One of the nation’s most prominent civil rights museums has reneged on its plans to celebrate one of America’s most outspoken freedom fighters, igniting a national controversy after seemingly genuflecting to grumbles from the area’s Jewish community.
On Jan. 4, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute released a weirdly nonspecific statement canceling its plans to bestow the institute’s highest honor upon Angela Davis, a Birmingham, Alabama, native. The ceremony was supposed to serve as the centerpiece of the museum’s annual gala, planned for Feb. 19.
In October, AL.com reported that Andrea Taylor, the Institute’s CEO, called Davis “one of the most globally recognized champions of human rights, giving voice to those who are powerless to speak,” announcing that they were “thrilled” to honor the educator, author, activist, and Birmingham native.
Then suddenly, they weren’t so thrilled.
“In September of 2018, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Board of Directors selected Angela Davis to receive the prestigious Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award at its annual gala in February 2019,” the statement posted on the BCRI’s website began, continuing:
In late December, supporters and other concerned individuals and organizations, both inside and outside of our local community, began to make requests that we reconsider our decision.
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. Therefore, on January 4, BCRI’s Board voted to rescind its invitation to Ms. Davis to honor her with the Shuttlesworth Award. While we recognize Ms. Davis’ stature as a scholar and prominent figure in civil rights history, we believe this decision is consistent with the ideals of the award’s namesake, Rev. Shuttlesworth.
We regret that this change is necessary, and apologize to our supporters, the community and Ms. Davis for the confusion we have caused. We will move forward with a keen focus on our mission: to enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.
The associated gala event, scheduled for February 16th at Haven has been cancelled. Ticket purchasers will received a full refund.
Because the BCRI was less than transparent in its statement, many people wondered why the institute would moonwalk back its support for the hometown heroine. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin cleared up some of the confusion in expressing his discontent with the Institute’s decision. In a statement Sunday, Woodfin said:
As I consider the controversy over the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s decision to honor Dr. Angela Davis with the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award and its subsequent decision to rescind that honor after protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies, my overriding feeling is one of dismay.
“I am dismayed because this controversy is playing out in a way that harks backward, rather than forward,” Woodfin continued, adding that the decision “portrays us as the same Birmingham we always have been, rather than the one we want to be.”
According to people familiar with BCRI’s decision, the institute’s reversal is centered around the local Jewish community’s opposition with what the Associated Press describes as Davis’ support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to rectify Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Soon after the institute announced their plans to honor Davis, Southern Jewish Life magazine published what could only be described as a “hit piece” detailing Davis’s support of policies that are often seen as anti-Israel.
“Something not included in the Institute’s publicity for the event,” the article reads, “is that Davis has also been an outspoken voice in the boycott-Israel movement, and advocates extensively on college campuses for the isolation of the Jewish state, saying Israel engages in ethnic cleansing and is connected to police violence against African-Americans in the United States.”
According to AL.com, local organizers have vowed to protest the institution if the author and internationally known academic does not receive the award. Activists and academics around the country were outraged by the organization’s decision to bow to outside pressure, noting, among other things, Davis’ long history in the struggle for equality for people of all colors, races, religions, and gender.
Davis was born and raised in Birmingham’s “Dynamite Hill,” whose nickname comes from the more than 50 bombings by white supremacists trying to thwart integration during the civil rights era. She became a professor at the University of California’s Los Angeles campus and was known for her radical feminism and her involvement with both the Communist Party USA and the Black Panthers.
After authorities accused Davis of purchasing weapons used in a 1970 courtroom takeover and police shooting, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made Davis the third woman to ever be listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. She briefly went on the run, was arrested, and placed in solitary confinement.
Davis was acquitted of all charges.
She has authored a dozen books on race, class, feminism, sexual abuse, and mass incarceration. Her life’s work has been fighting for justice and equality around the world.
Using the hashtag #IStandWithAngela, social media users have pointed out that Davis’ position on Israel is not only consistent with her work and teachings, but it is also right.
Such is the problem with so-called allies.
Their support is always contingent upon their control. They believe that they should have a say over what and whom Black America deems “acceptable.” Black protest is respectable until it appears on their street, dishonors their agenda, or pops up during their football games. Everyone is cool with the march as long as their toes aren’t stepped on.
Even worse, we are often all too willing to comply.
But I shouldn’t say “we.”
More than half of the BCRI’s Board of Directors, including its chairman, are not black.