Maria Schubert
Solidarity! Angela Davis and the GDR

Postcards from the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis collection (M0262)
Postcards from the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis collection (M0262) | Photo (detail): © Courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Stanford Libraries

“Angela Davis—we were all in love with her!” I recently heard this during a discussion about the relationship between African American civil rights activists and the GDR. In fact, in the GDR in the 1970s, no one could avoid the icon of the Black Power movement. The East German state launched a campaign for the activist that was second to none. Who can’t remember writing a postcard in school for the imprisoned Davis? Hundreds of thousands of letters were sent to the USA; the GDR newspapers, radio, and television were full of reports about Davis, gathering signatures for her release was part of everyday life in schools and workers’ collectives. So it is hardly surprising that Angela Davis has become part of the collective memory of every age group that can actively remember this time. And even today, as this exhibition testifies, Angela Davis moves and stimulates the mind. The following text presents the historical context of the GDR’s relationship to Davis, first the campaign’s embedding within the policies of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), the general public’s reaction to Davis, and finally the question of placing their engagement within an international context.

By Maria Schubert

To save Johanna,
believers of a nation prayed;
so she died.
To save Angela,
Human beings throughout the world fought;
so she stayed alive.

Hail Angela, hail
all, who fought!   [1]  

Helmut Preißler: „Gedanken zur Befreiung von Angela Davis“ in Angela Davis: Lieder – Texte – Noten (Berlin: VEB Lied der Zeit, 1972), 1.

The GDR and the “other America”

The Socialist Unity Party’s decision to initiate a solidarity campaign for Davis had ideological as well as political grounds, both domestically and internationally. Since its foundation, the GDR’s inner power circle cultivated contacts with foreign communist parties: to the ruling parties in Eastern Europe, but also Western European communist organizations as well as the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). After being active in different civil rights organizations, Davis joined the CPUSA in 1968 out of deep conviction, which she described in her autobiography:“I needed to become a part of a serious revolutionary party. I wanted an anchor, a base, a mooring. I needed comrades with whom I could share a common ideology.”  [2]  
In the GDR, she was, as a communist, considered to be a representative of the so-called “other America”—that part of the US-American population that was still oppressed but, according to Marxist-Leninist ideology, from which the hoped-for revolution would emerge.

But Davis didn’t only represent an ideal cooperation partner for the SED as a communist. She was also part of the African American civil rights movement, which felt particularly connected to the GDR.   [3]  In the socialist world, the Black population was considered to be part of the “other America.” Racism was considered an instrument of the capitalist elite, which thereby oppressed a collaboration between white and African American workers for a communist revolution. On the basis of this ideology, the Soviet Union maintained contacts with African American activists as early as the 1930s.  [4]   The SED followed this example, taking up affiliations with the African American civil rights movement and supporting their struggle for equality. The young republic thereby wanted to demonstrate that racism had been vanquished by the socialist system on East German soil. The GDR additionally hoped to improve its image abroad through the expression of solidarity and public relations. In the early 1970s, the East German state struggled considerably with international diplomatic recognition in the West and hoped to gain African American civil rights activists as proponents for its position.

Thus, the SED invited well-known activists to visit, published books by African American authors, and released a series of records by Black musicians and artists whose music was considered progressive. As early as 1958, W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most significant African American intellectuals and activists of the twentieth century, visited the East German State. In 1960, the famous singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda Goode Robeson set off for the GDR. Martin Luther King Jr. spent a night in East Berlin in 1964 and preached at Marienkirche [St. Mary’s Church]. King was not invited by the state for this visit, but church representatives were able to convince him. The SED had their difficulties with King because he was critically opposed to communism. Although he was considered the leader of the civil rights movement, the media didn’t court him in the same way as Robeson or Davis. Only after his death did the SED discover King for their purposes and proclaim its solidarity with him. King’s successor, Ralph David Abernathy visited the GDR in 1971 and thereafter was a guest in East Germany with his family several times. The campaign for Angela Davis built upon an already established tradition of connections between the GDR and the “other America,” which persisted until the end of the East German state in 1989–90. The campaign is considered the pinnacle of these relationships, but also, in its intensity and particularities, simultaneously represented something new.

The Solidarity Campaign

Since January 1971, barely a day went by in which the GDR media did not report about the imprisoned Davis. The youth newspaper, the FDJ junge Welt increased the attention for the activist once again by launching the campaign “1 Million Roses for Angela Davis.”  [5]   It published a postcard template that the youth could cut out and send to the USA. For Davis’ birthday on January 26, the inmate was said to have received thousands of cards.
But this was by no means the only initiative of the large-scale campaign. Workers’ collectives gathered signatures, scholars filed petitions with the United States government, and orchestras performed solidarity concerts. In schools, teachers spoke with their classes about Davis. She was also considered a role model for the Junge Pioniere [young pioneers] and in the FDJ.

Journalists in the state press described the activist as both a communist and a civil rights activist who, because of her political views and her fight against racism, had become a victim of the American judicial system.  [6]   The media coverage always emphasized how bravely Davis fought for her goals, how much she suffered under the prison conditions in the USA, and that the GDR citizens stood by her. The protest writers adopted this ideological vocabulary in their statements of solidarity. Angela Davis is therefore always addressed as “one of us” and compassion and sympathy for her goals is emphasized.  [7]   The writers criticized the harsh conditions of her imprisonment and demanded immediate release. Yet the people who wrote to Davis complied with the strict limitations placed on correspondence, since most letters were checked by superiors, teachers, or SED personnel.

Nevertheless, the many solidarity addresses, some of them elaborately formulated and designed, are an indication that Davis’ fate personally moved many people in the GDR. Writing letters was connected to the hope of being able to contribute in some small way to her release. It’s noteworthy that Davis is always described as a “young woman,” both in the media coverage as well as the messages of solidarity. The civil rights campaigners who had visited the GDR until this point were men (with the exception of Eslanda Goode Robeson, who, however, stood behind her husband in the reporting). Most of the socialist worker heroes and role models were men and few were as young as Davis. She therefore stood out from this pool of socialist heroes in three different ways—as a young woman, as an American, and as Black.

Visit to the GDR

The jury in California acquitted Davis of all charges on June 4, 1972. The stateaffiliated poet Helmut Preißler described Davis’ release in the poem cited at the beginning of this text as a victory of the struggle of “human beings all around the world.” The headline of the SED party newspaper Neues Deutschland on June 5: “Protest and Solidarity of Millions Led to Success.”  [8]   Many who had participated in the solidarity campaign rejoiced and regarded the acquittal as a victory for international solidarity. Davis herself saw the national and international attention for her case as essential for the outcome of the trial. As a thank you for the support, in September of 1972 she traveled through countries that had been particularly involved in the campaign, including the GDR. When Davis landed at the Berlin-Schönefeld airport, 50,000 people greeted her there.  [9]   Thunderous cheers surrounded the freed activist and her companions Kendra and Franklin Alexander from the CPUSA. Meanwhile, the security forces had their hands full keeping the jostling youth within the fence. Five hundred young pioneers, supposed be positioned along the gangway in an orderly fashion, ran towards their idol as soon as she stepped off of the aircraft. The State Security Service summarized that the coordination and the blockades had not sufficed and in the future must be better organized.  [10]   During her stay, Davis met with high level GDR politicians—notably with Erich Honecker and even with the recently deposed Walter Ulbricht.  [11]   She did numerous large events, among them at Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin where she addressed the young listeners in a blouse by the FDJ, the Freie Deutsche Jugend [Free German Youth], the SED’s youth organization and training ground for new cadres. The crowd of people was once again huge, which caused the GDR’s state security service to falter.  [12]   In the next few days, Davis additionally visited Magdeburg and Leipzig where she was also stormed and hailed. In Leipzig, the Karl-Marx- Universität awarded her with an honorary doctorate. This was already awarded to the civil rights activists DuBois and Robeson, showing the continuity of the connections between the GDR and the African American civil rights movement. During her visit, Davis made enthusiastic comments about the socialist state and was full of praise for its government, as, for example, in her speech at the Friedrichstadt- Palast: “We see, what it means when the working class holds the power in their own hands. […] Long live the GDR! Long live proletarian internationalism!”  [13]   In the 1970s, Davis was repeatedly a guest in the GDR, among others at the 1973 Jugendweltfestspielen [Youth World Festivals].

Davis and Her Time

Davis belonged to a new generation within the civil rights movement, which had a radical impact on the white majority society with its call for Black Power. The movement addressed police violence against Black people and invoked the right to self-defense. After the legal barriers of segregation were brought down under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., Black Power representatives intensified the fight for economic and social equality for the African American population. Besides Angela Davis, a number of these civil rights activists saw in socialism a source of inspiration, and some even a potential model for the future to bring about the end of racism. Different African American activists perceived the socialist states as allies and criticized the power relationships in their own country by referring to the achievements of socialism.  [14]   Angela Davis is to be situated within this internationally active part of the civil rights movement.  [15]  

Both the warm reception of the SED’s solidarity campaign as well as the enormous crush and enthusiasm that Davis encountered at all of the places on her journey through the GDR show that she was adored and admired by the population beyond orchestration by the state. Although some people were tired of redundant reporting and constant expressions of solidarity, such examples are often to be seen as criticism of the state-run campaign rather than of Davis herself. Several factors contributed to this Davis frenzy. 
In May 1971, a change of leadership took place in the SED Politbüro: the aging Walter Ulbricht was replaced by Erich Honecker. Many associated the hope of a political change and a more open society with Honecker. And the SED actually initially loosened its cultural policy—a fresh wind appeared to blow through the GDR. Davis fit into this modern, international flair that the East German state was trying to affect at this time.  [16]  

Davis represented clear communist positions and could only therefore ascend to such prominence in the SED-controlled state. However, her effect upon the population of the GDR is not yet sufficiently explained. Davis was rather part of a global leftist movement, which was reflected in both the East and the West. She transported the message of rebellion—against raging injustice; against established hierarchies of power; against the old, white, and male elite. Many aspects of western counterculture were projected upon the African American activist—those who spoke out against the Vietnam War, demonstrated for women’s rights and sexual liberation, advocated against racism and war, made the pilgrimage to Woodstock, rebelled against their own parents, and called for Flower Power. East German youth participated in this protest movement by celebrating Davis and in part imitating her appearance, such as the afro, for example. Through the solidarity with Davis, the GDR went with the flow of many young peoples’ attitudes.  [17]   Whether this led to a stronger approval of the SED state among the population remains to be seen.  [18]   Because Davis didn’t so much embody what many found as stale state socialism, but rather the spirit of the leftist rebellion against the prevailing conditions.  [19]  



Portrait Maria Schubert Photo (detail): private
Maria Schubert is a historian and wrote her dissertation at Eberhard Karls Universität in Tübingen. She taught on different subjects regarding the history of the USA and the GDR. Her dissertation with the title We Shall Overcome”: Die DDR und die amerikanische Bürger­rechts­be­wegung [“We shall overcome”: The GDR and the American Civil Rights Movement] was published with Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh in 2018.
Since 2020 she is a research fellow at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum.