Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, where the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active, Davis learned about the violence of white supremacy at a young age.
She moved away from the south in her teenage years, first to New York and then to West Germany to study philosophy and Marxism.
Amid the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Davis joined the Black Panthers and an all-Black branch of the Communist Party. She was hired for her first teaching job as an acting assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles. The university quickly tried to fire her due to her ties to the Communist Party, but protests from students and staff, along with an eventual lawsuit, allowed her to remain and finish out the academic year.
In the early 1970s, Davis gained international attention when she was arrested and jailed for her alleged involvement in the prison escape of George Jackson. She was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list and labeled a terrorist. The case was widely publicized—her vocal supporters included Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. In 1972 she was acquitted after spending 18 months in jail. Her supporters believe the charges were fabricated in an attempt to undermine the civil rights and anti-capitalist movements she was a part of.
Since then, Davis has maintained her status as a central academic and activist within various social justice movements. Her time in jail spurred her to focus on prison abolition, and she helped found the organization Critical Resistance, which seeks to end the prison industrial complex.
Davis has lectured all over the world and has written several influential books, including Women, Race, and Class (1981), Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), and her latest book Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2015). Her philosophy, which has resurfaced in popularity in recent years due to the Black Lives Matter movement, calls for prison reform and liberation for everyone since all oppression is systemically connected.
Today, Davis is a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz.