An Alabama museum’s decision to bestow a human rights award on Angela Davis, one of the most famous leaders of the civil rights movement, exploded into controversy in the past few days after pushback from community members derailed what would otherwise be a positive celebration of civil rights history and an opportunity to host a fundraising gala. Now, local activists are protesting, the Birmingham mayor has condemned an esteemed civil rights institute, and a “stunned” Angela Davis is herself planning an “alternative event” in the city in February. It’s a strange conflict, and it centers around the Jewish community in Birmingham and Davis’ support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that protests Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
In October, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s board announced it would be honoring Davis with its Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, of which past recipients have included actor Danny Glover, Rep. John Lewis, and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. The Institute praised Davis as an educator who “gave to those who are powerless to speak.”
But in December, the magazine Southern Jewish Life published an article about the decision in which it pointed out Davis was “an outspoken voice in the boycott-Israel movement.” A former local college president also issued a statement saying he was displeased with Davis as a choice, pointing to her Wikipedia page, which mentions her membership in the American Communist Party in the 1980s, support for Soviet bloc countries in the 1970s, and her membership in the Black Panther party.
On Saturday, the institute announced it had decided early in the month to revoke the honor and cancel the February gala at which it would have been awarded. According to the statement, in which the institute apologized for the confusion:
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…. 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.
Davis, who is from Birmingham originally, asked the institute for more explanation than “not meet[ing] the criteria,” which according to the institute include principles of nonviolence, courage “both moral and physical, in the face of great odds;” and “an established commitment to human-rights activities.” The institute did not elaborate, but local media reported—and the Birmingham mayor and Davis herself later said—that the local Jewish community had swayed the institution’s board.
On Sunday, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said he was “dismayed” by the controversy, which he said could have been avoided. “[A]s has been the case throughout Birmingham’s history, people of good will behaved reflexively, rather than engaging in meaningful discourse over their differences and seeking common ground,” he said in the statement. “I am dismayed because this controversy is playing out in a way that harks backward, rather than forward—that portrays us as the same Birmingham we always have been, rather than the one we want to be.” The city contributes $1 million to the museum annually, according to AL.com.
On Monday, activists called for leadership changes at the institute, and protesters gathered at the museum. “Our communities are being overtaken by outside interests and outside groups,” the president of the Birmingham Justice League said, according to AL.com.
Davis responded Monday night by saying she would still come to 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.”
She also defended her own belief in fighting anti-Semitism, which she said was bolstered by her education in New York and Frankfurt. “I am proud to have worked closely with Jewish organizations and individuals on issues of concern to all of our communities throughout my life,” she said. “In many ways, this work has been integral to my growing consciousness regarding the importance of protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”
Davis, 74, has for decades campaigned for civil rights, including on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She is an outspoken supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and has argued that her support for Palestinians is similar to her support for political prisoners around the world:
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.
The news came as Congressional Republicans attempted to pass a bill with measures supporting Israel, including a “Combating BDS Act” championed by Sen. Marco Rubio. On Tuesday, the bill, which had been criticized as infringing on freedom of speech, was defeated, in the first vote of the new Senate.