Columbia GSAPP [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

January 27, 2019;

Earlier this month, NPQ reported on the disinvitation of scholar-activist Angela Davis as this year’s honoree for the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), apparently because of her support for the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions (BDS) movement. Davis is one of a number of Black scholars and commentators who have faced organized censure for their support of BDS, veiled by attempts to portray that support as anti-Semitic.

Now, after a national and an intense local outcry, the institute has reversed itself and re-offered the award, issuing a statement about lessons learned. But, what are those lessons?

The board’s public statement in reissuing the invitation shows no willingness to take on the issues at play, instead vaguely committing itself to “dialogue.” Between whom and about what was not made clear, even though there was clearly concern about where the pressure came from to disinvite Davis.

Meanwhile, another dynamic was playing out in the displeasure of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who demanded among other things the minutes of the board meeting at which the decision to rescind was taken. He also urged all board members who thought they should resign to do so, and three did. (The city provided a third of the budget of the Institute for 2019.)

Finally, after more than a week, the BCRI board issued an apology. “We accept responsibility and are sorry,” its statement read. This was followed by a reissuance of the invitation, though by then Davis had already accepted an invitation to speak in front of an alternative (and quickly sold-out) event organized by a group called the Committee for Truth and Reconciliation on February 16th, the day in question.

“History will show that BCRI did ultimately make the right decision in conferring the award to Dr. Davis,” said Andrea Taylor, the Institute’s CEO. “Now, we want to work with the city to move forward and heal and continue our work as a symbol of social justice and advocacy for present and future generations.”

Taylor says she and members of the board met with Carlos Chaverst and Frank Matthews of the Outcast Voters League. “They reached out to us and we reached out to them. You can’t solve problems and make constructive changes unless you dialogue with people.”

Chaverst says, “The board acknowledged it was a mistake and done prematurely. The first step is acknowledgment. The resignations were a good step, also. The board still has a long way to go to build significant trust with the community.

“We also suggested that the board needs fresh leadership,” Chaverst adds. “The same old dominant leadership has been there for years. We were assured changes were coming.”

Publicly, however, the CEO remains in the same vague groove. “There are always unintended consequences,” Taylor says. “There is definitely a need for more dialogue between people who have different opinions—a greater understanding of diverse views and finding a place of importance that is equipped for engaging in that dialogue. I think we’re on the right path for the future.”

“Our brand has taken a hit,” Taylor continues, “and [we’ve] come to understand how important the organization is to local advocates and others across the world. It’s our opportunity now to really reach out and engage with that global population.”

Angela Davis herself is a bit more plainspoken about the storm BCRI created around itself, telling DemocracyNow, “It’s actually quite exciting.…The issue of Palestinian human rights, and its relation to the struggle for civil rights for people of African descent in this country, is finally being discussed in an open way.”

“This was not primarily an assault against me as an individual; it was an assault against a whole generation of activists who have come to recognize how important internationalism is,” Davis says.

The refusal to name the issues has left room for assumptions to fester—specifically, the assumption that this is a problem having strictly to do with the divergent beliefs of Jews and Blacks on Israel and Palestine, but this is far from true. For instance, the 500 academics associated with Jewish Voices for Peace put their names to a letter decrying the award take-back and agreeing with Davis’s assertion that justice is indivisible.

The cancelling 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 decision seems to stem from a misinformed view that to advocate for Palestinian human rights is somehow offensive to the Jewish community. As a Jewish organization dedicated to justice, dignity and equality for all people in Palestine/Israel, we share Professor Davis’ visionary commitment to the “indivisibility of justice,” and believe we are all responsible for pursuing social justice for all human beings, without exception—which includes pursuing social justice for Palestinians.

As Davis says, “Jews were the first white people to speak up in the civil-rights era, to speak against racism. I think we need to engage in the kind of conversation that will reveal the true meaning of anti-Semitism and help us to extricate ourselves from this McCarthyite effort to equate boycott strategies and solidarity strategies with anti-Semitism.”—Ruth McCambridge