By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Dr. Angela Davis, who had her invitation from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded, is coming to Birmingham after all.
An inter-generational group of civic, community, religious, legal, educational and business leaders in Birmingham said Wednesday they plan to honor Davis on February 16 during a day of community dialogue and an evening event titled “A Conversation with Angela Davis.”
The location has not been determined.
The group, Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation (BCTR), said bringing Davis to Birmingham will be their inaugural act.
“The goal of this committee is to create opportunities for the community to gather, learn and engage in thoughtful dialogue and reflection,” said retired Circuit Judge Houston Brown. “Our mission going forward is to value every voice that takes a responsible stand on human and civil rights issues. We look forward to celebrating Dr. Davis and honoring a true icon who once called Birmingham home.”
The committee held a press conference in Kelly Ingram park after the BCRI made the decision last week to rescind the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award it had planned to present to Davis in February. That decision led to a national outcry and consequences for the Civil Rights Institute.
BCRI Board Members Resign
On Wednesday, 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.”
The Board said they hoped their resignation will enable the City of Birmingham to create a board structure “that will best enable the BCRI to continue its critical mission in the future . . . We remain committed to the enduring principles of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and its quest for human rights and understanding for all people.”
Their resignations came as protesters on Monday called for leadership changes and demonstrations at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
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.
The publicly funded museum shocked many when 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.”
People who know Davis and knew Shuttlesworth were baffled by the decision including those members of the BCTR: former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington; The Honorable U.W. Clemon; Odessa Woolfolk, retired educator and founding president and chair of the BCRI; Dr. Jesse Lewis, businessman and founder of The Birmingham Times; T. Marie King, activist; Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries; Majella Chube Hamilton, Ballard House Project, Inc.; DeJuana Thompson, founder of Woke Vote; and Michelle Clemon, attorney and consultant.
Davis said in a statement to CNN Monday that she was also 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.”
Thompson, of BCTR, read from an open letter to Davis that said, Davis’s “life is a testament to non-violent reconciliation, courage in the face of great odds, humility, leadership by example and commitment to human rights. These are the qualities that the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award bolster and these are the qualities that you so indeed embody.”
Thompson also said, “We want you to know that Birmingham stands with you. Dr. Davis we will not allow any denial of your life, legacy and impact around global human rights to persist because we love you, honor you and we will fight with you.”
City Council Honors Davis
On Tuesday, the Birmingham City Council also voted unanimously to honor Davis.
Councilor Steven Hoyt said he was embarrassed at how the BCRI handled the matter.
“In academics, as well as society and various groups [Angela Davis] is a premiere person when it comes to women’s rights, to race relations . . . and she has an opportunity to be honored by her own hometown and they decide not to, I’m embarrassed,” said Hoyt. “I’m embarrassed to even serve in a city that would do that.”
Hoyt said people change. “We had [former Alabama Governor] George Wallace who said ‘segregation now and segregation forever’ but he said he changed his heart . . . and there were a whole lot of black folks who voted for him to be governor. . . . It’s not right and I feel passionately about that because you can’t mischaracterize a person for one part of their life when their work is so broad and so inclusive.”
Hoyt said that it’s important that the City of Birmingham recognizes one of its “daughters.”
“I think it’s important that our young people [in the city] know the body of her work, not a segment and not a piece of her work but her entire work . . . she has been an ambassador, not only for Birmingham but even for the United States when she’s gone in other communities around the world and to raise awareness with respect to Civil 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 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.”
Efforts to reach Davis for comment since the controversy began have been unsuccessful.
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.
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 the 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 goodwill 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.