Columbia GSAPP [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

January 7, 2018; Guardian

Until last Friday, lifelong activist and celebrated scholar Angela Davis was set to receive the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award in mid-February from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI). At the time, BCRI president Andrea Taylor declared the Institute would be “thrilled to bestow this honor” on a woman who is “one of the most globally recognized champions of human rights, giving voice to those who are powerless to speak.”

But late last week, the Institute disinvited Davis, a Birmingham native, saying, “Upon closer examination of Davis’s statements and public record, we concluded that she unfortunately does not meet all of the criteria.”

The statement does not go much further except to say that their re-examination had been prompted when “supporters and other concerned individuals and organizations, both inside and outside of our local community, began to make requests that we reconsider our decision.”

Many believe that Davis’s support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which protests Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, is the issue, though the statement from the Institute is not explicit about what it was that caused the organization to “reconsider.” Just yesterday, NPQ published a story on the degree to which those supporting Palestine’s right to exist are being systematically harassed by a network of Israel supporters who characterize such positions as anti-Semitic. Davis got the same message about the reason for her unceremonious dumping, prompting this reply on Facebook:

On Saturday, January 5th, I was stunned to learn that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Board of Directors had reversed their previous decision to award me the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. Although the BCRI refused my requests to reveal the substantive reasons for this action, I later learned that my long-term support of justice for Palestine was at issue. This seemed particularly unfortunate, given that my own freedom was secured—and indeed my life was saved—by a vast international movement. And I have devoted much of my own activism to international solidarity and, specifically, to linking struggles in other parts of the world to US grassroots campaigns against police violence, the prison industrial complex, and racism more broadly. The rescinding of this invitation and the cancellation of the event where I was scheduled to speak was thus not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice.

I support Palestinian political prisoners just as I support current political prisoners in the Basque Country, in Catalunya, in India, and in other parts of the world. I have indeed expressed opposition to policies and practices of the state of Israel, as I express similar opposition to US support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to other discriminatory US policies. Through my experiences at Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City and at Brandeis University in the late fifties and early sixties, and my subsequent time in graduate school in Frankfurt, Germany, I learned to be as passionate about opposition to antisemitism as to racism. It was during this period that I was also introduced to the Palestinian cause. I am proud to have worked closely with Jewish organizations and individuals on issues of concern to all of our communities throughout my life. In many ways, this work has been integral to my growing consciousness regarding the importance of protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The trip to Birmingham, where I was born and raised, to receive the Fred Shuttlesworth Award, was certain to be the highlight of my year—especially since I knew Rev. Shuttlesworth personally and attended school with his daughter, Patricia, and because my mother, Sallye B. Davis, worked tirelessly for the BCRI during its early years. Moreover, my most inspirational Sunday School teacher Odessa Woolfolk was the driving force for the institute’s creation. Despite the BCRI’s regrettable decision, I look forward to being in Birmingham in February for an alternative event organized by those who believe that the movement for civil rights in this moment must include a robust discussion of all of the injustices that surround us.

Meanwhile, two of the newer members of the US House of Representatives, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, spoke out about an anti-BDS measure being pushed by Marco Rubio and are receiving a similar kind of dunning. That these are all leaders of color is duly noted.

Previous years’ winners of the Shuttlesworth award include politicians John Lewis and Eleanor Holmes Norton, actor Danny Glover, and attorney Bryan Stevenson. Danny Glover, in fact, who received the award in 2003, similarly backs the divestment and sanctions movement and has himself experienced the same kind of backlash around his stance.

Today, in response to the move to exclude, the Birmingham City Council City passed a resolution recognizing Davis’s life’s work. Councilman Steven Hoyt, who proposed the council resolution, said that the institute’s position was “absolutely embarrassing.”

“Everybody respects her but us. In academic communities as well as society and various groups,” Hoyt said. “I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed to even serve in a city that would do that.”—Ruth McCambridge