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Protesters demand changes after BCRI rescinds award for Angela Davis

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Protesters gathered outside of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to protest the BCRI's decision to rescind giving the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award to activist Angela Davis. (Reginald Allen Photos, For The Birmingham Times)
Times staff report

Activists gathered outside of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to protest the BCRI’s decision to rescind giving the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award to activist Angela Davis. (Reginald Allen Photos, For The Birmingham Times)

Protesters on Monday called for leadership changes and demonstrations at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) after it rescinded an award for political activist Angela Davis.

Speaking outside the BCRI, located in the same downtown area where civil rights violence once shocked the nation, organizers told a news conference that Davis, a Birmingham native, was wronged by the decision to rescind the honor.

Davis is on a par with civil rights legend Rosa Parks, said activist Frank Matthews, founder of the Outcast Voters League.

“This is the ultimate insult to deny Angela Davis,” he said. Museum leaders should quit, he said, and protests will be held. Speakers called for a boycott.

Matthews called rescinding the award from Davis “recognition assassination” and said Davis’s name had been tainted and there “shouldn’t be one penny given to the Civil Rights Institute.”

The institute announced in September that Davis would receive the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, named for the late minister who once prominently led civil rights demonstrations in the city.

In a statement posted on its website over the weekend, the publicly funded museum said it was canceling a gala set for next month and rescinding the award after directors concluded Davis “unfortunately does not meet all of the criteria on which the award is based.”

Mayor Randall Woodfin said he was “dismayed” by the decision, which he said followed “protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies.”

The longtime executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, Richard Friedman, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

A representative of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute did not immediately return an email message seeking comment.

Davis said in a statement to CNN Monday that she was stunned to learn of the board’s reversal.

“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.”

Plans are being made by a group of local businessmen to bring Davis to Birmingham for an event during Black History Month.

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 civil rights institute’s president and CEO, Andrea Taylor, said in October that the organization was “thrilled to bestow this honor” 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.”

But the institute announced Saturday that in late December, “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.

Mayor Woodfin called the museum’s decision a reactive and divisive decision and offered to facilitate a community dialogue in response. While the city helps fund the museum, one of the top tourist draws in Alabama, it doesn’t get involved in “programmatic decisions,” Woodfin said.

Late Sunday, Woodfin said on the city’s website he was dismayed by decision.

“I am dismayed because this controversy might have been avoided entirely, had it been handled differently,” he wrote in a statement published on the city’s website. “I am dismayed because, 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.

“I am dismayed because this controversy is playing out in a way that harks backward, rather than forward — that portrays us as the same Birmingham we always have been, rather than the one we want to be. I am dismayed because I believe that we should be able to expect better, from ourselves and from one another.”

Associated Press and CNN contributed to this post.