US activist says Alabama civil rights institute’s decision to rescind her award is over her ‘long-term support of justice in Palestine’
Middle East Eye / January 8, 2019
US civil rights activist Angela Davis said she is “stunned” that an Alabama organisation has reversed its decision to honour her with a human rights award, accusing the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) of changing course because of her support for Palestinian rights.
In a statement shared on social media this week, Davis said she found out on 5 January that the BCRI had voted to rescind its invitation to give her the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award later this year.
While BCRI refused to reveal the reason behind the move, Davis said she “later learned that [her] long-term support of justice for Palestine was at issue”.
“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,” she wrote in her statement.
An award-winning author, professor and civil rights activist, Davis was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a town in the southern United States that was at the forefront of the struggle to end segregation in the 1960s.
She has been a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights, as well as an advocate of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories and its discriminatory policies.
“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 other discriminatory US policies,” she wrote.
“I am proud to have worked closely with Jewish organisations 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.”
Institute ‘stained its own legacy’
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has been under fire since it made its decision public over the weekend, with human rights activists, lawyers, civil rights groups and others describing it as “shameful” and “very disappointing”.
On Saturday, the institute said it received requests in late December to reconsider its decision to give the award to Davis from “supporters and other concerned individuals and organisations, both inside and outside of our local community”.
The BCRI did not specify what individuals or organisations it received complaints from, however.
“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,” it said.
It also didn’t go into further detail about what statements it was referring to, or what criteria it believes Davis failed to meet.
The BCRI said its board voted to rescind Davis’s award invitation on 4 January and would be cancelling an awards gala scheduled in February.
Roy S Johnson, a columnist for Alabama news outlet Al.com, said the institute had “insulted Shuttlesworth” and “stained its own legacy” by refusing to give Davis the award as planned.
Shuttlesworth, the US reverend after whom the BCRI’s human rights award is named, helped organise a series of non-violent actions in Birmingham in the early 1960s alongside Martin Luther King Jr and other US civil rights leaders.
Known as the Birmingham Campaign, their work aimed to put pressure on the local authorities to end segregation and other discriminatory practices against Black Americans.
In his column about the institute’s decision, Johnson said Horace Huntley, a history professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told him that Shuttlesworth “would be embarrassed and bewildered by such an action”.
“In fact, it is no secret of how much Rev. Shuttlesworth abhorred the dictatorial nature of the entrenched and out of touch status quo,” said Huntley, who knew Shuttlesworth personally.
“He exuded courage and was an antidote to cowardliness. Such an action is less indicative of what the board knows about Angela Davis and more instructive of what the board fails to understand about Rev. Shuttlesworth.”
Silencing criticism of Israel
The Alabama institute’s decision also comes after another prominent black activist in the US, Marc Lamont Hill, was fired by CNN after he voiced support for the Palestinian struggle for human rights during a speech at the United Nations in late November.
“We have an opportunity to not just offer solidarity in words but to commit to political action, grassroots action, local action and international action that will give us what justice requires and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” Hill, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, said at the time.
He was attacked by pro-Israel groups and accused of anti-semitism for his remarks, but many activists also came to his defence, lambasting CNN for its decision to fire him over his support for Palestinian rights.
This week, Hill expressed his support for Davis, describing the BCRI’s decision as “shameful”.
“I stand with my dear sister and friend Angela Davis,” he wrote on Twitter.
The situation also comes amid heightened efforts in the US to ban individuals and companies from boycotting Israel.
Last week, Republican Senator Marco Rubio put forward a bill encouraging states and local governments to “divest” from companies that boycott Israel, a move that civil liberty groups have panned as an “absurd” assault on US citizens’ right to free speech.
Meanwhile, many others also criticised the BCRI’s decision to rescind Davis’s honour.
“Calling to boycott Israel for violating [international] law and human rights is not only a constitutionally protected right, but also the right thing to do,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights programme, who described the move as “very disappointing”.
Rebecca Pierce, a US-based filmmaker and activist, said the institute “is on the wrong side of history in rescinding this award as is everyone who pressured them into doing so”.
“As much as some pro-Israel and anti-Black voices want us to, the Black community cannot and will not write Angela Davis out of our histories of liberation,” she wrote on Twitter.
In her statement, Davis said she expected the award to be the highlight of her upcoming year.
It was especially important, she said, because she knew Shuttlesworth personally. Davis also said she went to school with his daughter, while her mother and her former Sunday school teacher were both involved in the institute’s creation.
“Despite the BCRI’s regrettable decision, I look forward to being in Birmingham in February for an alternative event organised 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 wrote.