In the early 1970s, Hillary, a thirteen year-old living in west London, wrote a letter to a scholar and political activist whose arrest and imprisonment had become a global cause célèbre: Angela Davis. ‘This is the first time I have written a letter to America except to the Jackson 5 but got no reply’, Hillary wrote; ‘any way I’m a strong supporter of yours I won’t go into detail but I’ll just say I collected some money for you I hope it will help’. Hillary’s letter was one of thousands of messages of solidarity sent to the ‘Free Angela Davis’ campaign during Davis’ sixteen months of imprisonment from 1970-2.
In August 1970, Davis fled charges of murder and kidnapping, for which she was later acquitted, when weapons used in a fatal courtroom shootout in Marin County, California were found to have been purchased by her. After months on the run as one of the FBI’s ‘Ten Most Wanted’, Davis was arrested in New York and sent to California in December to await trial. As a prominent member of the Communist Party of the USA, Davis drew much of her support from fellow Communists. Most of the letters sent to Davis’ campaign came from the Soviet Union. Yet the campaign to ‘Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners’ also received messages of solidarity from across the world. These letters were later transferred to Stanford University, where researchers have recently had the opportunity to read them.
When I visited Stanford Special Collections in February 2019, the archivists had recently catalogued several hundred letters sent from Britain and a small number that arrived from Ireland. I wondered: who had written these letters and what compelled them to write? Beyond expressions of solidarity, what did these writers want to share with Angela Davis?
Most of the letters were from Communist Party members and student activists, but many also evoked an everyday internationalism. Nina, a woman from West Lothian, described to Davis how her three daughters had each taken to wearing ‘Free Angela Davis’ T-shirts. Referencing the authorities keeping Davis imprisoned, this self-described ‘Scotch housewife’ wrote assertively: ‘You and I both know there (sic) days are numbered, I fear not as soon as we would like, but my God what a lot of they’ve got to answer for! And they will answer.’
When the Irish Times printed a front page article on Davis in December 1972, an American couple living in Cork cut the piece out and sent it to Palo Alto. Images of Davis looking defiant, usually with a cigarette in her hand, had become iconic in newspapers across the world. These photographs were a powerful form of representation in a western media landscape that lacked racial and gender diversity. In a postscript to her letter sent from west London, Hillary added: ‘P.S. Your young gifted and black (like me) so you’ve got no worrys’.
Many cards conveyed Christmas greetings to Davis, who spent the 1971 holiday season in a Palo Alto cell. A ten-year-old from Fife crafted her own card for Davis with glitter, a cut out image of a snowman and the message ‘Hoping you are free soon Dear Comrade Angela’. Another less joyful Christmas card was detailed with a sketch of the Long Kesh internment camp outside Lisburn.
Several writers linked Davis’ case and her campaign’s call to ‘free all political prisoners’ to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The conflict intensified during Davis’ imprisonment. On January 30 1972, while Davis awaited trial, British Parachute Regiment soldiers opened fire on a civil rights march in Derry, killing thirteen people and injuring thirteen others, one fatally. One of the cards sent to Davis depicted a black coffin with the number thirteen and the date of the massacre in Derry. In February 1972, a woman who signed off ‘a friend, Martina’ wrote from Belfast: ‘even if our own Irish troubles are still going strong, we here still have time to FREE THE SOLEDAD BROTHERS + FIGHT FOR THEIR LIVES, AND YOUR FREEDOM.’
Coursing through the letters is a sentiment that Davis herself recognised when speaking at Stanford in 2018: writing to her, a woman imprisoned in another country, made the letter writers ‘feel like a part of something bigger’. From the ‘Free Tom Mooney’ crusade of the post-war years to the campaign to save the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, the international communist movement had long recognised the mobilising potential of global solidarity campaigns with prisoners of the ‘class war’. These campaigns offered a chance to liberate imprisoned comrades and made the ordinary foot soldiers of revolutionary movements feel like active participants in a dramatic global struggle. Another parallel with these earlier campaigns was how Soviet support for Davis prompted some activists, including critical voices from the left, to raise the case of political prisoners within the USSR. The Czech dissident Jiří Pelikán published an open letter to Davis on precisely this topic in August 1972.
On 4 June 1972, Davis was tried and declared innocent of all charges. Letters continued to arrive – this time with messages both of solidarity and congratulations. One letter from Britain celebrated the news of Davis’ release with a stick-figure self-portrait and a succinct message: ‘dear Angla Davis’, John wrote, ‘I am glad you have Just [come] out of the nick.’
Now recognised as a civil rights icon, Davis advocates an internationalist and intersectional feminism that is avowedly anti-racist, anti-carceral and trans-inclusive. The movement she helped build in the 1970s recognised that her case was not simply about freeing one woman from a California jail, but about challenging the interlocking systems of oppression that placed her there. The vast archive of that movement offers researchers an opportunity to study how and why thousands of ordinary people wrote letters to Davis, providing a testament to how the campaign to ‘Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners’ fuelled radical dreams and struggles against social injustice across the world.
The letters to Angela Davis from Britain and Ireland are held in the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis Records (M0262), Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford Libraries, Stanford, California.
Dr Maurice J Casey is the current DFA Historian in Residence at EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum. He was a Fulbright visiting researcher at Stanford University from 2018-9. If you wrote to Davis or were part of the Free Angela Davis campaign in Britain or Ireland, he would be interested in hearing from you: he is on Twitter @MauriceJCasey.