When high school students in Rockland County, New York, invited renowned activist and professor Angela Davis to speak, the event got shut down in two different venues over protests that she was “too radical.” But the students persevered, and Angela Davis addressed a packed church Thursday night. “I talked about the importance of recognizing that through struggle, through organized struggle, through the efforts of people who come together and join hands and join their voices together, we’ve made changes in this country,” says Davis. We also speak with community activist Nikki Hines, who supported students at Rockland County High School when they invited Davis to speak and who says “misinformation” drove the protests.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to a remarkable scene that enfolded last night just north of New York City, in Nyack, New York, in Rockland County.
This is how The Journal News reported it: quote, “Activist and educator Angela Davis came to Rockland after all Thursday evening, meeting with North Rockland teens — and hundreds of others — after a planned school-sponsored event unraveled amid criticism that she was too 'radical' for the county and its children.
“The event finally took place at Pilgrim Baptist Church, with about 500 people crowded in. There was no prior publicity, a strategic move, organizers said, after the North Rockland school district and then, quietly, St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill pulled out of hosting the civil rights activist because of protests.
“When Davis appeared, before she reached the podium, her audience burst into applause and gave her a standing ovation.”
Angela Davis was introduced by North Rockland High School senior Anaya Willis with the student group VOICE, that invited Angela Davis to speak.
ANAYA WILLIS: The fact that we are able to stand and sit here today and fight for what we believe in, even if people are afraid of change, is an amazing thing, because it shows that we can overcome anything if we all just put our minds to it. Quoting the powerful Angela Davis herself, “I am no longer accepting things I cannot change. I am changing things I cannot accept.”
AMY GOODMAN: When Angela Davis addressed the packed church, she said she was especially moved by the students’ invitation to speak in Rockland County because it was the longtime home of her dear friend and editor, the late great novelist Toni Morrison, who wrote the introduction to her biography, which has just been republished in a new edition. Davis talked about her history of activism and her hope for the future.
ANGELA DAVIS: I think every day about the fact that I am associated with a people who have refused to give up, after centuries and centuries. Not only that — not only that, but who have created beauty in the process of struggling.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Thursday night, Angela Davis in Rockland County in a Nyack church. She joins us now in New York City, the world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her many books include Abolition. Feminism. Now. and a new updated edition of her 1974 memoir, Angela Davis: An Autobiography, now published by Haymarket Books, which is the focus of her event tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, at BAM, in Brooklyn. Also with us, Nikki Hines, Nyack NAACP president, community activist in Rockland County, who supported the students at Rockland County High School when they invited Angela to speak.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Angela Davis, this is a reprise of what happened a few years ago when you went home to Birmingham, same thing. You end up doing an event outside of the place you were actually invited, and so many more people turned out. Talk about the significance of last night’s event.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, first of all, it was really wonderful to see the outpouring of support from the community in Rockland County, especially from the Black community. I was entirely impressed by the students who took the initiative to invite me, and who indicated, during the course of the event, that they better understood how to stand up and fight back.
I was absolutely shocked when I was told that an event that had been planned many, many, many months ago was canceled at the last minute by the school board — by the superintendent of schools in Rockland County. And, well, you know, I can say that after all these years, after more than a half-century of doing this work, I continue to be absolutely stunned by the ways in which people not only misrepresent me — and I’m not so much concerned about that. I’m concerned about the misrepresentation of movements against racism, against gender inequality, for freedom.
And the students were absolutely beautiful last night. I feel really inspired to continue this work as a result of my encounter with them.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Hines, you were pivotal, working with the students, in ensuring that Angela Davis’s voice could be heard. Now, let’s talk about the significance of this area. You’re the president of the Nyack chapter of the NAACP. We’re talking about upstate New York. And Hudson NAACP was involved, the various chapters of the NAACP. This is an area of New York that has determined the balance of the U.S. Congress, right? Four seats were flipped from Democrat to Republican. Can you talk about where this opposition came from? A group of high school students invite Angela Davis to speak. It becomes a school board issue. The board backs the superintendent. They put it offsite. That’s canceled. Then you have another event at St. Thomas Aquinas College planned for last night. That’s canceled. And finally, an African American church opens its doors, and more people turn out than probably would have ever turned out. And this was without any publicity.
NIKKI HINES: Yeah. So, you know, I think —
AMY GOODMAN: What was the opposition?
NIKKI HINES: So, the opposition — first and foremost, good morning, Amy, and good morning, Dr. Davis.
You know, the opposition was all negative and misinformation of, you know, white folks who don’t get it, white folks who don’t want to get it. And so, it’s all misinformation of who Dr. Davis is, and not wanting the students to have their voice in Rockland County.
AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that these students persisted, these young people at the high school would not give up in ensuring that there would be a platform for Angela Davis — talk about last night’s event. Is it true that you had to tell the police this was happening at the last minute because of the kind of backlash you were getting, and as soon as that happened, then the backlash against last night’s event began, but it was so soon before the event, but, you know, it couldn’t be stopped?
NIKKI HINES: Yeah. So, you know, when we were going to do it at St. Thomas Aquinas College, and at the last minute, really the last minute in the last hour, St. Thomas Aquinas College canceled on us an 8:50 on Tuesday evening — and so, you know, scrambled around and had to find a place to have the event. And thank goodness for Pastor Washington and Pilgrim Baptist Church in opening its doors. And we did tell the police at the last minute where — what we were doing and why we were doing it. And still we couldn’t be stopped.
So, you know, I am so thankful that — watching the students last night, I’m so thankful that we were able to push through for them and give them their voice and have them see their vision come to fruition. You know, they needed to know that the community had their back, and we were going to push forward to do anything to make it work.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Angela Davis, if you can talk about your message last night? And you have been speaking for so many decades. You have been an activist for so many years. What you think of what is happening today with laws around the country cracking down on free speech, this kind of enormous pressure brought that leads to pre-censorship, young people afraid to invite someone because it might lead to something like this? But what you had to say last night?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I was actually speaking about what has been called the new McCarthyism. I didn’t actually use those words last night, but I talked about the importance of coming together and creating the kinds of communities that can bolster our efforts to move forward.
I spoke about the fact that we’ve actually made a lot of progress in this country. I don’t want to create the impression that we’ve brought an end to racism and misogyny and homophobia, etc., but I talked about the importance of recognizing that through struggle, through organized struggle, through the efforts of people who come together and join hands and join their voices together, we’ve made changes in this country. And there are those who do not want to accept the fact that we’re moving in a productive, progressive direction. You know, I spoke about the fact that the very last person who occupied the office of the presidency attempted to convey the impression that we should return to the past, and that the actions of the students and the community in that particular instance was a powerful demonstration of the capacity to continue to move forward in a progressive direction.
You know, I spoke about the fact that it was very important that this movement was being led by students. Young people are the closest to the future. Young people are the ones who have the greatest stake on imagining and creating a more democratic future, a future characterized by justice and equality and freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I wanted to ask you about Toni Morrison, because where you went last night, I mean, Rockland County, this was the home county of Toni Morrison. And she was a dear friend of yours. She was your editor. Is it true she got you to write the autobiography in 1974 —
ANGELA DAVIS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — of the young Angela? And what it means? You were asked if her literature, her — I mean, she won the Nobel literature prize. She won a Pulitzer Prize. Is she required reading in Rockland?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, apparently, you know, probably the most renowned resident of Rockland County is not required — her works are not required. You know, I pointed out that I actually had a relationship with Rockland County because of the fact that I visited Toni Morrison many, many times, in three different residencies in Rockland County, and I had learned a bit about the problems in that county. But I think that now the students are convinced that they can bring about change. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they were not at the forefront of an effort to guarantee that the students who attend public schools in that county read the works of Toni Morrison.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to do Part 2 of our conversation, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org. And also at democracynow.org, we’re going to link to this whole remarkable, history-making event that took place last night, Thursday night, in Rockland County. Angela Davis could not be silenced. Angela Davis, the world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and distinguished professor emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her autobiography has just been republished by Haymarket. She’ll be speaking at BAM tonight on that autobiography. And Nikki Hines, Nyack NAACP president, a community activist in Rockland County.
A happy early birthday to Emily Gosselin! Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.