Angela Davis’s life was politicised the moment she was born. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1940s, in an area dubbed “Dynamite Hill” due to the many African American homes that the Ku Klux Khan had bombed and terrorised, meant she was introduced to racism and discrimination at an early age. Because of her mother’s relationship with organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), activism seemed like the obvious path to take for Davis. During her education at the Brandeis University in Massachusetts, four girls were killed in a bombing in her hometown, inspiring her to take on a more active role in the civil rights movement, leading her to join organisations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party, and the American Communist Party and giving her the audience and platform to deliver “The Liberation of Our People” speech. She later became a lecturer in women’s and ethnic studies, proving her commitment to important causes.
“The Liberation of Our People” was delivered by Angela Davis at a Black Panther rally in Oakland on November 2nd, 1969. During that year, protesting against the Vietnam War had increased and taken over the activist scene. Tensions were still rising as racism still had its hold in society and the government. The civil rights movement was still active, which eventually led to Davis’s plea for the anti-war movement to join with the civil rights movement in order to effectively establish a more just government. On January 21st, 2017, Davis delivered a speech at the Women’s March in Washington. This gathering was mainly a result of the election of Donald Trump and as a protest against his misogynistic and racist policies. The impact of an unjust and discriminating system is the topic around which Angela Davis built her speeches. In the time between these speeches, Davis changed from a relatively unknown activist to a civil rights leader. Although both are directed at activists and have the purpose of calling for action, this essay will examine the different uses of language and rhetorical devices to determine the role persuasive devices played in her speeches in order to appeal to her audiences.
Ethos Angela Davis’s success as an activist depended somewhat on her approach, both in policies and speeches. The speech “The Liberation of Our People” was given early into Davis’s commitment to feminism and activism. This meant that, like all other successful orators, she had to establish her credibility. She uses kairos as an approach to building ethos. This speech was held at the height of the civil rights and anti-war movement so her choice to speak about an important, ongoing problem demonstrated that she was an engaged and politically aware person prepared to confront problems in critical times. As one of the first people to introduce the idea of the violence on ‘the international scene and the domestic scene” as connected, Davis was considered to be the trailblazer of the fused movement and the connection became more obvious afterward. The Women’s March speech led to new outlets for activism. Frustration at the lack of action from the government to protect minorities and marginalised groups was heightened by the election of President Trump, who has been criticised for his crude language and behaviour towards women and immigrants. Many saw his presidency as an opportunity for sexists and racists to voice their opinions as his actions were dismissed and were made to seem acceptable.
A significant figure in the civil rights movement, Stokely Carmichael, had joked in 1964 that “the position of women in SNCC is prone!”. He had been relatively supportive of women fighting for equality, but his light-hearted statement reflected what the media was spreading and the public opinion of women being inferior to men. The leader of the NAACP had even gone as far as to tell politically engaged women that they were “ignorant of the political process, should listen to their leaders and just return home.” This sentiment was echoed by many other male leaders in the civil rights movement. Davis’s awareness of current political problems is emphasised by her acknowledgement of how specifically women were being treated in the 60s as many activists were ignoring sexist issues in favour of protesting racism. The women’s movement was not as active as the civil rights movement as many saw the new movement as a distraction from racism and protesting the war.
As far as careers went, women were only receiving equal treatment in areas like teaching and nursing, as women were seen as having more nurturing characters. Those who entered male-dominated professions were expected to shrug off the sexual harassment that they could experience. Despite the small steps taken towards equality, a larger part of men still believed that women were supposed to “get married, cook the meals, keep the house clean, raise the children, and cater to the husband”. This made Davis’s observation of women suffering noteworthy and gained her many women followers, who had felt ignored by other male activists.
Through this, Davis was seen as a versatile activist, who did not ignore issues, which demonstrated her capability and credibility. Credibility also depends on the reputation of the orator. Alongside being knowledgeable in the area in which she is speaking, Davis proved to be a sympathetic and trustworthy character. In the summer of 1966, SNCC faced an extreme change as Stokely Carmichael became the new chairman. He was tired of non-violence and that influenced young activists, therefore affecting the more radical direction the movement was taking. His activism was known to be very exclusive and harsh, which made him unpopular even amongst his party as time went on. As the more moderate activists began to lose faith in their figurehead, they searched for someone else that spread a more agreeable message. Davis preached a more inclusive and agreeable course of action.
In the speech at the Black Panther rally, she claimed that “once the people are divided, the enemy will be victorious”. She wanted the anti-war movement to connect the fight for black and brown liberation, as well as with exploited white workers, through hatred for the common enemy: “Yankee imperialism”. By doing this, she tried not to alienate activists, improving her reputation and popularity as this was a time of extreme division, not only between the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement, but also between those in the civil rights movement who disagreed on the use of aggression and violence as a way of resisting.
In the Women’s March speech, she still advocated solidarity between activists, regardless of gender, colour, and age, shown through addressing the “women, trans-people, men and youth” in her opening. The credibility and trust that she earned through her inclusivity are amplified at the Women’s March speech as her position on fighting racism, misogyny, and capitalist exploitation has not changed, but she has added Islamophobia and anti-Semitism to her list of battles, due to how those issues had become increasingly present. Davis’s inclusive vision of civil rights expanded in the five decades. She also committed herself to the struggle to save the planet and to stop climate change, therefore stopping its consequences, such as lack of accessibility to water, and the declining populations of flora and fauna. Her politics reflected the more recent problems, while her definition and practice of activism remained intersectional, shown through statements like “No human is illegal” and “Women’s rights are human rights.” This shows her ability to adapt her expanded views on civil rights to her time.
Despite her early commitment to the struggle of women, the concept of feminism is only introduced in the Women’s March speech. By promoting it as a weapon “against the pernicious powers of state violence”, she affects how the audience accepts her speech, vilifying the state and its hand in injustices. Viewing feminism as a weapon empowers her audience to fight against prejudice. The language used in both speeches is appropriate for each occasion and audience.
For example, she protests the “hetero-patriarchy” at the beginning of her speech at the Women’s March. Her use of language is familiar, while remaining academic, to her audience and helps lend credibility to her words and allows the audience to identify with her. Additionally, she is reminding everyone of her political identity and revealing what is to be expected in the rest of the speech. Davis’s remarks at the beginning of the Liberation speech that she prefers being called a “sister” to a professor, served as a reminder to her audience that she is well-educated and informed, therefore making her a trustworthy source of information. As “sister“ was the language of African American civil rights activists, Davis puts herself into the movement. This combined with the announcement of her academic accomplishments makes a broader point. As noted earlier, sexism was extremely prevalent at the time. Despite the number of women enrolling into college being similar to the number of men, there were 1.4 male college graduates for every woman, two master’s degrees presented to men for every one that went to a woman, and eight PhDs that went to men for every one that went to a woman.
This made Angela Davis’s accomplishments, like earning a doctorate from Humboldt University in East Berlin, even more noteworthy. As it was harder for women to climb their way up to the title of professor than it was for men, Davis was proving that she is just as knowledgeable as her male counterparts and that she had to work even harder than them. Following that up with a declaration that she would gladly leave her job if it would interfere with her fight for equality and liberation, highlights her determination and her never-ending dedication to the cause. Additionally, addressing her friendly relationship with the South Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government, was another subtle nod at the extent of her competence and authority, again confirming her credibility. With an establishment as significant as the South Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government supporting her, the audience is left feeling like Davis had to be the right person to listen to and support as well.
By 2017, Davis no longer needed to introduce herself or her profession and accomplishments to the crowd. At this point in time, she had already been relentlessly and actively protesting injustice for decades. This refusal to give up built her credibility as a political activist, turning her into a mother figure for the movement as opposed to the “sister” she had tried to establish herself as decades prior. This showcases her leadership skills and authoritative attitude, highlighting that activism is an area that she is extremely experienced.
Logos Angela Davis’s credibility is intricately linked to the success of her scholarly approach in her speeches. Due to her establishing herself as an educated and trustworthy woman, the facts she stated have a bigger effect on her audience. However, this also relies on the audience to already know about what she is talking about, which makes both of her speeches effective in this aspect as her audience for both speeches are supporters of what she is declaring. At the Black Panther rally, Davis reports events that have happened and have been said, like the attack on Bobby Seale, or when a judge in San Jose was involved in a case with a young Mexican. The judge compared Mexican people to animals, dehumanising them, saying that they “ought to be destroyed” as they have “have no right to live among human beings.” The judge went as far as to say “maybe Hitler was right” when it came to his stance on Mexican people. Davis’s directly quoting what was said by the judge emphasises its importance.
The hyperbolic comparison to Hitler assures that the audience associates the racist judge, and as an extension racism, with something cruel and vicious. Davis also mentions the “McCarthy witch hunt” as a result of the Korean War going unsuccessfully and she connects it to her theory of the government’s need for violence. In the later speech, Davis promises to “become more militant“ in response to injustice as at this point she had been resisting peacefully for a long time, without seeing the change she hoped for. This “McCarthy witch hunt”, widely unpopular due to the many people that lost their jobs or were imprisoned, also makes sure to draw on negative emotions associated with the weeding out of Communists.
With these examples, Davis is proving to her audience that people are getting away with such blatant displays of racism, and she is trying to convince them to align themselves with the movement. Through this, she is uniting and connecting people using their common hatred of current conditions to call for action. An important component of the logos appeal is that the orator has to be understandable. Davis is explicit in both speeches, leaving no room to misinterpreted and she is straightforward, making connections between premises and conclusion in the former speech. For example, she convincingly links “Yankee Imperialism” to racism on the domestic scene and the violent actions in Vietnam. In the Black Panther rally speech, Davis poses rhetorical questions like “What happens if the war in Vietnam ceases?” to engage the audience and make them participants in the discussion.
This will help them feel like the conclusion formed has been formed by them themselves, making Davis’s speech more effective. This is also a rhetorical question aimed at the anti-war movement, making them consider if they would even manage to change the amount of violence if the war does end. On the other hand, in the Women’s March speech, Davis dictated the next actions for the movement to take and posed no questions, revealing how the years of protesting has made her more militant as she came to realise that being peaceful did not guarantee success.
Although, due to her audience mainly consisting of feminists, she did not have to be as enthusiastic and convincing as earlier as they already identified with her movement. In the Women’s March speech, Davis lists many injustices that she has dedicated herself to fighting, like health care privateers, police brutality, capitalist exploitation and the lack of water accessibility in places like Flint, Michigan. For Davis, all of these issues are linked and grow from the same systemic problems. Both of her speeches revolve around the topic of fighting injustices and she makes sure the issues are always ongoing when mentioning them, making sure that the audience can relate. There is something that she is fighting against that many people feel personally angered by, drawing them into her cause.
The variety of current injustices offers many opportunities for many people to care, potentially exposing them to other issues. The listing of many injustices and targeting of many victims at once relates back to her goal of inclusivity and fighting side by side to create change. This idea of inclusivity is the main belief that she is attempting to share with her audience. Pathos Alongside Davis’s reputation, it is also the emotional appeal of her words that strengthen her arguments. In comparison to other activists, who were becoming more and more radical, threatening to widen the gap between white people and black people with harsh actions and even harsher words, Davis seemed sincere and empathetic.
Davis speaks from a position of anger in both speeches to an audience of also enraged people. She tries to channel their emotions into hope and action. There is, however, a significant difference in style between the two speeches, which explain the difference in the emotional impact they each cause. The Liberation speech is not only longer, but Davis also utilises an anecdotal storytelling technique, which makes it more vulnerable and more emotional as the audience is talked through details of events like the racist judge and Bobby Seale. However, the Women’s March speech mainly consists of listing, which drains the emotion out of it, but it has a more commanding effect, making the audience want to get involved. By referring to real-life events, she makes the audience more invested than they would be if Davis was telling a fabricated or hypothetical story. Her mentioning the “chaining and gagging” of Bobby Seale, the Chairman of the Black Panther Party, early on attempts to stir up sympathy and anger at such a barbarous act at the hands of a Judge, an authoritative figure meant to look out for the people. The repetition of this incident later on in the speech shows her disgust at what happened and that it is not something easily forgotten.
This recreates the feeling of frustration in her audience. Her referring to her peers as “sisters and brothers” makes the people she is fighting for family, giving the speech a more personal touch and a connection to the language of the movement. Her personal connection and commitment to the movement are what helped her attract followers and helped solidify her credibility. Adding an emotional perspective to the movement helps to convince the audience to feel more obligated to fight alongside Davis and other activists. In the speech given at the Women’s March, she does not introduce anyone as “sisters and brothers,” instead choosing to name actual people like Chelsea Manning, Oscar López Rivera, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Assata Shakur.
The use of asyndeton makes this more factual and less emotional, but still appeals to the audience as it makes the victims of oppression more real and palpable. She links these people in the same way she linked the issues earlier. This makes the injustices more tangible to the audience, demanding a more sympathetic response, which results in action. In the earlier speech, she hurls a round of rhetorical questions, like “If you talk about the anti-war movement as a separate movement, what happens? What happens if suddenly the troops are pulled out of Vietnam? What happens if Nixon suddenly says we’re gonna bring all of the boys home?”, which has an overwhelming effect on the audience, asking the next question before the last one can be thought through. Davis’s repetition of “what happens” builds tension as she lets the audience fill in the blanks with their imagination. This, again also aimed at the anti-war movement, makes them realise that racism is not solved with the ending of the war, therefore both movements have to be connected.
In “The Liberation of Our People” speech, specifically Davis’s use of language has a significant emotional impact. She refers to what is happening in Vietnam as a “symptom” of what’s happening all over the world. The word “symptom” makes the audience think of diseases, which draws on negative emotions, like sadness and anger. However, it also presents the interpretation that what is happening is curable with action, as long as they get to the cause of the “disease”, which is the systemic racism.