Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Experience in Prison

BOND: . . . What did jail do to you? You said people thought jail had done something to you, made you something that didn’t fit their stereotype of who you were. What did it do to you?

DAVIS: Well, fortunately, I think I was able to use the time I spent in jail productively and I say this because even though I was behind bars for some 16 months, there was an enormous movement on the outside. I had family. I had friends. I had colleagues and comrades all over the world who were concerned about my predicament so I did not feel alone even though I was in solitary confinement practically the entire time I was behind bars. I found ways of dealing with that. One of the things I remember thinking was that being a graduate student was really good preparation [laughter] for this because one spends a lot of time alone studying and that is what I did when I was in jail. I learned how to do yoga. I practiced in my little cell karate, so I made a life for myself and I can imagine that had I been in jail longer than that it would’ve been a much greater challenge so I’m not comparing my situation to anyone else’s situation, but I do remember being very withdrawn when I got out. Over a year of solitary life can leave one in a state like that.

And I do know that I was profoundly affected emotionally and psychologically by that experience. I was able to work through it. I can remember getting out and not wanting to go into places where there were large numbers of people and going to a dance or something and, of course, there was all this attention on me and I would want to relax and party but everyone there assumed that they had to have a deep political conversation with me, so I spent a time not going out to social events because it was just too difficult to negotiate but eventually I learned that I had to talk about or think about that period in my life as representing something that was far more important than me as an individual and I had to be willing to accept people’s excitement and awe, recognizing that it wasn’t about me, but rather that it was about this vast movement that developed all over the country and all over the world and that managed to effectively challenge Ronald Reagan, the governor of California; Richard Nixon, the president of the U.S., and so now I see it that way and I don’t have any problems with the kind of awe with which people approached me.

BOND: But don’t you think in all honesty that it’s both about the movement created around your predicament and you, that it’s about both these things?

DAVIS: Yes, but primarily about the movement. After all, I was in jail—

BOND: I’ll give you that.

DAVIS: I was in jail. I mean, you know that. [laughter] And as a matter of fact, you assisted in the elaboration of this movement and I totally appreciate the work that you did for us in our first book, If They Come in the Morning.

BOND: I left that book at home. I wanted you to sign it.

DAVIS: I’ll do it again. I’ve come to think of that moment as a kind of collective empowering that demonstrated to us that we had hope and that we could make change in the world, so I have to be the beneficiary of that and I continue to see myself as the beneficiary of this amazing movement.

BOND: I just read a story, an article, rather, about people who are put in solitary confinement and the devastating effect it has on them, just awful awful effect, and you’re comparatively speaking, yours is relatively short, but still, one thing described in this story was the person’s inability to fit into a large space and that once released in a room this large, for example, they’d go to the corner and did anything like happen to you?

DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. I remember that my body had its habits that I had to try to undo. Getting into cars with my hands cuffed behind me. It took a while for me to realize, for my body to realize, that I could use my hands to get into a car or being in large spaces with large numbers of people, yeah, absolutely. And I don’t think that we acknowledge the degree to which confinement and imprisonment creates mental disorders.

BOND: Is it fair to say that this experience for you was a tremendous motivator for your current-day interest in incarceration? I understand that the interest preceded this, but did this heighten and intensify your interest?

DAVIS: I suppose so. I guess the overwhelming majority of my life has been devoted to work around issues of prison and imprisonment and, of course, when I went to jail, it was around the campaign to free the Soledad Brothers so I was already doing work around political prisoners and around prison in general, but I don’t think I would’ve imagined then that this would’ve been my calling, that I would devote my life to this work, but then I think of my mother working on the Scottsboro Nine and I think that this is a way in which to challenge injustice at its core.