Who Is Angela Davis?

Professor Herbert Marcuse (left) was a controversial thinker of the time, while his graduate student, Angela Davis, MA ’69, would inspire further generations to seek change.

Herbert Marcuse’s most well-known student, Angela Davis, MA ’69, spent only a year earning a graduate degree at UC San Diego, but what she did during her time here continues to be felt.

Coming from a childhood framed by racist violence in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis first met Marcuse at Brandeis University, where she studied French literature. She quickly caught up to Marcuse’s philosophy students and studied with his peers in Europe, yet Davis felt disconnected overseas, especially as the civil rights struggle and Black Power movement unfolded in the U.S. When Marcuse encouraged her toward graduate school at UC San Diego, she saw the chance to join a community mobilizing for social justice.

Yet when she arrived, she found few Black students and professors on campus. “When I first came to UC San Diego, it was weeks before I even saw another Black person,” she recalls. The movements that she had heard so much about hadn’t yet formed on campus. Out of this isolation, Davis cultivated her skill for community building. She was instrumental in organizing the first Black Student Council and planted the seeds for people interested in activism to find each other.

Though outspoken on many issues of the time, including feminism and war resistance, Davis found purpose in the creation of an academic home for students and faculty of color. With a third college on the horizon, Davis saw an opportunity to address the shortcomings in diversity and the representation of minorities, on campus and in curriculum.

But the cause could not move forward without a strong team. Davis led a multiracial coalition between the Black Student Council, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), and working-class white students. Together they proposed a vision for Third College focused on equal representation and multicultural perspectives. The proposed name would pay homage to African revolutionary Patrice Lumumba and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Though the name did not go through, Third College was ultimately founded with core elements of this effort. Social justice became its ethos, and the required class Dimensions of Culture (DOC) addressed issues through various cultural lenses. Eventually named for Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, the college’s crest of three hands harkens to those emblazoned on protest signs, and represents the alliance of all backgrounds in the commitment to shape the future.

After graduating, Davis would continue to challenge the status quo in academia. Like her mentor, she saw her faculty position at UCLA targeted by Governor Ronald Reagan and the UC Regents, with multiple terminations and reappointments. Davis would receive support from other academics and students—support that would follow her when she was faced with criminal charges in association with a violent courtroom attack in Marin County, Calif. Davis was ultimately acquitted on all counts, but her imprisonment would spark an outcry across the world to “Free Angela Davis.” The experience would also influence her activist work over the decades, especially in dismantling the prison-industrial complex, all while she taught and lectured at universities across the country, including several UCs.

Just as Davis made her mark at the university, students have made a mark of her. She stands among the luminaries in Price Center’s Black Legacy Mural, and she is a can’t-miss on the Che Café, painted for one of her several returns to campus to speak. Former Black Student Council member Pamela Fruge ’87 recalls welcoming Davis back: “She represents how every one of us can make a powerful impact. Whether you ended up being a national icon or not isn’t the point. The point is that you live your passions and you stand up for what is just. And every one of us can do that—you don’t have to wait, you can create a legacy of your own and have a positive impact on society with the work that you do.”