Civil rights icon Angela Davis encourages progressive leadership in Canada

MONTREAL – Civil rights icon Angela Davis says Canadians could set an example for Americans in the way they run their country if they show progressive leadership.

“Usually, you’re doing a little bit better but not much,” Davis said with a laugh when asked how she thinks Canada is doing as a country.

“Oftentimes you end up following the trends in the U.S. When conservatism takes hold in the U.S., it doesn’t take very long before Canada follows.

“I’d actually like to see Canada give more progressive and radical leadership to the U.S. That would be good. It would recapitulate the long history of people in the U.S. who sought refuge in Canada during slavery, who sought refuge in Canada during the Vietnam war.”

Many blacks fled to Canada for freedom before the U.S. abolished slavery in 1865. Americans resisting the Vietnam war in the 1960s and early 1970s also fled north to avoid the draft.

Davis did not mention any Canadian political party or leaders by name.

Davis, 69, was in Montreal on Monday to host an event for Black History Month but sat down briefly with reporters after flying in from California.

The retired professor said that even with the election of President Barack Obama for a second term last fall, her country still needs a lot of work.

Americans are still struggling for legal, political and economic rights as they were during the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said Davis, who taught in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies departments of the University of California, Santa Cruz between 1991 and 2008.

“Those remain on the agenda,” the activist said. “In the 21st century, there is a whole range of issues that indicate that racism is even more entrenched in the economic and cultural fabric of the country.”

She said there are more people in prison than ever before, pointing out one of every 100 adults is behind bars.

“There are more black men in prison and under the control of the criminal justice system today than there were in slavery in 1850,” Davis said. “This indicates that we have serious, serious issues.”

But she added that racism isn’t just restricted to attitudes now but to the very nature of society itself, often serving as a determining factor in who gets into school or gets health care.

She spoke with pride of voters who stood in long lines to defeat Republican Mitt Romney and re-elect Obama in last November’s U.S. election but she cautioned them not to sit on their laurels.

“What I would fear most would be not taking advantage of this particular moment and organizing and educating people to move to higher levels so that we can change the prison system, so that we can change the horrible situation with respect to health care, housing, jobs and education.”

Davis gained prominence as a radical in the 1960s civil rights movement as a leader of the Communist Party USA and through close relations with the militant Black Panther Party.

She was the third woman to be put on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted fugitive list, accused of murder and kidnapping in a California courtroom attack although she was acquitted of all charges. The song “Angela” was recorded by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1972 in support of her.

Davis went on to become a noted scholar and author who is active in working to abolish the private-sector prison industry in the U.S. and fighting for women’s rights, among other causes.

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