On August 7, 1970, seventeen-year-old Jonathan Jackson entered a courtroom in Marin County, California. Heavily armed, he took the presiding judge, Harold Haley, and other members of the court hostage. In this action, Jackson sought to negotiate the freedom of his older brother, George, an inmate at California’s Soledad Prison, who was accused, along with two other African-American men, of murdering a white prison guard. A legal defense of these three, known as the “Soledad Brothers,” was already underway. Among the celebrity activists involved were Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Noam Chomsky, and Allen Ginsberg; Angela Davis was leading the movement. The young Jackson’s kidnapping ended in a shootout. He, Judge Haley, and two others died. Two more were injured. Shortly after the incident, it was discovered that the guns Jackson used were registered to Angela Davis.
Angela Davis’s autobiography opens on August 9, 1970. She is struggling to fit her hair beneath a wig. “Like broken wings,” she writes, “my hands floundered about my head, my thoughts completely disassociated from their movement.” Davis is getting ready to flee the State. California considers, “all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense… principles in any crime so committed.” The guns incriminated her. A warrant goes out for the arrest of Angela Davis on the charge of, “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder.” She’s added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitive List. She hides.
Davis’s few months underground, eventual arrest, prison stay, trial, and release structure her autobiography, which was published in 1974, when Davis was thirty years old. The book, 400 pages exactly in my edition, also recounts Angela’s life leading up to her arrest. She writes of her education, her family history, and her friendships. In memoir, she shares her politics, defining concepts like communism and imperialism through recreated dialogues with other prisoners, or American myths of poverty in reflections on her childhood. Mostly, though, Davis details, with evidentiary precision, her experiences in America’s judicial system from 1970 to 1972. Still, it reads like a thriller. Angela Davis is savvy—she wants us to follow her to the end.