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How Dr. Angela Davis and area leaders packed the Boutwell

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Dr. Imani Perry, (left), professor of African-American studies at Princeton University during a "Conversation" with Dr. Angela Davis at the Boutwell Auditorium. (Ameera Steward Photo, The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times

Dr. Angela Davis was able to do something during her recent visit to Birmingham that hadn’t been seen in the city for a long time, said members of the group that hosted her events.

“I thought it helped to unite the black community,” said former Mayor Richard Arrington, “…I think the response of the black community was a united response that cut across generational lines and across social lines. That’s a unity we don’t often see in our black community.”

The Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation (BCTR) held two events for Davis on Saturday, February 16: “Power To The People: Activism and Justice Forum” at Tuggle Elementary School on Saturday morning and sold out “A Conversation with Angela Davis” at the Boutwell Auditorium on Saturday night.

The BCTR includes people representing a diverse, inter-generational cross-section of city leaders including Arrington; retired federal judge U.W. Clemon; retired circuit court judge Houston Brown; business pioneer Jesse J. Lewis Sr.; scholar and activist T. Marie King and Co-Founder and Partner with Think Rubix, DeJuana Thompson.

‘Love In The Room’

Dr. Angela Davis, (seated right) surrounded by members of The Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation (BCTR), who organized her visit to Birmingham. (Stephonia Taylor McLinn Photo, For The Birmingham Times)

King said she was excited to see the community unite for the sold-out event at the Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham. “…for it to be so much love in the room, I think that’s probably what stood out the most to me,” King said. “That night was just a loving atmosphere and I felt like everybody really wanted to be there and celebrate her.”

Clemon said the community should learn a lesson from the controversy that led up to the visit. “We as a people have to come together on issues directly affecting our community and [as] importantly we have to choose those whom we will honor,” he said.

Davis’s 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.

The initial move by BCRI caused international outrage. However, some said Davis’s return provided benefits that few could have anticipated.

Beneficial

Brown said he saw young and old work together to make sure Davis, who grew up in Birmingham, received a warm welcome.

“So that’s one point that I can truthfully say is something that we should all take away from this experience and maybe it will enlighten our future endeavors … both by young and by more mature adults alike so that we can come together and hear each other, work together for the good and the benefit of the entire community.”

Arrington said it’s helpful for the city to speak with “that kind of voice about what we really believe in as it relates to the human rights struggle and the role that Angela Davis has played in it, why we think she’s important…as a daughter of Birmingham.”

‘Success’

Organizers said they came away “fulfilled” and “satisfied” and “gratified.”

“I feel very fulfilled,” Clemon said. “I think it was well worth the effort…to get together a group to bring her here. I think that Dr. Davis…deserved the hardy homecoming that she received. She is an international superstar and her roots are very deep in Birmingham.”

“It’s very satisfying to me,” Brown said, “she is a hometown girl and a friend, and for her to graciously accept it and be so gracious . . . and even her comments about how she felt so good about being in Birmingham and how much she loved Birmingham. It’s just heartwarming.”

Personable’

Davis may be an international superstar, but she didn’t act like one, King said.

During activism training early Saturday, Davis told participants to pull their chairs closer to her so that they could have a true organic dialogue, according to King.

Dr. Angela Davis culminated a series of daylong events in Birmingham with a “Conversation” at a sold out Boutwell Auditorium. series of activities for Davis, who earlier in the day spoke during a morning press conference at Tuggle Elementary School which she attended while growing up in Birmingham. (Stephonia Taylor McLinn Photo, For The Birmingham Times)

“When you look at somebody like a Angela Davis you feel like this person is almost larger than life, you hear about them . . . but just seeing how personable she was and just how appreciative she was that Birmingham was excited that she was back home and wanted to celebrate her and her work — that really struck me.”

Inter-Generational

Another aspect of the program that stood out was no one had an agenda, said King.

“I also think we have an opportunity to have more conversations around how we see each other with our differences, whether that’s religious differences, whether that’s political differences, racial differences…because…what led us…there was there was a disconnect somewhere and a conversation didn’t happen and I think it really highlighted that we need to be more intentional about having those conversations.”

Lewis, 94, founder of the Birmingham Times newspaper, talked about the many young people brought in to participate in the program, “and I’m repeating a remark from Angela Davis….I agree with this, young people are the ones who start and make the changes,” he said. “They stayed focused and they were committed . . . they worked on bringing the crowd in and if you were there you know that the auditorium was…packed.”

Lewis said he was happy that Davis made sure her visit was positive.

Angela Davis spoke out for the first time publicly in Birmingham since the City’s Civil Rights Institute rescinded the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award last month. (Ameera Steward Photo, The Birmingham Times)

“She said it over and over again, that she was so pleased to be in the city of Birmingham. And one thing that she emphasized, and she said it twice…’I am not here to destroy the Civil Rights (Institute).’ She said that on two different occasions, she is only here to express her concern and her commitment to the city of Birmingham,” Lewis said.

Lewis added that he would like [the youth] to build momentum from the event and see them, “take on for the city a project that…make Birmingham, Alabama the cleanest city in America…I think they can be the ones that can make this happen and make everybody proud of the fact that you live in the city of Birmingham.”

Hard Work

Thompson pointed out that many members of the BCTR had never worked together, but we knew of each other. “We were just really united in the idea that we could do something incredible on behalf of Dr. Davis,” Thompson said. “And I hope that it serves or…provides a model for what could be for our city in terms of moving forward and finding collaborative ways to work together.”

The event was an accomplishment because “we worked really, really hard in a very short amount of time to…put these sets of events together,” she said, “and I feel that because we did it from a place of wanting to really honor her and her spirit, I believe that we…were successful in accomplishing that. So, I feel very good about it.”

Other members of the BCTR include: Odessa Woolfolk, retired educator and founding president and chair of the BCRI; Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries; Majella Chube Hamilton, Ballard House Project, Inc.; Michelle Clemon, attorney and consultant; representatives of Black Lives Matter, Birmingham Southern College, Greater Birmingham Ministries, Bethel Baptist Church of Pratt and others, including members of the Jewish community.