Angela Davis left a party celebrating President Barack Obama's second inauguration at 2:30 a.m. to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. As she studied the word inscribed there, she felt incredibly moved by how far our country has progressed in terms of freedom and equality. However, she also contemplated steps we have taken backward since the civil rights era. She wondered, in the silence that night, "How do we address progression and regression at the same time?"
Davis posed that question Tuesday night from the stage at Davidson's Duke Family Performance Hall. She spoke to a sold-out, multicultural crowd that stood and cheered wildly as the author, political activist and revolutionary figure once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list entered the room.
She first spoke about progress. She gave examples of how the black freedom movement in America had inspired the world, from indigenous Maoris in New Zealand forming a Black Panther Party, to Palestinians organizing freedom rides in Gaza, patterned after those in the 1961 American South.
For the first time, we have a president who identifies himself as being black and who was elected twice to lead our country, despite losing the vote of white males the second time around. Only one generation ago, this was unthinkable.
But even with a black president, old wounds have not completely healed. She expressed concerns that America's collective relationship with the events of the past is seriously flawed. For example, why, in 2013, are we not celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in American history? Why do we not recognize "black history" as American history, or as world history?
She explained that while it's great to celebrate black leaders, we do ourselves a disservice when we excessively focus on single individuals. In doing so, we easily forget that civil rights battles were fought by a collective — people who imagined a better universe and found the courage to provoke change. Even young children marched and stood up to police batons and fire hoses in 1960s Birmingham. Not just one woman, an entire community of poor black women, started the bus boycott in Montgomery.
Davis said when we don't keep this in mind, we assume only great and heroic individuals can make history. King never imagined himself a savior, only one part of a movement. That movement was comprised of ordinary people, most who of whom didn't have higher education or wealth.
Davis then observed these civil rights struggles shouldn't have been necessary. From 1865-77, during a not-often-mentioned period called "Radical Reconstruction," blacks enjoyed full legal citizenship, free of segregation. Former slaves established public education in the South, and some even held public office. Laws were passed for womens' rights and other progressive causes.
Davis said at that point, strategies were developed to "manage" free blacks — strategies like segregation and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. She contended that America has regressed back to these types of strategies, with our system of mass incarceration.
There are more black people imprisoned today in America than were slaves in 1850. Although the US contains only 5 percent of the world's population, we are home to 25 percent of the world's captive prisoners.
She speculated that some states are so eager to pass anti-immigration laws because they see "illegal" immigrants as the most profitable source of income for the prison industrial complex in the coming years.
In California, a citizen could once get free education, up to a Ph.D. Now, those public resources have been allocated to fund prisons.
Other areas of regression she cited included LGBT rights, our corporatized food system and healthcare, the latter of which will not be solved by the Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare, which she called "better than nothing, but not by much."
Free education, healthcare and affordable housing were on both the abolitionist agenda and the Black Panthers' 10 point program. "When 2063 rolls around, will we still be addressing the same issues?" she asked.
She sees a glimmer of hope by what transpired in the last election.
"People didn't allow voter suppression efforts to work," she said. "They waited in line for up to seven hours, like it was the first election in South Africa. That tells us something about what our country is capable of doing."
However, she cautioned again about putting too much faith in one individual.
"By this time, anyone who may have thought Obama was the Messiah knows now he is just the president," she said. "He won't make things better. We have to do it collectively."