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Overcoming controversy, Angela Davis speaks to hundreds at Nyack church

Political activist and author Dr. Angela Davis joined Rockland County community members for a conversation on change at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Nyack on Thursday. 

Dr. Davis’ visit to Nyack comes after a scheduled speaking engagement at North Rockland High School was canceled in November due to community opposition. 

A student group at North Rockland High School called VOICE originally planned to host Davis as a guest speaker in an off-campus event open to students and the public. After community members voiced their concerns, the event was canceled. 

Representing VOICE at Pilgrim Baptist Church on Dec. 1, student Anaya Willis said, “A lot of the inner community was saying that they didn’t want someone as ‘radical’ as Angela Davis to come to the community to speak to their kids.” 

Willis also said that protesters voiced concerns about violence that might arise due to Dr. Davis’ visit.

After the event was canceled as announced by North Rockland Superintendent Kris Felicello, a separate, public event organized by the Nyack NAACP and the Education for Liberation Network was scheduled to take place at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill with Davis as the guest speaker.

On Tuesday night, community members were informed by St. Thomas Aquinas College administrators that they were no longer able to host the event. In a message to staff and faculty members by the schools president, Kenneth Daly, the event was canceled due to “factors including continued conversations with members of the community and logistical challenges related to the anticipated level of attendance.”

“I was totally surprised when they actually canceled, and it came as a total shock,” Nyack NAACP President Nicole Hines told Nyack News & Views. “The cancellation on the basis of them not being ready was really upsetting and frustrating because we had all plans in place.” 

Despite the sudden cancellation, hundreds of Rockland County residents arrived at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in anticipation of Dr. Davis’ speech. 

“There were some people who tried to stop this moment from coming to be,” Pilgrim Baptist Church’s Pastor Carl Washington told the audience. “But through your efforts, and through your prayers, and by the grace of God, we are here tonight.”

The crowd included students from Nyack High School, North Rockland High School, Nanuet High School, their parents and teachers, and other community members.

Dornzella Milligan, a counselor at Nyack High School and a member of the Nyack NAACP said, “We need to listen to the students and I think that it was very significant for them to see that we are listening. They initiated [Davis’ visit], and we supported them.”

Throughout her speech, Davis spoke about systematic racism and Critical Race Theory, an analysis of racism in American history that some parents have fought to keep out of Rockland school curriculums. 

“Critical Race Theory is really a very important development and legal theory,” Davis said. “But it’s also about recognizing the history of this country, including the contributions that white people have made to the struggle against racism.”

Watch the full speech below:

Davis also spoke about the importance of hope and encouraged students to continue to fight for change in their communities.

“Amidst all of the repression and violence and tragedies that have occurred over centuries, somehow we’ve managed to hold onto [hope],” the former Black Panther Party member said. “We’ve managed to transmit hope from one generation to the next.” 

An activist and scholar born in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis has navigated police brutality, incarceration and life under the Jim Crow laws. She acknowledged that while there are still those who may oppose change to systemic oppression that affects underrepresented groups, positive progress has been made. 

“Things are different today,” Davis said. “They’re not what we want to see in the world, but I think it’s important to recognize that change has happened. Maybe not the change we need, all the change we want, but change has been brought about precisely as a consequence of people coming together in groups like this, making collective decisions to demand radical change.”

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