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When The Rolling Stones wrote a song in honour of a civil rights activist


The civil rights movement came with a soundtrack. In fact, you could even argue that it started with a soundtrack, for that matter. James Baldwin, the writer and activist at the forefront of the egalitarian wave, asserted that it was through music that those suffering hardships have been able to “tell [their] stories.” 

Since slaves were first shipped in their droves, the subversive force of music has always held true. This was a notion put forward by the legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins who told the allegorical story of the blues itself via the tale of Mr Charlie’s Rolling Mill. His story speaks of a little boy battered from pillar to post by the cruel whims of life to the point that he develops a stutter. His mother can no longer understand him, and the eternal pariah is forced to stammer his way out of town. 

He finds shelter in a ramshackle outhouse some way along the road, only to be discovered by Mr Charlie. Mr Charlie agrees that the boy can stay in his shack because he only uses it to cook his lunch, but it comes with one condition: he watches over the stove in there and makes sure it never catches fire. One day it does catch ablaze and our nameless hero races to Mr Charlie, only when he gets there the words stick in his mouth.  “Look here boy,” Mr Charlie proclaims, “if you can’t talk it, then sing it,” at which point Lightnin’ Hopkins strums his guitar and bursts into song…

When those suffering on plantations were persecuted for speaking, they had to encrypt their expression into song. Thus, it seems almost fitting that when the civil rights movement was at its pinnacle, a band whose roots reach right back into the blue of the past would tackle the subject of a silenced voiced head-on with a rock ‘n’ roll outcry for justice. The Rolling Stones were a band riding the cresting wave of culture that started way back in the troubled seas of the past, and Angela Davis was giving voice to where it should wash ashore.

Davis was a philosophy professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1969. At the time she was a renowned feminist, a member of the Communist Party USA, and an affiliate of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles. However, later that year, with the Vietnam War situation growing ever more volatile, Davis was sacked owing to her communist associations at the behest of Californian Governor Ronald Reagan.

On August 7th, 1970, a fractious incident would land Angela Davis in jail. In the months prior to this fateful date, Davis had voiced her support for the Soledad Brothers, a moniker used to describe the three inmates charged with the murder of prison guard John Vincent Mills, following the shooting deaths of three black prisoners by the guards after a ruckus in the yard.

Without a warning shot being fired, the guards at the prison decided to break up a fistfight by firing automatic rifles. Three black inmates in the melee were killed. The deaths were deemed justifiable homicide despite none of the inmates who witnessed the incident being able to testify. When Mills was later found dead after being thrown from the third floor of one of the wings, a murder charge was pinned on George Jackson (a prominent Black Panther Party figure) and two other vocal civil rights inmates. 

When the Soledad Brothers went to trial, Jonathan Jackson the 17-year-old brother of George, stormed the courtroom with a gun. He managed to take Judge Harold Haley hostage along with, the black defendant, three female jurors and the persecutor. In the melee, one of the defendants, James McClain, shot at the police. The police returned fire. The judge and the three black men were killed.

Davis was later found to have purchased the guns and despite her argument that they were merely acquired for her own defence after threats were made on her life and they were taken without her knowledge for the plot, the State ruled that all persons concerned with the commission of a crime would be tried. Thus, Davis was set to face the charges of the “aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of Judge Harold Haley”.

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When a warrant was issued for her arrest, Davis fled and soon found herself on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive’s List. When she was finally caught in October 1970 she was labelled a dangerous terrorist. Two years later she was acquitted by an all-white jury who found her not guilty. However, this was not before she spent 16 months in incarceration, enduring torturous spells in solitary confinement. 

It was during this incarceration period that The Rolling Stones began work on their political protest anthem ‘Sweet Black Angel’. “We had never met her, but we admired her from afar,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said of Angela Davis, talking to Harper’s Bazaar. “The song started as an island lilt sort of thing when we were in Jamaica,” he continued. “After a while, the words ‘Sweet Black Angel’ crept into it, and I realized Mick was writing about Angela Davis, the famous activist who was under arrest at the time.”

The protest anthem might not mention Davis by name, but this only adds to the timeless nature of the struggle. And that same notion is sadly still prescient today. Way back in 1967, Brian Jones said, “We are questioning some of the basic immoralities which are tolerated in present-day society. Racism, the war in Vietnam, the persecution of homosexuals and the illegality of abortion.” Sadly, 50 years later when Richards was asked whether they would play the song again, he answered, “It’s still quite relevant, isn’t it? And that’s unfortunate. This stuff has stayed with us for too long.”