In the early 1970s, pictures of Angela Davis visiting East Germany (GDR) circulated the world. In them, she appears casual, stylish and confident as she towers over Socialist Unity Party (SED) leader Erich Honecker, outshining his forced smile.
"During my childhood in Hungary, pictures of this woman with her characteristic hairstyle appeared everywhere — on posters and even on tapestries," historian Kata Krasznahorkai recalled to DW.
But behind Davis' iconic look was a woman who wore many proverbial hats that not only earned her admiration but also attracted criticism: A seasoned civil rights activist in the US, Davis was also regarded a dangerous terrorist by the FBI at one point.
In the communist nations behind the Iron Curtain, she became a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance — especially after she was charged with murder in August 1970 and consequently arrested on October 13, 50 years ago.
Left-wing opposition to systemic racism in Alabama
Born in Alabama in 1944, Davis grew up in a relatively sheltered family as the daughter of a gas station owner and a teacher. Her parents showed an active interest in politics, frequenting leftist and communist circles while she was still a child.
But like other African Americans, Davis also had to witness the long shadow of racism, especially during her formative years. The white supremacist Ku Klux Klan carried out multiple attacks on Black communities in her neighborhood of Birmingham, which became known as "Dynamite Hill" and "Bombingham."
She would later cite these first encounters with brutal systemic racism as justification for her political commitment to and membership in the Communist Party of the US.
A civil rights activist gone rogue?
After studying at universities in Paris and Frankfurt am Main, she eventually landed a position as a lecturer at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in the late 1960s. But her career didn't last long. After an undercover FBI agent revealed her membership in the Communist Party, her contract at UCLA was terminated.
She was also placed on the FBI's list of the ten most wanted "terrorists" for having she lobbied for the release of three black prisoners known as the Soledad Brothers, who had allegedly murdered a white prison warden at Soledad prison.
One of the prisoners' brothers — a personal friend of Davis' — kidnapped five hostages during the trial. Several people died by gunfire during the stand-off. An investigation into the incident later revealed that the gun used was registered under Davis' name. She became a fugitive overnight, launching a manhunt across the entire nation.
On October 13, 1970, Davis was arrested in New York City. US President Richard Nixon personally congratulated the FBI in succeeding with the "capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis."
Solidarity, socialist style
Davis' arrest sent a shockwaves all the way to Europe, where the communist Eastern Bloc countries started coordinating solidarity campaigns. The "Freedom for Angela" slogan became ubiquitous throughout the GDR. Students sent postcards with roses to the US, demanding her release. On June 4, 1972, Davis was acquitted of charges of conspiring to kidnapping and murder.
A few months later, Davis traveled to Europe, visiting several of the Communist-ruled countries that had rallied so fervently around her cause. East Berlin was particularly excited about the "American comrade" paying a visit. The newspaper Neues Deutschland wrote on September 11, 1972, that she "was welcomed enthusiastically by 50,000 people."
"Our lives are dedicated to the struggle against imperialism," the newspaper quoted Davis as saying, while portraying her as "a victim of imperialist violence." Other articles later referred to her as "The Black Rose from Alabama" or "Comrade Angela Davis."
A convenient poster girl
There was a calculated reason why the governments of Eastern Europe — and the GDR in particular — championed her cause.
"[GDR-leader] Erich Honecker knew his public appeal was moderate at best. With his lack of charisma, he was not exactly suited to appear as a poster boy hung up in the bedrooms of young people," explained Krasznahorkai, who studies the Black Power movement in Eastern Europe at the Slavic Studies Department of the University of Zurich. "In order to reach out to the youth, he needed this popular cultural figure on his side, and that's why the campaign for the release of Angela Davis came at just the right time."
"He desperately needed this image of himself shaking hands with this Black woman for several reasons: first, to remain in power, and second, for the recognition of his nation within the greater world," Krasznahorkai added. "He wanted to ideologically separate the GDR from the FRG [Federal Republic of Germany], and to find ways to legitimize this on a moral level."
Moreover, the Eastern Bloc as a whole wanted to portray itself as progressive on the gender front, which is why they chose to use Davis as a symbolic figure in the struggle against their arch-enemy: the US.
A divisive figure
In addition to government leaders who tried to win Davis over for themselves, many artists oppressed by dictatorships also hoped to instrumentalize her fame to drum up more support for their cause. But there was little contact between the American civil rights activist and activists in the Eastern Bloc, many of whom criticized Davis' lack of solidarity, such as writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Krasznahorkai said that Davis deliberately did not seek to show her support for the opposition.
"It was not only her life that was at stake there, but also the entire struggle for the Black civil rights movement. She needed to occupy another metaspace beyond her role as a fighter against racism. And that was what communism could do for her. She thought that she could use the context of communism to achieve the goals she had set out to succeed in in her role a Black activist.
"And she knew exactly who would give her the support she needed — not the dissidents and opposition artists, but the state authorities. She was thus willing to compromise, sacrificing her image to fulfill her goals.”
From 'Free Angela Davis' to 'Black Lives Matter'
Today, 50 years after her arrest, people around the world still demonstrate against racism and seek justice for African Americans. Following the brutal death of George Floyd, protests against discrimination of the Black US population have reached a new level. But unlike in the 60s and 70s, there are no leadership idols in the current Black Lives Matter protests.
"This is a decentralized and anti-hierarchical movement today that does not produce the likes of Angela Davis and Malcolm X," Krasznahorkai said.
Yet this doesn't mean that Davis has remained quiet on current issues. She has admitted that she stopped fighting too soon and said systemic racism has become much worse, and that she had hoped that today's youth would finish what her generation had started.
"In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist," Davis has said. At age 76, she remains politically active and frequently speaks out on topics such as feminism, civil rights and anti-racism.
She is still remembered by many in Germany, as well. A new exhibition on Davis in Dresden highlights her role in the Eastern Bloc in photographs, videos, sculptures, sound installations and conceptual works.
The exhibition "1 Million Rosen für Angela Davis" ("1 Million Roses for Angela Davis" will be shown at the Lipsiusbau in the Dresden Kunsthalle museum until 24.01.2021.
This article was translated from German.