Angela Davis

Angela Davis (b. 1944) is an American philosopher and political activist. Born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, to African American middle-class parents, Davis established an especially close personal and intellectual association with Germany early on. This began when she became interested in German philosophy through her studies with Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis University.

Then, from 1965–1967, she studied at the University of Frankfurt with key thinkers of the Frankfurt School and became acquainted with members of the German Socialist Student League (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, SDS), participating in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. When she continued her studies in California, she joined the civil rights organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and eventually the American Communist Party (CPUSA), soon advancing as a leading intellectual representative of black power after being appointed to an assistant professorship at UCLA.

Accused of being an accomplice in a murder case in 1970, she was arrested, jailed for over a year, and finally acquitted in 1972. Her imprisonment elicited expressions of support throughout the world and particularly in both East and West Germany.

In West Germany, Davis’s imprisonment prompted a strong solidarity movement. Several groups like the Black Panther Solidarity Committee in Frankfurt and the Angela Davis Solidarity Committee distributed information on her case and organized dozens of rallies and support campaigns, which not only by students but a broad, sympathetic public carried forth. On June 3–4, 1972, for example, the Angela Davis Solidarity Committee organized a congress “Am Beispiel Angela Davis” [The Example of Angela Davis], which drew more than 10,000 people for the opening rally at the Frankfurt Opernplatz.

In East Germany, the regime led a nationwide push to mobilize solidarity for Angela Davis. Portraying her as the heroine of the “other America,” it produced a whole host of publications, songs, and radio plays about Davis available to the population and organized support rallies throughout the country. These campaigns swept across East German society: citizens signed petitions on Davis’s behalf, collected “solidarity donations” for “Free Angela Davis” committees in the U.S., and children painted “sunflowers for Angela Davis” in school.

Only a few months after her acquittal on June 4, 1972, Angela Davis went on a tour through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to express her gratitude for the international solidarity campaign this part of the world had waged on her behalf. In East Germany, her reception was marked by mass rallies with thousands of people, by meetings with government officials, as well as by tours through the country’s universities and industrial centers.

Davis also received an honorary degree from the Karl Marx University of Leipzig, was granted honorary citizenship in the city of Magdeburg, and met with Erich Honecker, the newly appointed East German communist party Leader. Davis’s perfectly orchestrated visit in 1972 turned her into a communist superstar in the GDR.

She returned to East Berlin in the summer of 1973 as the head of the American delegation for the Tenth World Festival of Youth and Students where her appearance was used even more extensively for propaganda purposes than her previous visit had been. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Davis remained a frequent guest of honor in East Germany. On these visits and outside the country, she defended the GDR’s right to exist and advocated for its international recognition.

“A Million Roses for Angela Davis”

Shortly after U.S. authorities captured Angela Davis in October 1970, a comprehensive solidarity campaign for her emerged in East Germany. One of the main bodies driving this effort was the Junge Welt [Young World], the daily newspaper of the state-controlled youth organization FDJ, the Freie Deutsche Jugend [Free German Youth]. The paper provided extensive information about Davis’s case and her trial, as well as covering any activities in her support in the U.S. and in East Germany.

During a delegate conference of the local FDJ branch at the clock factory Ruhla (VEB Uhrenwerke Ruhla) on January 15 in the presence of Günter Jahn, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the FDJ, Angelika Löffler, a local programmer, allegedly advanced the idea of a large postcard writing campaign for Angela Davis. The pre-formatted postcards, featuring the silhouette of a rose, were to be sent to Angela Davis’s prison cell in California on the occasion of her 27th birthday on January 26, 1971.

The FDJ and the Junge Welt, endorsed by the communist party, subsequently called for a widespread public, solidarity campaign with the theme “A million roses for Angela Davis,” which became the signature feature of East German support for Davis. Templates of these postcards were printed on a full page in the Junge Welt, and children, young people and adults were officially encouraged to participate in the initiative or craft their own solidarity greetings.

Mailbags with thousands and thousands of postcards and letters were delivered to Angela Davis in prison, banners with roses were on display during East German solidarity events on her behalf, and during her visits to East Germany in 1972 and 1973, roses were frequently given to her as a welcome gift and expression of commitment to her cause, thus firmly anchoring this campaign in public memory.

For a short bibliography on the origins of campaign, see here.

Further Reading:

a) General
– Davis, Angela Yvonne: Angela Davis—An Autobiography (New York, Random House, 1974).

– Davis, Angela Yvonne: If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (New York, Third Press, 1971).

– Davis, Angela Yvonne, and Joy James: The Angela Y. Davis Reader (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006).

b) Related to Germany
– Angela Davis Solidaritätskomitee, ed.: Am Beispiel Angela Davis: Der Kongreß in Frankfurt (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1972).

“East Germany: St. Angela,” Time, April 3, 1972, 46.

– Höhn, Maria and Martin Klimke: A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), chapter 6, 7.

– Lehmann, Werner: Schwarze Rose aus Alabama (Berlin: Neues Leben, 1972).

– Steiniger, Klaus: Free Angela Davis. Hero of the Other America (Berlin: National Council of the National Front of the GDR, 1972).

c) Related Sources in Digital Archive
coming soon …