By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
A diverse group of faith-based organizations gathered Sunday to host a community conversation about the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s (BCRI) controversial decision to rescind a human rights award for civil rights icon Dr. Angela Davis.
Faith in Action Alabama (FAA) held the event at First Presbyterian Church after the BCRI earlier this month announced it would not award Davis the prestigious Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award at its annual gala in February, which has now been canceled.
“We’re trying to create space for people who have different perspectives to be able to share their own thoughts,” said Daniel Schwartz, executive director of FAA. “We’re not looking to create a space where people are going to be persuaded, but where people are going to be able to hear why ‘I feel this way and why you may feel this way.’”
Faith in Action consists of congregations across race and faith lines that work to honor God by achieving systemic change.
Participants at the community conversation were split into small groups to discuss how they felt about the BCRI’s decision.
Rev. Thomas Wilder Jr., senior pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, said these kinds of conversations are important.
“I think people want to be heard and sometimes it’s better when people can get together and just sort of talk even if they don’t come to a solution, just talking I think is important,” said Wilder. “I think it’s also good to know what the community wants from the BCRI and what we can learn going forward.”
One lesson is for boards not to make rash decisions, Wilder said.
“I think all boards [should] take a look at what you’re doing before doing it and to think very critically, to take time” when making important decisions.
He said it’s also important for people to know those in different communities. “If you know someone, it’s a lot easier to pick up a phone and say, ‘I hear this, is that true?’ But if you don’t know someone, it’s a lot easier to assume that what you’ve heard or what you’ve read is true,” he said.
Akedah Fulcher-Eze said the BCRI made an “awful” decision.
“I love Angela Davis, I believe that she is an awesome role model for black women and black, Jewish women and I think that it is absolutely awful that one group of individuals made a decision that impacted Birmingham so heavily,” said Fulcher-Eze, who is black and Jewish.
Holding people accountable should be the next step, she said. “I would bring rabbis and clergy together at a table, on a dais, on a panel and I would request that they be accountable for their opinions and their actions. I would not just simply brush this under the rug because I am deeply disappointed that she won’t get that award because she has been my childhood hero for as long as I can remember.”
Davis, 74, has spent decades fighting for civil rights. She was an active member of the Black Panther Party, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Communist Party USA. She also is an outspoken supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The BCRI’s president and CEO, Andrea Taylor, said in October that the organization was “thrilled to bestow” the Fred Shuttlesworth Award on Davis whom she described as “one of the most globally recognized champions of human rights, giving voice to those who are powerless to speak.”
Davis has said that she was stunned to learn of the board’s reversal in a statement to CNN earlier this month.
“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.”
Efforts to reach Taylor for comment since the controversy began have been unsuccessful.
But the institute initially defended its decision to rescind the award saying 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.”
The statement did not indicate what criteria Davis didn’t meet, nor did it identify the origin of the complaints. Many people responded with outrage on Twitter and Facebook.
The decision proved costly for the BCRI. Three board BCRI board members, Mike Oatridge, chair; Walter Body, vice chair and Janice Kelsey, secretary all resigned.
The BCRI also issued an apology on Jan. 14.
“Each member of the Board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute deeply regrets the impact that the handling of the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award has had on Dr. Angela Davis, the City of Birmingham, and many others who have been impacted by our handling of the award,” the board said in a public statement. “We are sorry.”