Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinds award to Angela Davis

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced last year that it would bestow its highest honour, the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, on Birmingham native and civil rights activist Angela Davis. Davis was to receive the award on 16 February and deliver a keynote speech at the institute’s annual gala. Institute president Andrea Taylor stated they were “thrilled” to bestow the award on Davis, saying “arguably, she’s one of the most globally recognized champions of human rights, giving voice to those who are powerless to speak”. 

However, on 4 January, the institute made an about-face after “supporters and other concerned individuals and organisations, both inside and outside of our local community, began to make requests that we reconsider our decision”. According to a statement issued by the institute, after closer examination of Davis’ public record it was “concluded that she unfortunately does not meet all of the criteria on which the award is based”. 

The institute did not – and has not – explained what the criteria were and why Davis did not meet them, leaving not only Davis but also many others perplexed. The cancellation has been widely denounced, including by the Birmingham City Council, which passed a unanimous motion to support Davis.

It has now become clear that the decision to rescind the award was primarily due to Davis’ outspoken support for Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. According to an 8 January article in the Birmingham-based Southern Jewish Life detailing the response to the cancellation of the award, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Centre had sent a letter to the Institute asking it to “reconsider” giving Davis the honour due to her support for the Palestinian BDS campaign. 

Late last year, Southern Jewish Life published a long article detailing Davis’ well-known support of the Palestinian struggle, arguing “for some in the community, there might be some indigestion at the dinner over this year’s honoree”. 

On 10 January, an Alabama.com journalist, Roy S. Johnson, reported that the executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation had also “participated in efforts to dissuade the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute from honoring Davis”.

Davis has responded to the cancellation of the award by issuing the following statement on Facebook:

“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 anti-Semitism 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.”