Injustice and intimidation in Birmingham

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by Kathryn Shihadah

Last October, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) slated February 16th, 2019 to celebrate the life and work of civil rights activist Angela Davis. She was set to receive the prestigious Fred Shuttlesworth Award.

The event was abruptly cancelled last week, and the award rescinded. Three members of the BCRI board subsequently resigned, stating that they “regret the circumstances surrounding the selection process regarding the 2018 Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award.”.

This is an extraordinary reversal, especially for this prestigious institution and its iconic honoree.

A bit of history and a few observations are in order.


Historically, Birmingham, Alabama has been a hub of civil rights challenges and advances: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth fought against Jim Crow and in 1963 invited Martin Luther King Jr to work on ending segregation in the city.

Together they launched a massive non-violent campaign against the Jim Crow system, organizing lunch counter sit-ins, marches, and other forms of peaceful resistance.

Television viewers across America saw attack dogs, tear gas, fire hoses, and police brutality, and recognized the disparity between the nonviolence of the protests and the violence of the police response. Thousands of activists, including Dr. King, were arrested.

It was during this time that King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

In addition to demonstrations, the black leadership organized an economic boycott, intending to pressure local businesses to desegregate, hire black employees, and provide other civil rights. After months of lost revenue, Birmingham’s businessmen relented, agreeing to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains and fitting rooms, and to hire blacks in stores as salesmen and clerks.

Birmingham’s politicians stood their ground longer but eventually gave in to the pressure: in June 1963, segregation signs were removed from public places in Birmingham.

Actual progress toward equal rights was slow to non-existent, but the events in the city had drawn the world’s attention to racial segregation in the South, and the demand for equality endured. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law in July 1964.

It was a grueling fight - as is always the case when an oppressed, powerless people takes on the powerful - but the people of the US and the world supported the effort. 55 years later, the work is still far from finished - but at least it has begun.

All but the truly unenlightened know that our black American neighbors did not, and do not, deserve to be treated as second class citizens.

Angela Yvonne Davis emerged as a prominent counterculture activist in the 1960s working with the Communist Party USA, of which she was a member until 1991, and was briefly involved in the Black Panther Party during the Civil Rights Movement.

Angela Yvonne Davis emerged as a prominent counterculture activist in the 1960s working with the Communist Party USA, of which she was a member until 1991, and was briefly involved in the Black Panther Party during the Civil Rights Movement.

Angela Davis - a recognized figure

When announcing the Shuttlesworth Award recipient last October, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s president, Andrea Taylor, called Angela Davis “one of the most globally recognized champions of human rights, giving voice to those who are powerless to speak.”

BCRI described her work:

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.

Detailed biographical information on Davis is readily available online (although many sources are out-of-date); Wikipedia contains the most current account.

At 74, Davis is still passionate and articulate in her criticism of discrimination and police brutality in the US.

Her commentary is not limited to homegrown injustice - and this appears to be the cause of BCRI’s recent U-turn.

Davis’ “crime”

Angela Davis has been vocal in her denunciation of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians - in spite of the current trend toward compulsory silence on that topic. She is familiar with Palestinian oppression and injustice at the hands of Israel. A number of her concerns were conveniently listed in a recent Southern Jewish Life Magazine article.

According to the article, Davis “frequently compares Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to police shootings of African-Americans,” sees parallels between Israel’s incarceration of Palestinians (especially Gaza) and the “prison-industrial complex” in The US, and points out similarities between the Israeli occupation and South Africa under apartheid (each of her observations is easily verifiable - read this, this, and this for example).

Perhaps most egregious, Davis is a supporter of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement - the same type of movement that enabled her hometown of Birmingham to begin eradicating segregation and oppression. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, boycott is acceptable; for apartheid South Africa, boycott is acceptable. But directed at Israel, apparently it is not.

Apparently, BDS affiliation is reason enough to campaign against a woman who has devoted her life to fighting for justice.

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Davis’ accusers

The same BCRI that in October spoke of Davis in glowing terms has now released a statement asserting that

supporters and other concerned individuals and organizations, both inside and outside of our local community, began to make requests that we reconsider our decision, [and] upon closer examination of Davis’ statements and public record, we concluded that she unfortunately does not meet all of the criteria for the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights award.

The statement offered no detail on what “criteria” she had failed to meet, or who had called her worthiness into question.

However, Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin went on record, naming the “local Jewish community and some of its allies” as the source of the grievance.

More specifically, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center apparently got the ball rolling when, on January 2nd, it sent a letter of “concern and disappointment,” and urged BCRI to reconsider its decision.

We should not be surprised by these statements, nor do we need to feel uncomfortable. There is nothing anti-Semitic about them, nothing out of the ordinary: when Israel is criticized, backlash will inevitably follow. It will emanate from a sector of the Jewish community (not the whole community) and the sector’s allies. A shorthand for this assemblage might be “Zionists,” or “Israel partisans.”

Indeed, as the Guardian reports, “Conservative evangelical Christians, who dominate the political landscape of the southern US, have long held strong Zionist positions for political and scriptural reasons.” (It would be more accurate to say “scriptural interpretation reasons,” as Zionism grows out of a particular way of understanding Scripture - one that is discredited by many denominations.)

Israel advocates’ attacks on BDS serve as a diversionary tactic to shut down the discussion before the facts of the occupation can be uttered.

For example, when the Movement for Black Lives coalition drafted its 2016 platform - including a plank criticizing Israel - the Jewish Federation of North America promptly issued a statement (emphasis added)":

We are dismayed by the acceptance of a platform that vilifies Israel, diverting attention from urgent, unresolved problems that African-Americans and other people of color continue to face in the United States. The American Jewish community has a strong tradition of commitment to social and racial equality and we will continue to work with leaders in all communities to achieve this goal.

Zealous Israel advocates will not tolerate any criticism of Israel, and are willing to sell out American freedoms in the process.

Apparently the US Congress has many zealous Zionists: somehow, the Senate is finding time to discuss a nationwide anti-BDS bill before it solves the problem of a government shutdown. Dozens of state governments have already passed laws that force state employees to sign what amounts to a loyalty oath - a promise to not boycott Israel - in order to get or keep jobs, maintain a customer base, submit architectural drawings for a state building, to name a few - even though the ACLU and other organizations have declared again and again that anti-BDS laws violate the First Amendment, and thus are unconstitutional.

All told, the effort to discredit the BDS movement is broad, strong, and well-funded, with supporters in Congress and on the state level, and around the world.

Legitimate responses?

Responses to the award revocation were mixed. Many commenters supported Davis in her courageous and often edgy work; others felt that she did not deserve to be honored because she was too edgy (member of the Communist Party for some time, etc.). Still others concluded that Davis’s support of BDS made her an anti-Semite, unworthy of anything but public shaming.

Israel partisans are generally quick to defend Israel against the “economic terrorism” of BDS, which the Jewish state has labelled “an existential threat.

These positions indicate at best a deep ignorance of the situation in Palestine and Israel, and at worst a narrow-minded disregard or hatred of Palestinians. The idea that BDS “delegitimizes” Israel is untenable: Israel delegitimizes itself through its racist policies and practices, and disregard for international and humanitarian law - BDS merely points it out.

The suggestion that BDS is an existential threat to the Jewish State is equally illogical: the movement’s only weapons are truth and slight economic pressure against a country with one of the world’s strongest militaries - which also happens to receive $10.5 million a day in aid from the US.

Some commentary on Angela Davis’ support for BDS has suggested that she did so much good, “let’s forgive and forget about this one blot on her record.” This is problematic in its own way. The idea that she was wrong to stand with the Palestinian people against an oppressive regime is again, either ignorant or intolerant. Her advocacy was not an anti-Semitic slip-up but an element of her legitimate and consistent justice work. BDS is nonviolent and has a successful track record in both the US and South Africa.

Ironically, Israel itself uses boycott as a strategy for its own purposes.

Rather than demonizing BDS, Israel partisans might consider advocating for change in those Israeli policies that necessitated the movement’s creation.


The dilemma

The possibility of advocating for change, however, would require an acknowledgement that Israel has some objectively wrong policies. This is a road rarely travelled by the majority of Israel partisans.

In the United Nations - a bigger stage than Birmingham - most of the world has called out the Jewish State’s breach of international law again and again. Invariably, Israel partisans then characterize most of the world as anti-Semitic.

Tragically, when they take the low road - for example by demonizing Angela Davis (or Marc Lamont Hill, Steven Salaita, Zahra Billoo, or a host of others) - too often we buckle under the pressure, rather than insisting on dialogue. We have been conditioned to fear the label “anti-Semite,” and do whatever it takes to avoid it.

Birmingham’s mayor Woodfin candidly pointed out this blunder by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute board:

As 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.

Roy Johnson of (part of the Alabama Media Group), suggested that the controversy

merited an intentional, in-depth dialogue among all factions, all perspectives—one that just might have resulted in a compromise, perhaps a gala preceded by a smart, public and enlightened discussion about all aspects of Davis’ eclectic journey.

He also quoted Dr. Horace Huntley, who knew Shuttlesworth well:

Rev. Fred 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. 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.

In the statement announcing the cancellation of the award, th Birmingham Civil Rights Institute claimed,

We will move forward with a keen focus on our mission: to enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.

The Institute would do well to put its own best ideas into practice. Talk frankly about Israel’s policies. Test the integrity of the BDS movement.

And honor Angela Davis with the Fred Shuttlesworth Civil Rights Award - if she’ll have it.