Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis studied French at Brandeis University and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in West Germany. Returning to the United States, she studied at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to East Germany, where she completed a doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin. After returning to the US, she joined the Communist Party. In 1969, she was hired as an acting assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was soon fired due to her Communist Party membership, which a court then ruled illegal. The University was forced to re-hire her, though they immediately terminated her once again - this time for "inflammatory language."
In 1970, guns belonging to Davis were used in an armed takeover of a courtroom in Marin County, California, in which four people were killed. She was held in jail for over a year before being acquitted of all charges in 1972. In 1997, she co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison–industrial complex. In 1991, amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she was part of a faction in the Communist Party that broke away to establish the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.
Davis has received various awards, including the Lenin Peace Prize. Davis has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 2020, she was listed as the 1971 "Woman of the Year" in Time magazine's "100 Women of the Year" edition. In 2020, she was included on Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
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