The following message from Angela Y. Davis was presented at the celebration of Leon Letwin’s life, held at UCLA on August 29, 2015.
To the Family and Friends of Leon Letwin,
I wish I could be with you in person as you collectively evoke the phenomenal life and legacy of Leon Letwin. Although I am not able to be present today, I do want to offer a few reflections. I knew Leon as a man who helped to inform trajectories of social justice for more than a half century, and specifically as one of the driving forces behind the UCLA campaign that defended my right to teach. Shortly after I arrived on campus, facing a torrent of anti-communism unleashed by the Regents’ decision to fire me, it was Leon, as chair of the Committee on Equal Opportunity, who stepped up to write an official letter to the Vice-Chancellor in which he made the still valid argument that:
“[M]inority candidates will, with some frequency, come with unconventional political backgrounds and views as judged from majority perspectives. Regentally imposed political tests which assault the academic freedom of all will fall upon such candidates with unusual severity. If a faculty member can be fired for entertaining divergent views about the structure of our society and the solutions to its problems, this recruitment will become a mockery, as will our general claim to academic integrity.”
As I think back on that period and on the role Leon played in safeguarding my right to teach—along with others in the Law School such as Henry McGee, Michael Tigar, and Dick Wasserstrom, as well as faculty from Philosophy and other Departments—I must say I am very glad that I stumbled into the controversy engineered by the Regents at that particular moment in time. If the lessons Leon taught us about organizing for social justice were invaluable forty-five years ago, they are equally relevant today as we defend faculty members such as Steven Salaita, who continue to come under attack for their divergent views.
There is a reason why I evoke the name and current struggle of Steven Salaita, recently fired by the Trustees of the University of Illinois after tweeting opposition to the attack on Gaza last summer. The very last time I saw Leon, we were both present at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, linked together once more by the rising efforts to generate solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. He was truly my brother in struggle and I shall never forget him.
Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Prof. Emerita, UC Santa Cruz