Angela Davis. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

The recent cancellation of a human rights award to Angela Davis by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute due to her support of the movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel has badly backfired.

A roar of outrage has forced the resignation of three BCRI board members for this action, and the group has had to apologize for rescinding the award to such a storied civil rights activist, and a native of Birmingham. Another Birmingham group has stepped up to organize an event honoring Davis.

Among those expressing shock at BCRI’s action was the Birmingham City Council.  Its members unanimously approved a resolution of support for Davis expressing embarrassment and dismay at BCRI’s action.

On short notice, a letter supporting Davis signed by 350 scholars was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. The letter reads, “The canceling of this award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is unjust, insulting and ill-conceived, especially because it is likely premised on Professor Davis’ long-standing support for Palestinian human rights.” The letter urges BCRI to reinstate the award.

Support for Davis has also come from the  National Lawyers Guild, Southern Region, and a great many individuals from all walks of life in Birmingham.

On Jan. 14, BCRI expressed  that it “deeply regrets” its decision to rescind the award. However, it stopped short of saying it would give the award back to Davis.

The newly formed  Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation, whose members include  civic, community, religious, legal, educational and business leaders, has stepped up, and plans to honor Davis on Feb. 16 with a day of community dialogue and an evening event titled “A Conversation with Angela Davis.”

What happened

In September 2018, the BCRI selected Angela Davis to be the recipient of its Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. This is a prestigious honor of which Davis is more than deserving.

Davis, a Birmingham native, has exemplified herself as an author, professor, and impassioned advocate in the fight for Black liberation and in the feminist, socialist, and national liberation movements.

Following the announcement of the award, the BCRI came under pressure from outside forces hostile to Davis’ legacy as a revolutionary and to her staunch support for the Palestinian struggle. On Jan. 5, the board released a vague notice announcing it was rescinding the award and canceled the Feb. 16 gala event.

A close look at the events leading to this cancellation gives an illustration of how radical voices are suppressed in the United States.

‘One of the most globally recognized champions of human rights’

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute says it is “a cultural and educational research center that promotes a comprehensive understanding for the significance of civil rights developments in Birmingham.”

Its human rights award is named after Fred Shuttlesworth, an Alabama minister who fought in the Civil Rights Movement for the recognition of the rights of Black Americans. A freedom rider and comrade to Martin Luther King Jr., Shuttlesworth’s legacy is one which very much resonates with that of Davis.

The recipient of the award is chosen every year by the BCRI’s Board of Directors, which is largely made up of CEOs and middle managers of corporations in Birmingham. Past recipients include actor Danny Glover, Dr. John Hope Franklin, and Congressman John Lewis.

Shortly after the BCRI decided to give this year’s award to Angela Davis, President and CEO Andrea Taylor said, “We are thrilled to bestow this honor on Angela Davis, and excited about her return to her hometown of Birmingham, which is the very launching pad of the modern human rights movement. Arguably, she’s one of the most globally recognized champions of human rights, giving voice to those who are powerless to speak.”

The board’s justifiable enthusiasm for Angela Davis would abruptly reverse after opposition from several powerful figures in Birmingham.

The opposition mobilizes

On Dec. 23, 2018, editor Larry Brooks published an article in Southern Jewish Life magazine about the upcoming award to Davis, calling attention to her anti-Zionism and outspoken support for the BDS movement. This sparked an outcry from the Birmingham Jewish Foundation and staunchly pro-Israel evangelical Christian churches in the city.

Adding to the opposition, on Jan. 1, General Charles Krulak, retired Marine commander, former president of Birmingham-Southern College, and board member for several corporations, sent an email to the BCRI board expressing his “sadness” at the selection of Davis. He cited Davis’ past membership in the Communist Party, her placement on the FBI’s “10 most wanted fugitive list,” and her 1972 case, in which she was found not guilty of aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder.

Three days later, the BCRI board called an emergency session of voting members and decided to cancel the event. It released a statement the following night saying that “supporters and other concerned individuals and organizations, both inside and outside of our local community, began to make requests that we reconsider our decision.”

Without specifying anything at all, their statement continued: “Upon closer examination of Ms. Davis’ statements and public record, we concluded that she unfortunately does not meet all of the criteria on which the award is based.”

Attacked by the ‘Jewish community’?

Clearly, the BCRI board was pressured into revoking their award. The question is why.

Media coverage of this episode has played up the idea that Davis’s award was canceled because of outrage by the “Jewish community” over her support for BDS. This formulation, which tries to drive a wedge between the Black and Jewish communities, is divisive and inaccurate.

Jewish people are not a political monolith. A growing number of Jewish people, in the U.S. and worldwide, support BDS and vocally oppose Israeli apartheid. This part of the “Jewish community” does not oppose Angela Davis on this question.

In fact, Angela Davis’s exceptional history in advocating for the liberation of all oppressed peoples, Jewish peoples included, precedes her. In 2015, Jewish Voice for Peace hosted Davis as the keynote speaker at their annual conference, to a tumultuous response. Supporting her against the recent attacks, this group tweeted: “To argue that Angela Davis is unworthy of a civil rights award is beyond shameful.”

To the extent that pro-Israel voices did influence the BCRI’s decision, it is because these voices agree with and have been empowered by the U.S. ruling class and political establishment, which sees Israel as an important instrument for its imperialist project in the Middle East.

Angela Davis has been demonized by the ruling class her entire life – both as a Black woman and as a radical. Rather than blaming a particular “community” of people, we should understand the attack on Angela Davis as one more aspect of the ruling class’s suppression of all radical figures and movements in the United States. Especially targeted are those who reach out in solidarity across different struggles to build multi-factional, international movements against racism, sexism, and imperialism.