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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963. King was arrested there for his role in organizing nonviolent protests against segregation, which were being led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” King also wrote in that famous letter. Civil-rights campaigners were so frequently targeted with bombs by the Ku Klux Klan that the city was often called “Bombingham.” Five months after King’s letter, one of those bombs went off at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls. Today, across the street from that church sits the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), which for more than a quarter century has educated and inspired millions of visitors.
Last October, the BCRI announced it would bestow its 2018 Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award on Angela Y. Davis, the legendary civil-rights activist, prison abolition advocate and scholar. Angela Davis is a Birmingham native, and grew up amidst segregation. Her neighborhood suffered so many Klan bombings that it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill.” The daughter of civil-rights activists, she went on to become a prominent member of the Communist Party USA and a leader in the Black Panther Party. As a result, like so many activists in that era (MLK included), she was targeted by the FBI. She was charged as a conspirator in the shooting death of a judge. She faced three death sentences in a trial that became an international cause celebre. She was ultimately acquitted of all the charges.
The BCRI’s decision to honor Angela Davis made perfect sense. She has gained renown for her tireless work on behalf of prisoners and to abolish the U.S. prison-industrial complex. Integral to her life’s work, she has long expressed unflinching support for the rights of Palestinian people. In a recently published collection of essays and speeches titled “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement,” she writes, reflecting on the life of Nelson Mandela and the successful campaign to eliminate South African apartheid, “We are now confronted with the task of assisting our sisters and brothers in Palestine as they battle against Israeli apartheid.”
Two months after the BCRI board members announced that she had been granted the Shuttlesworth award, they received a letter from the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center asking them to reconsider the award in part because of Davis’ “outspoken support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.” The BCRI board, in a 9-2 vote, rescinded the award. It canceled the award gala that had been scheduled for Feb. 16.
The response in Birmingham was swift and angry. Birmingham’s school board and city council both voted unanimously to show their support for Davis. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin publicly condemned the decision. A group formed to plan an event to honor Davis on the night of the original gala.
Within days, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute board reversed its decision and asked Angela Davis to accept the award.
Last Friday night, “Angela Solidarity Shabbats” were held in dozens of cities, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. Jesse Schaffer hosted the celebration in Birmingham.
“My Judaism is directly rooted in social justice,” he told us at the Shabbat. “For me, Angela Davis is a direct expression of those values, and she has always understood that our historic struggles are linked, whether it’s Palestinians, it’s black folks in the South, Jewish folks – really, any struggle for justice – that they’re all linked and that we’re stronger together.”
On Saturday night, more than 3,000 people poured into Birmingham’s Boutwell Auditorium for an evening organized by the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation. At the event, Davis reflected on how meaningful the Shabbats were to her:
“‘Angela, sister, you are welcome in this Shabbat’ comes from a slogan that was used on many posters all over the country when I was underground fleeing the FBI. People put up these posters on their doors: ‘Angela, sister, you are welcome in this house.’”
The city’s first elected African-American mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr., wrapped up the evening, saying, “I am especially proud that in this moment of challenge we ran not in different directions, not venting the anger and the frustration we felt; instead, we ran to one another, linked arms, embraced one another and lifted up a daughter who is celebrated in the world community for her stand on human rights.”
Angela Davis says whether or not she returns to accept the Shuttlesworth Award will have to be a community decision. She offered as her final words Saturday night: “Let us use this moment to generate the strength and the enthusiasm and the vision to move forward to a better future for Birmingham, for the country and for the entire world.”