Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Mother’s Activism

BOND: Let me switch a bit and talk about the people who’ve been significant in helping you develop your talents and who you are, and begin with your parents. What role did your parents play in shaping you? You’ve talked earlier about your mother explaining to you that things will not always be this way, but what else do you recall?

DAVIS: Well, it’s taken me a long time to recognize the extent to which I walked down a path that was carved out for me by my mother, because I always saw myself resisting my parents, as children often do, but my mother was an activist. She was a member of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. She was actually an officer of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. She was involved in the NAACP. She was involved in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Nine. And as a child, I had the opportunity to spend time with black communists who had come to Birmingham to help organize there, to help organize the Southern Negro Youth Congress, so I — you know, I often tell people that later when I joined the Communist Party, it was a difficult decision because I always considered the Communist Party to be so conservative. It was my parents’ friends, you know, I wanted to do something more interesting and more radical, but I do think that both in terms of my career as an educator and in terms of my life as an activist, I’m following in my mother’s footsteps.

BOND: I wonder if your mother’s political activity engaged you in some sort of way — stuffing envelopes, the mechanics of organizing campaigns like that. Did that happen?

DAVIS: Well, yes. You know, I — a lot of things I don’t necessarily remember but I hear — I remember the stories that got told about [Eugene] Bull Connor and my parents’ friends being run out of town. This is pre-civil rights, but I don’t think I got a sense of the work that was done during that period because now I think that organizations like the Southern Negro Youth Congress really paved for the way for civil rights movement. It really created that terrain. You know, I often talk to students today about the film The Great Debaters and the character that Denzel Washington plays. A friend of my mother’s who still very much alive and very lucid, asked me after she saw that film, she said, “Angela, do you know what organization that was?” And I said, “No,” and she said, “Well, Melvin Tolson was in the Southern Negro Youth Congress.” They had these sort of mysterious scenes in which you see them organizing black and white tenant farmers, so I don’t think I got that sense early on, because — perhaps because of the anti-communism, because of the extent to which people were forced to go underground and when I was six years old, I remember being followed by the FBI. I do have those memories, because they were looking for someone. My parents knew who was a member of the Communist Party and who was underground so I remember this, I remember this kind of fear of the FBI and I also remember being — learning that you never talked to the FBI. When I was six years old, if they asked you any questions, you know, don’t answer at all.