Angela Davis speaks at the University of New England. Credit: Holly Haywood | University of New England

BIDDEFORD, Maine — Political and social justice activist Angela Davis told a young Muslim woman on Wednesday that she also felt fear when she worked for civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s, but that she could not let that fear stop her work.

“People often asked, ‘Weren’t you afraid when you were facing the death penalty?’” Davis responded to the question from 21-year-old activist Hamdia Ahmed of Portland. “Yes, I was afraid. Of course I was afraid … but one doesn’t have to be immobilized by one’s fear. You can be afraid and you can continue to do the work.”

Davis, 74, an acclaimed author, academic and former member of the Black Panthers and the Communist Party USA, spoke at the University of New England’s Harold Alfond Arena, nearly 55 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the university’s precursor, St. Francis College.

An overwhelming crowd that organizers estimated topped 1,500 people delayed Davis’ talk, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement,” part of the college’s commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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Davis spoke for almost an hour, opening by sharing her favorite quote of King’s from “The Triumph of Conscience.”

“We may now be in only the initial period of an era of change as far-reaching in its consequences as the American Revolution. The developed industrial nations of the world cannot remain secure islands of prosperity in a seething sea of poverty. The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation and armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables man everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. The American Negro in 1967, like Crispus Attucks, may be the vanguard in a prolonged struggle that may change the shape of the world, as billions of deprived shake and transform the earth in their quest for life, freedom and justice.”

“This is a very exciting moment because so many people have spoken out” against injustice, Davis said.

Davis spoke of racial violence and gender violence, asking, “Why don’t we see the relevance of that work in the struggles against gender violence?”

Davis, a longtime advocate for prison reform, asked, “How ridiculous is it to assume that the violent institution of a prison can solve problems of violence … people sent to prison usually end up becoming more violent … Prisons are places that actually allow us to forget about solving the problem of violence.”

She spoke of the ongoing federal government shutdown, adding, “I try not to mention the name of the occupant [of the White House],” and continued, “All this talk about build a wall … many of the people who are trying to come to this country are fleeing violence — often violence that is the work of U.S. capitalists.”

In 1969, Davis was fired as a professor at UCLA for her membership in the Communist party, and for her efforts defending three black prisoners at Soledad prison who were accused of killing a prison guard after several African-American inmates had been killed by another guard.

During the trial of one of the three, four people including a judge were killed, and Davis was charged with murder for allegedly purchasing firearms. She fled and was listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for months until her capture. She was ultimately acquitted of charges including conspiracy to commit murder.

Earlier this month, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which had chosen Davis for a human rights award, rescinded the award following protests over her support for a boycott of Israel until it ends the occupation of the West Bank, the New York Times reported.

On Wednesday, she mentioned the controversy, and briefly discussed Palestine.

“This is an exciting moment because we’re finally beginning to recognize, as Dr. King said, ‘Justice is indivisible,’” she said. “He said, ‘I am not going to be concerned about justice for Negroes in the United States because I know that justice is indivisible, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

Among other questions fielded by Davis was one posed by a Warren man who asked her response to former Gov. Paul LePage’s remarks that “black and hispanic men are the enemy.”

Davis wasn’t familiar with LePage’s comment, but advocated for “a very strong movement against racism” and “revitaliz[ing] existing anti-racism movements” in Maine.

“The existing political leadership of the country has created an environment that has brought out all of the worst forms of racism,” she said. “We’re seeing forms of racism that are very much linked to the period after slavery, and people are erupting again.”