Angela Davis’ homecoming was perfect.
The freedom fighter and civil rights icon was supposed to return to her beloved hometown to accept the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s highest honor. Then the institute rescinded the award because of Davis’ support for the rights of Palestinians. A few days later, after a public outcry, BCRI’s board changed its mind again. There were resignations, apologies, finger-pointing and finally, Davis came home to Birmingham, Ala., anyway.
While that dizzying turn of events may sound too chaotic for some, controversy has always swirled around Davis so she wasn’t flustered. As a grassroots outsider, she didn’t seem to need any pomp or circumstance. Davis is a teacher and a fighter. She’s faced the death penalty and spent time in solitary confinement so she’s probably accustomed to turmoil.
For Angela Davis, this was perfect.
“I had no idea when I was initially informed that I was to be the recipient of the Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award that it would lead to a national consciousness regarding internationalism and, specifically, regarding justice for Palestine,” Davis said at a Saturday press conference at Tuggle Elementary School, the school she attended while growing up in the section of Birmingham that would become known as “Dynamite Hill,” after repeated bombings by white supremacists during the civil rights movement.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute reneged on its initial decision to honor Davis after members of Birmingham’s Jewish community condemned her support for Palestinian human rights. Instead of a gala with champagne flutes and perfectly enunciated platitudes, the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation, a group of local organizers and community leaders, held a closed forum with Davis and local activists as well as a moderated discussion that was open to the public.
The public event drew so much attention that it immediately sold out, forcing a change of venue to one of Birmingham’s largest concert arenas. As soon as tickets for the new venue were available, that venue sold out, too. Even if BCRI didn’t think Davis was worthy, the people of Birmingham apparently did.
Asked if she planned to accept the Shuttlesworth Award that the BCRI offered before rescinding the honor and rescinding the rescission, Davis revealed that she had not yet responded to the institute because she did not feel the decision was solely hers to make.
“I think that should be a collective decision,” said the former Black Panther. “Particularly, a decision that is taken by activists here in Birmingham. The issues are not issues simply involving me, so I will take my lead from them.”
When it came to the subject of solidarity with the Palestinian people, Davis did not shy away from the subject. She noted that a disproportionate number of the white men and women who were allies during the civil rights struggle were of Jewish descent. But, as an advocate for global human rights, she rejected the notion that criticism of Israel is somehow equivalent to anti-semitism.
“How can a nation-state present itself as not subject to criticism? Can you name another state in the world?” Davis asked. “The equation of the criticism of the policies and practices of the state of Israel with anti-semitism is wrong. It is as important to be critical of the state of Israel as it is to be critical of the United States of America.”
Sitting in the school where she said she learned the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Davis is still an uncompromising voice for freedom and liberty. More than half a century later, she still feels the duty and responsibility to lend her voice to the fight for humanity.
“I don’t think anyone would know my name today if it were not for the fact that people organized around the world when I was facing the death penalty,” Davis explained.
There probably could have been bells and whistles, glitter and balloons. She could have easily smiled at the flashing lights as she accepted a shiny new plaque surrounded by a roundtable cabal of renegers and hypocrites.
But who would want to see that Angela Davis?
It was better this way. It was perfect.
It was home.