On June 4, 1972, Angela Davis, a philosophy professor and Black radical, was acquitted on charges of kidnapping and murder related to the death of a U.S. judge. As History.com describes it:
In October 1970, Davis was arrested in New York City in connection with a shootout that occurred on August 7 in a San Raphael, California, courtroom. She was accused of supplying weapons to Jonathan Jackson, who burst into the courtroom in a bid to free inmates on trial there and take hostages whom he hoped to exchange for his brother George, a Black radical imprisoned at San Quentin Prison. In the subsequent shoot-out with police, Jonathan Jackson was killed along with Superior Court Judge Harold Haley and two inmates.
The acquittal resulted in part from “the weakness of the prosecution’s case and obvious political nature of the proceedings.” Davis had spoken out in support of three imprisoned Black men – George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette – who had been charged with murdering a prison guard. It was during Jackson’s trial that the shootout occurred; the guns used were registered to Davis but this fact alone was deemed insufficient circumstantial evidence to conclude that she had any involvement in the kidnappings and killings.
The obvious political motivation for the charges – in addition to her association with radical Black causes, Davis was also at the time a member of the Communist Party – were underlined by the U.S. president, Richard Nixon, who applauded her arrest by calling her a “terrorist.”
If all of this has uncomfortable resonance with what is unfolding in the U.S. today, it should serve as a reminder of how little has changed. Davis, who is now an advocate for prison abolition, has first-hand knowledge of a carceral system that disproportionately punishes Blacks. Or, as Davis puts it in an essay titled “An Appeal”: “As a consequence of the racism securely interwoven in the capitalist fabric of society, Black people have become more thoroughly acquainted with America’s jails and prisons than any other group of people in this country.” Those words were written in 1971; the situation has only grown worse in the decades since.
The volume If They Come in the Morning … Voices of Resistance is valuable as a collection of first-hand writings from political prisoners and radical resisters during the height of the racial unrest in the U.S. at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s, unrest that has reverberations into the present.
Davis and her co-authors were radicals and Marxists, and the language they use is accordingly tough and uncompromising. They refer to the creeping fascism of the state apparatus and advocate all manner of disobedience, both civil and otherwise, in the face of policies of suppression and racial animus. But the volume also makes it clear that this language and this approach is rooted in a history of violence against Black bodies and the mobilization of institutional forces to keep Black people subservient and repressed in their own country. One of the people Davis profiles is Marie Hill, who found herself on death row at age seventeen. As is typical, Davis pulls no punches: “Emmett Till was lynched outside the law, Marie Hill is being lynched under the colour of law.”
If They Come in the Morning provides specific historical context for Davis’s own trial and incarceration, as well as that of the so-called Soledad 3, Black Panther Bobby Searle, and others. But it also offers a larger window onto the way the state apparatus is arranged against the Black population of the U.S. Writing in an open letter to Davis, James Baldwin could as easily have been speaking yesterday:
We know that we, the Blacks, and not only we, the Blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it – if, indeed it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.