The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Insult to Angela Davis Has Boomeranged

It has been nearly two weeks since the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute walked back its decision to honor renowned scholar, civil rights activist, and Birmingham, Alabama, native Angela Davis with its annual Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, and yet the BCRI remains embarrassingly silent over what led to the withdrawal. It issued a statement on January 14 through an external PR firm, which is apparently handling all further media inquiries, in which it assumed responsibility and apologized for the poor handling of the award and its aftermath. “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.”

Davis, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, and local reports all indicate the decision was largely, though not exclusively, due to pressure from Jewish individuals and organizations over Davis’s outspokenness on Palestinian human rights and vocal support for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

“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,” Davis told Democracy Now! on January 11, adding that the BCRI’s decision appears to be an effort to sabotage black solidarity with Palestine. “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 said.

In its cryptic announcement on Saturday, January 5, the BCRI stated that individuals and organizations from “both inside and outside of our local community” had requested that the award to Davis be reconsidered. “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,” but the BCRI did not specify what those criteria are. Several attempts to reach BCRI CEO Andrea Taylor were met with an initial willingness and then a drawn-out refusal to comment, as the story quickly became much more explosive than the BCRI likely anticipated.

Davis and others have cited an article in the Birmingham-based outlet Southern Jewish Life from December 23 criticizing the choice to honor Davis, penned by its editor, Larry Brook—who told The Nation he has been careful not to call her an anti-Semite. It outlines aspects of Davis’s activism and political opinions that are common knowledge, including her support for Palestinian-American Rasmea Odeh, her incarceration nearly 50 years ago, and her former membership in the Communist Party. Reports in the Alabama outlet AL.com named the Birmingham Jewish Federation as one of the organizations expressing dismay at the choice of Davis, along with the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, which sent a letter to BCRI on January 2 specifying Davis’s support for BDS, which is “very troubling as it targets the Jewish people exclusively.” Both organizations were approached and refused to provide comment.

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