If They Come in the Morning: Writing from Prison with Angela Davis

If They Come in the Morning: Writing from Prison with Angela Davis

When Angela Davis was imprisoned on false charges of abetting murder, in 1970, her friend Bettina Aptheker visited her in jail over a year-and-a-half to co-write and co-edit a foundational book of the prison abolition movement, If They Come In the Morning.

In 1970, at the height of violent conflict between the U.S. government and oppressed communities across the country—mostly poor, mostly people of colour—the FBI arrested Angela Davis on false charges of attempted murder. A student of Herbert Marcuse, Davis was an assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA who’d been wrongly fired for her political views. Black, brilliant, articulate, Marxist, a member of the Communist Party and an ally of the Black Panthers, Angela Davis frightened the state. They put her in jail in advance of trial and denied bail. She was 26 years old. (Davis tells the story of that time and her ordeal in her 1974 book, An Autobiography.)

The fundamental assertion that prison makes is the isolation of the prisoner, sequestered in a hidden world and deprived of rights. Whether or not a prisoner is remembered or eventually freed, the state constructs an inhumane drama of inside and outside, dividing and damaging the communities that naturally exist among people. During the year and a half that she was incarcerated, Davis and a friend on “the outside” made a shared realm of freedom and agency by working together, in the jail, co-authoring and co-editing a book of resistance writing by people both inside and outside of prison, If They Come In the Morning. Undoing the state’s preferred drama of isolation and powerlessness, Davis and Bettina Aptheker—a prisoner and a free person, a black woman and a white woman, both Communists and lifelong activists—performed the power of their shared politics where the state could not destroy it—in the actions of reading and writing together. Their book reached millions of readers around the world, circulating in a half-dozen languages. Bettina Aptheker recalls the work they did together.

Angela Davis was arrested on October 13, 1970, by FBI agents at a hotel on Eighth Avenue in New York. She’d been placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and hunted since mid-August, following the discovery that guns used in an abortive prisoner revolt at the Marin County Courthouse, in California, had been legally registered in her name. In December she was seized by police in her cell at the Women’s House of Detention, in New York, and extradited to California, without court authorization. Hearings on the extradition were still pending, and her lawyers weren’t informed until after the fact. Brought onto the runway of an Air Force Base in New Jersey, the plane surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets on their rifles, she reported later that she did her best to not even sneeze in the freezing night air lest she be shot. She had been charged with first degree murder, first degree kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit both by a Marin County Grand Jury, a process which allowed her no legal way to contest the evidence leading to the indictment.

Illustration of Angela Davis standing in front of an airplane surrounded by armed soldiers

I had known Angela since childhood. Her mom, a civil rights activist in Birmingham and a much-loved kindergarten and first-grade teacher in the then-segregated “colored school,” came to New York in summers, in part to complete a Master’s degree in education, and in part to visit with her dear friends, Dorothy and Louis Burnham. Veterans of many Southern anti-racist struggles, the Burnhams were friends with my parents, and lived in Brooklyn, only a short distance from our home. Louis Burnham was the editor of Freedom, a journal begun by Paul Robeson, whose managing editor was Lorraine Hansberry. One of the Burnhams’ daughters, Margaret, was my age and a good friend to Angela. During those summers, around ages eight to ten, Angela and I became friends. Later, when she came back on an American Friends scholarship to attend the Elisabeth Irwin High School, we began working together in a socialist youth organization called Advance, and engaging in some early civil rights actions.

Read the preface to If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance

I flew to New York the day after Angela was arrested. There was no doubt in my mind that I would I go. My husband and I had already discussed the details. We were living in San Jose, California. I’d spoken at several rallies in Angela’s defense, and published an essay on the prisoner revolt (which had been led by Jonathan Jackson, the seventeen-year old younger brother of Soledad prisoner George Jackson), in the left-wing weekly newspaper, The National Guardian, four days before Angela’s arrest. My husband was a passionate supporter of Angela, and would take care of our three-year-old son. In New York, I stayed with my parents in Brooklyn. I found Angela at the Women’s House of Detention, a massive building I’d passed scores of times growing up, its ugly gray facade and barred windows, on Sixth Avenue and Greenwich Street at the edge of the West Village, a forbidding presence. Entering it for the first time I was struck by the grimness, the grime, the steel doors, and my almost immediate sense of a loss of autonomy and personhood. I was thoroughly searched, seated in a waiting area, and soon escorted to the visiting room. Angela, in plain green prison garb, was on one side of a plexiglass barrier and I was on the other. We each picked up the telephone, and in this way we talked to each other for the first time in months. She looked exhausted, but her mind was clear, questions concise, appreciative of the article in the Guardian, which she had heard about but not yet seen. We talked about lawyers; at that time she was represented by John Apt who was the lawyer for the Communist Party. Margaret Burnham, just out of law school, was also already involved in her defense. Angela’s way of being, as always, was warm and loving, asking after my family and sending her love to my parents. I left despairing of how we would ever get her out of there, with Richard Nixon in the White House and the forces of the state aligned against us. I felt a sense of profound urgency, and desperation.

In California our Black comrades in the Ché-Lumumba Club of the U.S. Communist Party, based in Los Angeles, had begun putting together a National United Committee to Free Angela Davis. Some of them moved up to the San Francisco Bay Area to enable daily communication with Angela in the Marin County jail. A few weeks later a judge, appointed by the California judiciary, allowed five of us to be qualified as ‘legal investigators,’ which meant we could visit Angela in jail without attorneys being present. I was among the five.

Within days of Angela’s arrest, the preeminent Black writer of his time, James Baldwin, wrote an open letter, soon published in The New York Review of Books, issuing a clarion call for her defense. It ended this way:

The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America. Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

Therefore: peace.

— Brother James

Along with Baldwin’s letter came public statements from scores of African American artists and activists, including Aretha Franklin and the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy. Aretha Franklin offered to put up any amount of money in bail, and the Reverend Abernathy called upon the ‘Pharaoh’ in the White House to ‘let Angela Davis go.’ News of Angela’s arrest galvanized the Black community in the United States, and within a few months support for her had spread—with resolutions, statements of solidarity, and petitions for bail coming from trade unions, many churches and synagogues, parent-teacher associations, the peace movement, the women’s movement—embracing an astonishingly broad political spectrum. Likewise, the movement to Free Angela quickly spanned the globe, with movements in Africa, Latin America, and Europe. Socialist countries, including most notably the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, and Cuba, were among the earliest to establish solidarity committees.

Angela was denied bail, a cornerstone of due process in the U.S. Constitution, because of a provision in the California penal code. Section 1270 said that in a capital case ‘where the presumption of guilt is great’ bail may be denied. The focus of the movement to Free Angela, therefore, was on the campaign for bail in order to restore the presumption of innocence, without which we felt there would be no possibility for a fair trial. It would take 15 months to win this right, and it came about because, in a completely unrelated case, the California State Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional. We seized that moment, made a motion for bail, mobilized world public opinion in a massive show of support, and won our case. The judge set bail at $102,500. This was a huge sum, especially in 1972, but a (white) farmer in Fresno, California, Roger MacAfee, put up his farm as a collateral and bail was arranged. Angela was released from custody on February 23, five days before the start of her trial.

The charges all stemmed from Jonathan Jackson’s attempt to free several prisoners in the Marin County Court that August. Heavily armed, Jonathan had entered the courtroom where the trial of a San Quentin prisoner was in progress and taken it over, distributing guns to the prisoners. Finally, after a considerable period of time (because this escape attempt had obviously not been planned in advance), Jonathan and the prisoners had taken five people hostage—the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and three jurors—in an effort to provide themselves with protection to exit the building and escape. They made it down into the parking lot to a van, and started to drive out. San Quentin guards had had plenty of time to assemble, along with hundreds of deputy sheriffs and other police. The sheriffs held their fire, but the San Quentin guards had orders to shoot escaping prisoners regardless of an unarmed civilian presence. They opened fire on the van and in nine seconds killed the judge, Jonathan, and two of the prisoners. The prosecuting attorney was severely wounded, as was the third prisoner, and a woman juror sustained relatively minor injuries. Neither Jonathan nor any of the prisoners fired a weapon. Jonathan’s action was a sensational and at-the-time unprecedented event, and press coverage was extensive. A largely white mainstream press garbled the story in ways that reinforced anti-Black and racist stereotypes, especially about Black ‘criminality,’ and made it appear as though there was a shoot-out in which Jonathan and the prisoners had fired first. During Angela’s trial this was proved to be a lie.

My husband I only heard the news a day later. We’d taken our little boy camping at Lake Almanor in north central California. We so needed the break and appreciated the beauty of the area, at the eastern gateway to Lassen Volcanic National Park, at 4,500 feet. We had both been working very hard, my husband teaching at San Jose State, and me working on various political campaigns, including protests against the war in Vietnam and the recent slaughter of students at Kent State, in Ohio, where National Guard troops had opened fire on a peaceful assembly in early May. Within a few days of that, police in Jackson, Mississippi, started shooting on the Jackson State campus, killing unarmed Black students. It was a time of what felt like unparalleled peril and protest against terrible state and police violence. On August 8th, the day after Jonathan’s action, we saw a headline, and mention of Jonathan and the ‘Soledad Brothers,’ in a local newspaper. We had both been involved in the movement to free the Soledad Brothers, including George Jackson. Within an hour we had packed up the car and were heading home to San Jose, our ears glued to the car radio for more updates.

Illustration of crowds of people gathered outside of a church. A banner reads "Johnathon Jackson R.I.P."

A week after the events in Marin, a funeral for Jonathan Jackson was held in Oakland, California. Thousands of Black people filled the streets outside of the little white ramshackle church in the heart of the ghetto, most of them young and dressed in Sunday best. Only Jonathan’s family and close friends could get inside the church. My husband and I were among a very few white people standing amidst the mostly silent crowd outside, paying our respects.

Jonathan’s attempt to free Black prisoners reflected his feelings of desperation and frustration with the racism of the criminal justice and prison systems. There was also, I think, an adolescent bravado in which he naively thought he could pull off such an action, not appreciating (perhaps not believing) the furious violence the state apparatus would deploy against him, without mercy. His older brother George, whom he greatly admired, had been in prison for 11 years, seven of them in solitary confinement, on an original charge of robbery (in which he had not taken part; he’d been a passenger in the car used in the escape). There was no trial; on the advice of a court-appointed lawyer George had pleaded guilty in a ‘plea bargain’ with the prosecution, and was sentenced to one year to life. He was 18-years old at the time of his arrest.

Jon’s death was a devastating tragedy from which we were all still reeling when the news arrived that Angela was now wanted on murder charges, because the guns Jon used had been legally registered in her name. No one ever claimed that Angela was present or in any way involved in the actual events. Evidence of her involvement was entirely circumstantial; that is, she knew Jonathan and was involved in the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee. The indictment against her alleged a conspiracy. In California law, one who conspires is held responsible for whatever results, whether or not they are present. Angela faced charges of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit both. All carried the death penalty. She was 26-years old.

At the time of her arrest Angela had been teaching in the Philosophy Department at UCLA, while she was writing her dissertation under the direction of the well-known Marxist scholar, Herbert Marcuse, at UC San Diego. We believed that the grand jury indictment against her was politically motivated, based on her celebrity as an open Communist who had worked with the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles. In addition, she had been active in the campaign to free the Soledad Brothers, three Black men accused of killing a guard in Soledad Prison, among whom the most well-known was George Jackson, Jonathan’s brother. It was her advocacy for prison reform, support of the Brothers, and her indictment of the racism of the criminal justice system that was at the heart of the case, however camouflaged by the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ used by the highest authorities in the U.S. government, including the President at the time, Richard Nixon.

I came to see her at the Marin County Jail. At one of our earliest meetings I told Angela about an English publisher, Michael Chambers, who had asked to publish a book by her. She considered this seriously, consulting with others in the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and one or more of her attorneys. She and I discussed it further and both realized that this was a chance to make a more complete account of the movement. We decided to make an anthology of work from inside and outside of the prisons that we would co-edit. We worked together as rapidly as we could to write it, solicit others to contribute to it, and secure its publication, both its original edition in the United Kingdom with Michael, and in the United States with The Third Press owned by the Nigerian-born Joseph Okpaku, headquartered in New York. The Michael Chambers edition was published in London in September, 1971, and the U.S. edition in December. We shaped the book so that it would be representative of a range of ‘voices of resistance’ among those incarcerated, like Ruchell Magee (a San Quentin prisoner who had attempted to escape with Jonathan, and was severely wounded), brothers seeking prison reforms in Folsom State Penitentiary, the Soledad Brothers, and those awaiting trial, as in the case of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, leaders of the Black Panther Party. We also asked Huey P. Newton to write a piece, which he did. Angela wrote several of the essays, I wrote one, and we collaborated on the preface.

Illustration of Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker sitting at a table, divided by a plexiglass line

Working on the book while Angela was in the Marin County Jail required patience and good humour, dealing with the awkward, cumbersome conditions. For example, as a legal investigator I could meet Angela without the presence of a lawyer, but we were restricted to a visiting area, separated by a plexiglass barrier preventing any physical contact or any exchange of materials. There was a very small slice of space between the bottom of the plexiglass and the table we shared that allowed us to hear each other easily. I was not permitted to bring anything with me except a legal pad and pencil. From Angela’s side she could bring whatever materials she wished from her cell. In this manner we met for hours, and days and weeks, working together on the book. When Angela needed reference books one or another of the attorneys would bring them to her; and, when Angela dictated a letter soliciting a contribution from one of our authors I would write it down, modify it, consult again with her to be sure it was correct, and then type it up and mail it; or, I would call the person if that was more appropriate. Or Angela would write the letter, and one of the attorneys would take it and mail it. When we solicited contributions for those in jail we likewise had to go through their lawyers. Collaborating on an essay, such as the preface, we would talk about what we wanted to include; I would draft it, type it up, give a copy to one of the lawyers, and then Angela would read it, edit, and revise. The lawyer would bring it back to me, and so on, until we were both satisfied. In this very peculiar but effective manner the book was completed. (I remind readers that in 1971 we did not have computers, or email, or cell phones, or the other accoutrements of modern technology!)

Occasionally we met together in the empty cell that had been designated as Angela’s ‘office,’ a hard won right that took a judge’s court order and proved to be crucial for Angela’s ability to prepare her legal defense. In her book, An Autobiography, she described its location adjacent to the guards’ station and the ‘peephole window’ that let the guards look in. “This cell was slightly larger than mine. The walls were painted the same drab gray, the concrete floors the same institutional rust-color. It contained bunk beds—i.e., metal slabs extending from the wall, with a thin mattress like the one I slept on every night. There were a few other superficial differences between it and my cell—the toilet bowl was not attached to the sink, and there was a shower inside. But the only difference that mattered to me was the skylight above.” We could work there together only when one of her lawyers was present, which was seldom. For the most part we were restricted to the plexiglass booth. But now Angela had a real place to write, and slowly, through painstaking negotiations with jailers and the judge, we procured her paper and pencils and pens—and a typewriter! Lawyers brought in the books she needed to prepare her defense, and these became her library. Sometimes the titles lifted some eyebrows among the deputy sheriffs, but the court orders prevailed.

There were days after I had left Angela in the jail that I felt an almost unbearable grief and welling of emotion. It was very hard just to leave her there, and yet there was nothing else one could do. Sometimes, before driving home I would sit on a bench in a little oasis on the grounds of the courthouse adjacent to the jail. The complex had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and in colour and design it had an almost pleasing motif. The bench was by a pond, with flowers and lush foliage, frequented by ducks and other small creatures, and it brought me a modicum of momentary comfort just to sit there and breathe and watch the flowing of life.

San Jose, where I lived, was about an hour and a half drive from the Marin jail, depending on the traffic. Typically, during the weekdays I would drop my little boy off at a day care centre and drive north. I would have to leave in mid-afternoon to get back in time to pick him up by 5 when daycare closed. I could call my husband in a pinch to pick him up but I tried not to. He was teaching full-time, and coincidentally, coming up for tenure in his Electrical Engineering Department.

We solicited an introduction for our book from the iconic civil rights leader Julian Bond (1940-2015), who was one of the key leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He ran for office after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, just 25 years old, and was elected to serve in the Georgia State Legislature. However, a majority of the legislators refused to seat him, because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. After a court battle, he won his seat.

Bond began his introduction to our book with the words of W.E.B. Du Bois writing in 1952, after having been the victim of a political frame-up, and freed through the intervention of world public opinion. Twenty years earlier, Du Bois had condemned the practice of mass incarceration. He wrote:

What turns me cold . . . is the certainty that thousands of innocent victims are in jail today because they had neither money, experience, or friends to help them . . . They daily stagger out of prison doors embittered, vengeful, hopeless and ruined. And of the army of the wronged the proportion of Negroes is frightful . . . The great mass of arrested or accused Black folk have no defense. There is a desperate need  . . . to oppose this national racket of railroading to jails and chain gangs the friendless and Black.

By beginning his essay with Dr. Du Bois, Julian Bond established a historical lineage between Du Bois and Angela Davis, and a historical continuity in the practices of mass incarceration. In addition, we got in touch with folks, asking for original contributions or, sometimes, permission to republish work already in print. The first contributor was James Baldwin, as we reprinted his “Open Letter to My Sister Angela,” the last lines of which (with slight modification) became the title of our collection.

In her opening essay “Political Prisoners, Prisons and Black Liberation,” Angela re-defined who was a political prisoner: of course she referenced Nat Turner and John Brown in the abolition movement, Dr. Du Bois’ arrest in the mid-20th century, and many others, as classic examples of what is meant by a political prisoner. But she also observed that “Prisoners—especially Blacks, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans—are increasingly advancing the proposition that they are political prisoners . . . in the sense that they are largely the victims of an oppressive politico-economic order, swiftly becoming conscious of the causes underlying their victimization.” Here then, Angela had already begun to call attention to the politics of mass incarceration and articulate the contours of what would become the prison abolition movement that has informed her (post-trial) political life.

Once we had a completed manuscript we shared it with members of the National United Committee leadership including Kendra and Franklin Alexander, and at least one of our lawyers, Howard Moore, Jr. They expressed their acclaim and appreciation. I left for New York in late June 1971. I took my delightful almost four-year-old son with me. He turned out to be a superb traveler, and a funny companion full of good humour and curiosity. From NY we flew to London to deliver the finished manuscript to Michael Chambers (although there were a couple of additions made afterwards), and to tour England, where I spoke to large audiences interested in Angela’s ordeal. I also met with diplomats from recently liberated African countries at the home of a wealthy lawyer in London. All were keen on supporting Angela’s freedom and asked me many detailed questions about the case. It was complicated, and they wanted to be sure they understood it clearly. From England I traveled to West Germany, speaking about Angela’s defense in Frankfurt, Bochum, and Munich. I was planning to go from there to Berlin (to visit a close friend, our translator, Ursula Beitz, in East Berlin) and then to Paris, arranging publication of our book in German and French. However, while I was in Munich Angela called, using a telephone in the Judge’s chambers, and reaching me where I was staying. The pre-trial proceedings were heating up and she asked me to cut short my trip and come home. My son and I flew to New York, then on to San Francisco, arriving on August 20, 1971.

Accompanied by two guards, we were escorted to the service elevator and out of the building. We had no idea why or what had happened.

I went to see Angela the next morning, driving up to Marin, again leaving my son with his Dad. Angela’s attorney, Howard Moore, was with us that day, so we were settled inside Angela’s ‘office.’ Very abruptly, in the afternoon, guards came and told me and Howard that we had to leave at once. Howard protested vigorously, as an attorney, but to no avail. Accompanied by two guards, we were escorted to the service elevator and out of the building. We had no idea why or what had happened. Howard suggested that I drive home; he’d go back to his office in Berkeley and get things sorted out. I was almost to San Jose when I heard the news on my car radio. George Jackson, Jonathan’s brother, the most well-known of the Soledad Brothers, had been killed in what the newscaster said was a ‘prison riot.’ They also claimed that Jackson was armed. Later we learned that neither was true. George Jackson was assassinated in the prison yard at San Quentin by San Quentin guards. He was shot once in the ankle, which brought him down, and then a guard administered a coup de grâce to the head. George and the other Brothers had been transferred to San Quentin, awaiting the start of their trial, which had been moved from Salinas to San Francisco. George’s death was a brutal murder; for Angela it was a terrible blow and an awful personal loss. In March 1972 the two surviving Soledad Brothers were found not guilty by a jury in San Francisco; had George lived it is likely he too would have been acquitted.

In the aftermath of George’s murder, we doubled and tripled the intensity of our work. We feared for Angela’s life, and motioned to move the trial to a city other than San Rafael (the location of the Marin County Courthouse), because we knew that an impartial jury couldn’t possibly be impaneled there. I continued to organize additional publishers for our book, including a contract with Bantam for an inexpensive, mass paperback edition that came out in January 1972. Angela continued writing at an accelerated pace, including an essay for the Black Scholar called “The Black Women’s Role in the Community of Slaves.” Her library limited by all the exigencies of jail, she nevertheless persevered, and dedicated the essay to the memory of George Jackson. It was published in December 1971, and is credited with having broken the ground upon which the field of what became Black Feminist Studies bloomed.

Invited to give a paper for a symposium at the American Philosophical Association Convention in New York, also in December, 1971, Angela wrote a 60-page manuscript titled, “Women and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation.” She was to co-present with Juliet Mitchell, the British socialist feminist who had written a book on women’s liberation called The Longest Revolution. But Angela, of course, was in jail, so she asked me to present the paper for her. I agreed, but first she would have to teach it to me.

Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker sit outside a jail cell, with papers floating around them

The setting is still vivid. By this time she had been transferred to a jail in Palo Alto. After we won the change-of-venue motion, the trial was moved to nearby San Jose, and her jailing was changed to accommodate that. The Palo Alto jail allowed legal investigators, like me, to visit without a lawyer present, and I would be allowed into Angela’s cell. Of course, as in any jail, I was thoroughly searched and couldn’t carry anything except a legal pad and a pencil. But Angela had her books and papers, which she gathered together, and we were allowed to sit on the floor outside of her cell with all of these references scattered around us. In this manner I really experienced my first introduction to feminist ideas, as well as some of the philosophical references in Angela’s paper. Personally, this was a moment of enormous significance to me. The Communist Party, of which I was a member, had been very critical of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and I had shied away from it on my own because, although I didn’t understand why or how, I knew that it was also connected to gay and lesbian identity. I was an extremely closeted lesbian, married and with a child, and very, very scared. Angela was the first Communist I knew who really took the feminist movement seriously, and engaged with it. She was critical of the racism embedded in the works of many of the white women writers, but she also acknowledged the importance of what they were doing. Our time together with that paper was transformative for me, and I am forever grateful to her for it.

In New York I was told by the conference organizers that I’d only have 20 minutes to present this 60 page paper! With no way of contacting Angela on such short notice to seek her advice I did the best I could and presented a portion of it. The hall where Juliet Mitchell and I spoke was packed with hundreds of people. A speaker-phone was set up. As pre-arranged, we telephoned Angela in the judge’s chambers. (The judge had agreed to this, which was, itself, simply amazing.) And in this manner folks asked their questions, and Angela responded. It was one of the most dramatic, moving, astounding experiences I can recall, during a very dramatic and moving time—all of us, hushed in awed silence, listening to her voice, the voice of a brilliant intellectual locked inside a jail.

If They Come in the Morning was published in a mass paperback edition by Bantam after the initial hardcover by The Third Press. The paperback had a first run of 400,000 and was quickly reprinted. The book was translated into a half-dozen languages, and published all over the world before and during the trial.

The prosecution presented 104 witnesses and introduced 203 items in evidence. The defense presented twelve witnesses in two-and-a-half days.

The Angela Davis trial commenced on February 28, 1972, and lasted just over three months. The prosecution presented 104 witnesses and introduced 203 items in evidence. The defense presented twelve witnesses in two-and-a-half days. On June 4, 1972, 597 days after the arrest of Angela Davis, after thirteen hours of deliberation spread over three days, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all counts.

Jubilation outside the San Jose courtroom where the trial had ultimately been held was matched by celebrations across cities in California and all over the country. The day after the verdict, recovering at home in San Jose, the phone rang. A male voice asked for me, and I affirmed that I was on the line. He said, “This is Jimmy!” Pause on my end. “I’m calling from Paris!” Who was Jimmy, in Paris? I scanned my memory, frantically. Finally, in exasperation he shouted “BALDWIN!!!” Oh, my goodness. Babbling apologies, loving his ecstatic and joyous congratulations. We had a wonderful conversation. There was no way to thank him for all he had done to win Angela’s freedom, including his visit to San Jose to attend the trial. I’d made all the arrangements, and even picked him up from the airport and brought him to our home. But he would always be Mr. Baldwin to me, loved and revered.

Illustration of James Baldin and Bettina Aptheker's heads connected by a telephone cord. Text in the center reads "Mr. Baldwin calling."

Great celebrations all over the world followed news of Angela’s acquittal. It was a victory against seemingly insurmountable odds, to be savored and remembered. It also became an indelible marker for me of what a united global movement could do that seems ever so critical today, 48 years later.

Signup for the ArtsEverywhere newsletter

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times