From left, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis and Elizabeth Sackler at the Brooklyn Museum, June 2. Behind them is Claude Monet’s ‘The Doge’s Palace’ (1908).PHOTO: WIREIMAGE
Saturday marked the 44th anniversary of Angela Davis’s acquittal on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. Remember Angela Davis? I asked several of my younger colleagues: No one under 35 had heard of her. But the former Black Panther, recipient of the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize, and two-time vice-presidential candidate on the Communist Party ticket with Gus Hall, was once a household name. That was enough for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, which last Thursday bestowed on Ms. Davis the 2016 Sackler Center First Award, “honoring women who are first in their fields.”
Previous honorees include the novelist Toni Morrison, Miss Piggy and Anita Hill—pioneers all, no question. Ms. Davis is surely the first person to have parlayed an appearance on the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list into a tenured professorship at the University of California.
The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium at the Brooklyn Museum was packed to overflowing for the ceremony. It began with a songfest. A couple dozen children from the Manhattan Country School, a boutique “progressive” institution, sang what seemed like 40 or 50 verses of “We Shall Overcome.” Elizabeth A. Sackler, chairwoman of the Brooklyn Museum and scion of Alfred M. Sackler, who made a large part of his considerable fortune marketing the painkiller OxyContin, introduced the evening. She noted proudly that she had grandchildren attending the school where singing “We Shall Overcome” is a daily ritual.
The evening also featured a welcome by Chirlane McCray, wife of Warren Wilhelm Jr., known to most New Yorkers as Mayor Bill de Blasio. The bulk of the evening was taken up with rituals of self-congratulation and a screening of a mercifully abridged “educational” version of “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners,” a 2012 documentary about the signal event in Ms. Davis’s career as a radical: her arrest, prosecution and exoneration. There followed a brief conversation between Ms. Davis and the prima donna Ms. of all Ms.’s,Gloria Steinem. Kathy Boudin, the former member of the Weather Underground who was convicted of murder in 1981, was also in attendance. It was old-home week for wizened radical chic.
In her introduction, Ms. Sackler said that the name Angela Davis, “the embodiment of all we hold dear,” is “synonymous with truth.” Really?
After a middle-class upbringing that included college at Brandeis (where she fell under the spell of the Frankfurt School Marxist guru Herbert Marcuse) and postgraduate work in Europe, Ms. Davis emerged as a doyenne of the violent, revolutionary fringe of 1960s radicalism. In 1970 she became romantically involved with George Jackson, a career criminal and Black Panther serving time in Soledad Prison for armed robbery.
In 1970 Jackson was one of several prisoners implicated in the murder of a prison guard. That August Jackson’s 17-year-old brother Jonathan burst into a Marin County courthouse during a trial. He distributed arms to the defendants, took the judge, the prosecutor and at least one juror hostage. Some of the weapons, as later testimony at her trial revealed, had been bought by Ms. Davis two days before. Jonathan intended to trade the hostages for the release of his brother and then flee to Cuba.
In what became a shootout, Jonathan and two of the defendants were killed. The judge’s head was blown off by a shotgun taped under his chin. Another hostage was paralyzed for life. In 1971, in a detail omitted by the “Free Angela” documentary, George Jackson and several other inmates murdered three prison guards and two white inmates, before being shot himself.
After the bloody courthouse melee, Ms. Davis fled and went underground. The FBI apprehended her in New York some months later. “Free Angela” argues that she was prosecuted because she was a Communist and black. In fact, she was prosecuted as a material accessory to murder.
How did she get off? In part, for the same reason that O.J. Simpson got off: celebrity, edged with racial grievance mongering. There was also the temper of the times. When she was apprehended, a hue and cry went around the world—especially in precincts hostile to American interests.
The spectacle of Angela Davis at the Brooklyn Museum was partly ironical, partly contemptible. The irony emerged from the discrepancy between the now-rancid radical rhetoric and comfy bourgeois reality, underwritten by capitalist enterprise. Things are “really, really rotten” in this country, Ms. Davis intoned at one point, eliciting knowing murmurs from the hip audience.
But not, of course, for her. When she was in prison awaiting trial, an unidentified farmer pledged his property to raise the $100,000 bail to secure Ms Davis’s release. “It seemed like a lot of money back then,” Ms. Davis assured the audience, unaware, perhaps, that to some it still is.
Perhaps the biggest laugh of the evening came when Ms. Davis noted that she had triumphed over California Gov. Ronald Reagan, President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “three of the most powerful men in the world.” Gloria Steinem shot back: “And where are they now?” much to the hilarity of the assembled crowd.
Angela Davis travels the world these days collecting honors. She once supported the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan while refusing to speak up for political prisoners in socialist countries. Now she champions the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements and derides the police and capitalist West, mouthing radical slogans that, if acted upon, would destroy the civilization that coddles her.
Mr. Kimball is the editor and publisher of the New Criterion and president and publisher of Encounter Books.