By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Dr. Angela Davis returned home to Birmingham today to speak publicly for the first time since the city’s Civil Rights Institute rescinded an award to her that caused an international outcry.
Davis spoke during a morning press conference at Tuggle Elementary School which she attended while growing up in Birmingham. The conference was ahead of her public address later that night at the Boutwell Auditorium.
The visit came on the same day she was supposed to receive the 2018 Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an award the BCRI’s board rescinded then reversed and said it would give to Davis, after all.
On Saturday morning the longtime Civil Rights Activist said she had no idea the reaction once the award was rescinded.
“I can tell you that in the period following the announcing of the initial rescinding [of the award], I heard from people from all over the world including huge numbers of Jewish organizations,” she said, “so on the one hand I’m very sorry events unfolded in the way they did because I don’t want to do anything to damage the reputation of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute . . . on the other hand, it has provided an occasion for people all over the country and other parts of the world to come together and think very deeply about what it means to stand up for human rights in the 21st century.”
When she learned the award had been rescinded initially, Davis said all she could do was ask “why?”
“I was simply told that the decision had to do with statements that I had made that were a part of the public record — and I was at a loss,” she said. “I should have probably, immediately, thought about the fact that this might have something to do with Palestine, but initially I was so stunned, I could only ask ‘why.’”
On Jan. 25, the BCRI announced that it re-invited Davis to receive the Shuttlesworth award. Davis said she hasn’t decided whether to accept the award.
“I have not yet responded to the institute, I think that should be a collective decision. Particularly, a decision that is taken by activists here in Birmingham,” she said. “The issues are not simply issues involving me as an individual so I will take my lead from the community in Birmingham.
“I’m thinking that if I do accept the award, it would be a good move to engage in some conversations about the specific issues… I did actually hear that they were planning to reverse their decision but not directly. I was given the statement before it was released but I didn’t have direct contact.”
Davis said she was impressed and grateful to be recognized by The Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation (BCTR) which held two events for her Saturday: “Power To The People: Activism and Justice Forum” held at Tuggle Elementary School on Saturday morning and “A Conversation with Angela Davis” at the Boutwell Auditorium Saturday night.
“Thank you for letting the world know that Birmingham is not as provincial as it initially appeared to be and the fact that the news traveled all over the world and people are looking toward Birmingham because of the work that you did,” she said to the organizing BCTR committee.
Davis said she was particularly touched that Tuggle Elementary was part of her itinerary.
“I think I acquired a consciousness of what it means to stand for black freedom here at this school,” she said. “This is where I learned how to sing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ I can remember my teachers standing up to the representatives of the Board of Education . . . white members would come and would often times call the teachers by their first names and the teachers would take exception to that in front of us, so I think it was probably here where I acquired a sense of the possibility to resist.”
She continued, “This is Black History Month, but I can remember celebrating Black History Week and learning about black people who have made contributions in a number of spheres so I think that this school really helped shape my sense of my relationship to my community.”
One thing she wants people to take away from the events is it’s not just about her work, but that she was a part of a “vast movement”, she said.
“I don’t think anyone would really know my name today had not it been for the fact that people organized all over the country and all over the world when I was facing the death penalty back in 1970, almost 50 years ago,” she said.”
Davis was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in October of 1970 but was later acquitted during her trial.
“Champion Of Human Rights”
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 [Shuttlesworth] 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 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.
On January 4, the BCRI announced that it had rescinded the award, sparking outrage from many across Birmingham and the nation, including Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin who said he was “dismayed” by the institute’s decision.
On January 10, three BCRI board members Mike Oatridge, chair; Walter Body, vice chair and Janice Kelsey, secretary, said they were resigning.
“As members of this board, we regret the circumstances surrounding the selection process regarding the 2018 Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award and the dissension this has caused,” they said in a statement. “We care deeply about this institution and its continued success. Effective immediately, we are resigning our BCRI Board and Officer positions.”