From the Archives: Angela Davis Stirred up Campus Controversy in 1969

In the September issue of San Diego Magazine, we meet four fearless women—none of whom are remotely controversial. But in the November 1969 issue, we profiled UC San Diego PhD candidate and UCLA philosophy teacher Angela Davis, who, by identifying as a Marxist and Communist and as a former member of the Black Panther Party, had created an uproar with the university regents. They, along with then-Governor Ronald Reagan, wanted Davis out.

Republican Assemblyman John Stull was quoted by SDM Contributing Editor Harold Keen*: "It seems to me that the faculty and some of the administrators have a death wish. The people of California are sick and tired of paying taxes and seeing this nonsense on the campuses." Earlier that year, Berkeley residents had seized a UC-owned lot to create People’s Park, and 350 students took over a Harvard administration building, resulting in 40 injuries.

Davis, just 25, was a protégé of UCSD philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Davis had known several of the girls killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Davis was highly vocal and refused to keep her political views out of the classroom—just as J. Edgar Hoover was warning the public that Communists were in favor of the "violent and complete destruction of the American Government."

In trying to dismiss Davis from her teaching position, all kinds of questions emerged—who should control curricula and the appointment of instructors, and therefore the university: the regents or the faculty? Do political beliefs come into play when hiring faculty? Should a professor be able to share his or her political views, as long as they invite criticism? Are young students capable of deciding independently what they want to believe? Davis had many followers on campus, but outsiders feared that students were naturally vulnerable to radicals.

"I’m amazed that then-Governor Reagan, state legislators, and UC regents thought it permissible to weigh in on this question of academic staffing," says Jonathan Cohen, current professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at UCSD. "The reasons they offer for their view are bizarre. The evidence they had about Davis’s scholarship and teaching, including the testimony of everyone who interacted with her in any academic capacity, was strongly positive. Setting aside the relevant evidence in order to appeal to their unsubstantiated fears about politically indoctrinating the students is not only unfair: it is procedurally irregular, at odds with the interests of the students and the university, and frankly absurd. I’d like to believe that nothing like this strange episode could happen now."

Over the decades, Angela Davis has continued to stay in the forefront of activism, most recently as an honorary cochair of the January 21 Women’s March on Washington. Meanwhile, UCSD has been enjoying relatively peaceful vibes—helped in part by this June’s commencement address from the Dalai Lama.

*Harold Keen (1912–1981) anchored San Diego’s first TV news program and interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. He also contributed to San Diego Magazine for 21 years, and proofread an article he wrote for us the night before he died.

In 1969…

  • UC San Diego was 9 years old
  • Richard Nixon was president
  • Apollo 11 landed on the moon
  • The first US troops withdrew from Vietnam

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