The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced its decision to “reaffirm” Angela Davis as the recipient of the 2018 Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award three weeks after it canceled the awards dinner originally scheduled for Feb. 16.
When the award was first announced last fall, the Institute said, “Through her activism and scholarship over many decades, Angela Davis has been deeply involved in movements for social justice around the world. Her work as an educator – both at the university level and in the larger public sphere – has always emphasized the importance of building communities united in the struggle for economic, racial and gender justice.”
Andrea Taylor, president and CEO of the Institute, said Davis, “a daughter of Birmingham, is highly regarded throughout the world as a human rights activist. In fact, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study acquired her personal archives in 2018, recognizing her significance in the movement for human rights, her involvement in raising issues of feminism, as well as her leadership in the campaign against mass incarceration. Her credentials in championing human rights are noteworthy.”
But Davis also has a controversial past, through activism with the Black Panthers, running for vice president on the Communist party ticket, and her role in a 1970 hostage situation in a California courtroom, where a judge and three others were killed. She was accused of providing the weapons used in the attack and landed on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list, but was eventually acquitted.
Davis also has been at the forefront of the boycott-Israel movement, comparing Israel to an apartheid state and defending convicted terrorists, such as Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted for her role in a supermarket bombing in Jerusalem that killed two college students.
In a January 2018 speech at Washington University, Davis stated that pro-Israel advocates can not stand for intersectional social justice, and all feminists should be pro-Palestine.
Though Davis advocates for the abolition of the prison system, in a 2015 profile Alan Dershowitz mentioned his request to Angela Davis to help a group of Soviet prisoners, mainly Jewish, some who were imprisoned for requesting to leave the Soviet Union, while she was visiting the Soviet Union. She refused because, as her secretary put it, “they are all Zionist fascist opponents of socialism.”
Others in the community were critical of Davis’ embrace of totalitarian leaders in the Eastern Bloc countries under Soviet domination.
As part of its Jan. 25 statement, a chronology was issued by the board of directors, explaining why the award had been rescinded on Jan. 4.
In late December, “several members of the Board began receiving messages of concern from various segments in the Birmingham community.” On Dec. 23, this publication wrote a profile of Davis, focusing on her anti-Israel activism but also mentioning other aspects of her history.
The messages of concern “strongly opposed Dr. Davis’ views on a variety of issues and also expressed strong opposition to the BCRI for nominating her.”
According to the chronology, the board held a special meeting on Jan. 3, at which they were told about opposition to Davis receiving the award. “Many heard of this issue for the first time,” but there were also “impassioned views” from board members “who view Davis as a brave ‘shero’.”
The board voted to meet again on Jan. 7, to hear “opponents and proponents,” but otherwise hold off on a decision “until dialogue was facilitated.”
But another special meeting was called on January 4 by the board chair, who had been out of town at the previous day. At that meeting, “board members reported on discussions they had with various members of the community that expressed opposition toward giving Davis the award due to her lack of vocal opposition to violence.”
The Institute’s guidelines state recipients “must embody the principles that guided the American Civil Rights Movement and have characterized the life of Fred L. Shuttlesworth,” including a philosophy of non-violence and reconciliation; courage “both moral and physical, in the face of great odds;” humility, leadership by example and “an established commitment to human-rights activities.” The board then voted 9-2 to rescind the award “based on new input from the community.” The statement also characterizes the decision as being “made by a diverse group of board members.” The two ex-officio non-voting members were not present.
While some board members wanted to keep the decision confidential until more input from the community had been heard, a majority felt a “sense of urgency” to announce the decision, which was made on social media and the Institute website.
The Institute, however, gave very little public explanation for the decision, stating just that a “closer examination” of Davis’ “statements and public record” showed “she unfortunately does not meet all of the criteria on which the award is based.”
In the absence of a concrete explanation, a narrative spread nationally and internationally that the event had been canceled because the Jewish community dislikes her views on the Middle East, with pro-Palestinian groups charging that the Jewish community is trying to “silence” dissenting voices.
It was pointed out that some previous recipients of this award, including Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, have also been vocal critics of Israel.
Others charged that a “black institution” was being told by outsiders who they can and can not honor.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin issued an initial statement that the cancellation was “after protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies.”
Woodfin later clarified that saying some in the local and national media “are misconstruing the crisis of leadership at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute as a clash of cultures, ethnic groups, or races” and reiterating “it is not,” and that opposition came from a range of groups and individuals.
The Institute’s statements and chronology do not specifically mention the Jewish community, Israel or the Palestinians.
On Jan. 9, three board members — board president Mike Oatridge, vice chair Walter Body and secretary Janice Kelsey — resigned. On Jan. 11, the board started a “series of conversations” with “interested persons in the Birmingham community,” and “those conversations will continue.”
On Jan. 14, the Institute issued a public apology for its “missteps in conferring, then rescinding” the award. “We acknowledge that the culmination of our decisions and actions has caused division in the community and compromised the good name of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on the world stage,” the statement said. “Regardless of the outcome of our vote, many have rightfully questioned our selection process, which we vow to improve. In hindsight, more time, conversation and consideration of diverse viewpoints should have informed our decision to rescind our nomination, and we were silent for too long afterward.”
The January 25 announcement revealed that immediately after the apology, “in keeping with its commitment to learning from its mistakes and in order to stay true to the BCRI’s founding mission,” the board voted to reaffirm Davis as the recipient. Davis was “immediately thereafter personally invited to reaccept the award.”
As of the most recent announcement, Davis had not responded. The Institute “respects her privacy and timing in whatever her response may ultimately be.”
A coalition of groups opposed to the Institute’s decision to cancel the event has been working on an alternate event to honor Davis, scheduled for Feb. 16.
The New Orleans chapter of IfNotNow, a far-left Jewish group, is planning to attend the event “as the Jewish future and the moral leaders that the Jewish community needs right now,” to also give Davis an award.
Reverend Thomas L. Wilder, interim BCRI Board Chair, said “at the end of the day, we stand for open and honest dialogue on issues. It is only through our ability to talk openly and honestly with one another that we can achieve true understanding and appreciation for one another’s perspectives. We look forward to continuing the Institute’s legacy as we foster dialogue and open communications, improve our Board governance and policies, and stay focused on our Vision 2020 strategic plan.”
He added, “We ask everyone to partner with us to rebuild trust in the Institute and its important work.”
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