being honored in any context, in any way, no matter how much good they’ve done for fellow black people. That’s the crux of the argument being pushed in a piece by Forward writer Cathy Young, titled, “Sorry Angela Davis is No One’s Human Rights Hero”:

Davis, who turns 75 later this month, has often been called a civil rights icon (indeed, the now-canceled event honoring her was titled “A Civil Rights Icon Returns.”) But while she was involved in the civil rights movement as a teenager, she became an icon much later—in 1970, as a black militant facing murder charges for her alleged role in a violent attack in a California courtroom.

By then, Davis, a former University of California professor who had studied with the radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse in Europe, was a card-carrying Communist and a supporter of the Black Panther Party. She was accused of helping engineer a hostage-taking in a California courtroom intended to free three Black Panthers accused of killing a white prison guard. Davis had bought several of the firearms used in the attack, in which the judge and the three defendants were killed and several other people were injured.

I won’t spend a lot of time defending Davis’ legacy, because it doesn’t need defending; it speaks for itself. She earned her iconic status.


But according to Young, Davis is unworthy of such status because she was found not guilty in the death of three people supposedly because of a “sympathetic all-white jury.” Think of the absurdity of that statement—that a black radical in 1972 was acquitted only because of the sympathy of an all-white jury. That Davis was quickly found not guilty simply underscores that she was the exception to the rule—all-white juries in America have routinely convicted innocent black people and acquitted white people they knew lynched and raped black people—that the government’s case was so weak, the trial such a sham, that not even an all-white jury ever considered seriously finding her guilty.

Through Twitter, I asked Young to explain her point, and she sent me a link to this piece from the Los Angeles Times—a piece that, like most others about the case you’d find, pointed out how flimsy the case against Davis was. No matter; Young was undeterred even after I pointed that out, responding: “I agree. But the fact remains.”


The fact to which she refers is that even when a black person who spent her teenage years fighting for equality during the civil rights movement and went on to champion human rights around the world is found not guilty by an all-white jury because a government hostile to black people was clearly abusing its power in its pursuit of her, she should still be considered guilty.

It’s a maddening, but unsurprising rationale. If you are black struggling for equality against a system systemically oppressing you and others who look like you, you are unworthy of honor if you aren’t perfect—and only white people get to determine if you meet that standard. Remember, it happened to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was despised by most white people during the final years of life and blamed for violence. Of course, it happened to Malcolm X, who dared to play by his own rules. Let us not forget that the U.S. government once labeled Nelson Mandela a terrorist (until 2008!) And even President Barack Obama was accused of siding with “criminals” because he dared explain black frustration with police brutality and said had he a son, his son would look like Trayvon Martin. For this, Obama was quickly denounced as a racist.


Davis isn’t perfect, which is another way of saying she is just as human as every great historical figure before and since she became an icon. Yes, some members of the Black Panther Party with whom she was associated did some awful things. And even the King-led civil rights movement wasn’t perfect, given that it didn’t value gender equality and diversity even as it rightly fought for racial equality.

But too many people overplay the “mistakes” black people struggling against oppression made—why wouldn’t Davis and others have looked to another system, like communism even, given that capitalism resulted in black enslavement and Jim Crow and thousands of lynchings and other horrors—and downplay all the good they accomplished. It’s precisely the opposite of what they do for white American icons.


That’s why I asked Young a simple question: Should the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington be held to the standard Young is holding Davis to? In other words, should we never honor such men, given that they participated in and benefited from one of the world’s great evils, even though they had the power to fight against rather than for slavery? (Of course, even if everything Young wrote about Davis was accurate and in context, which isn’t the case, Davis’ “sins” would still pale in comparison to men who literally enriched themselves and their families on the backs of the enslaved.)

Young hasn’t gotten back to me on that yet. I think I know why; because she and others would cry foul if black people said that the public statues and monuments and memorials built to honor white men who raped, robbed, and murdered black people and Native Americans should be torn down because their sins far outweigh the good they did.


That’s why black people should not allow white people, or anyone else, to determine who we should honor or not. We don’t need their permission, neither should we seek it.

Bailey is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and author of the book, "My Brother Moochie: Reclaiming Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South." He's a husband and father.



“Should the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington be held to the standard Young was holding Davis to?”

Interesting question, Mr. Bailey. Let’s flip it around. Do you honor Thomas Jefferson and George Washington? And, if you don’t, why do call upon others to honor Angela Davis?