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“People of African descent in the Americas have embodied the quest for freedom for five long centuries,” political activist Angela Davis told the crowd in Woolsey Hall on Thursday.

Davis — a leftist activist, academic, philosopher and author of over ten books on class, feminism and the U.S. prison system — discussed the past and present of the black freedom movement, in celebration of the legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In her speech, she emphasized the contributions of “unsung heroes” of social justice work.

“We need to revise the way in which we narrate the history of black people in the Americas,” Davis said at the talk.

A star of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Davis served as an affiliate of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther party. She was also a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and an all-black chapter of the Communist Party. She was imprisoned for 16 months for her alleged involvement in the armed seizure of a Marin County Courthouse in California and was released on bail and eventually acquitted. The public protest surrounding her arrest further defined her role in the Black Power Movement.

The activist was invited to campus for the annual MLK commemoration ceremony, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary at Yale. The event was coordinated by Assistant Dean of Yale College and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center Rise Nelson with the support of the MLK2020 planning committee.

Davis spoke about the inspiration she drew from civil rights leaders like King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker. She discussed the distortion of MLK Jr.’s legacy in the United States and the tendency to whitewash his struggle against “unjust peace.” She also highlighted the struggles of unrecognized movement leaders, such as black female domestic workers who she said made state boycotts possible.

“As we celebrate Dr. King, we’re really paying tribute to the women who organized and participated in the various campaigns that came to constitute what is known as the civil rights movement,” she said.

Davis connected the historical issues of slavery and the black freedom movement to the present-day prison-industrial complex. She identified herself as a modern-day abolitionist and argued for the dismantling of societal structures that promote mass incarceration — “the afterlives of slavery,” Davis described.

“If slavery had been abolished, then we wouldn’t be addressing all these issues today,” Davis said. “This is why it’s so helpful to think of abolition as an ongoing process.”

The event was open to both Yale community members and the greater city community. New Haven residents Savanna Brookshire and Markeshia Ricks said they were inspired by Davis’ calls to action.

“I really appreciated what she had to say around the importance of art in activism, and how it helps inform emotions you can’t express,” Ricks said. “I also like how she placed feminism as a central part of all freedom movements, and thinking beyond a civil rights movement.”

Brookshire added that she felt empowered to be more active in her community. She said that while “I may be young, it takes my influence and my impact in the world to change.”

The Afro-American Cultural Center, the Department of African American Studies, the Yale College Dean’s Office and Dwight Hall, among others, sponsored the event.

Ella Goldblum |