Birmingham honors Angela Davis after Israel lobby sabotages award

Angela Davis (Russell Tribunal)

Angela Davis says she is “stunned” at the decision of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama to revoke a human rights award it was planning to give her at a gala next month.

In a statement on Facebook, the iconic Black intellectual and activist said that the BCRI “refused my requests to reveal the substantive reasons for this action,” but that she “later learned that my long-term support of justice for Palestine was at issue.”

Reaffirming her “support [for] Palestinian political prisoners” and “opposition to policies and practices of the state of Israel,” Davis added that the rescinding of the award and invitation to speak was “not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice.”

Davis said that the trip to Birmingham to receive the BCRI award was to be the “highlight of my year,” but despite its cancellation she would still travel there next month “for an alternative event organized by those who believe that the movement for civil rights in this moment must include a robust discussion of all of the injustices that surround us.”

The grassroots coalition organizing the event represents a broad array of city organizations and leaders.

Organizers involved in the initiative held a press conference Wednesday to express their support for Davis.

“Absolutely embarrassing”

The BCRI’s decision is generating a growing backlash.

On Tuesday, the city council in Birmingham, Alabama, unanimously adopted a resolution “recognizing the life work of Angela Davis” – an implicit rebuke to the BCRI.

Davis, who suffered incarceration and political persecution for her support for Black liberation, grew up in Birmingham’s Dynamite Hill, a neighborhood that got its name from the frequency of bombings and violent attacks targeting its residents by white supremacists.

City council member Steven Hoyt, who proposed the council resolution, told media that the institute’s move was “absolutely embarrassing.”

“Everybody respects her but us. In academic communities as well as society and various groups,” Hoyt added. “I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed to even serve in a city that would do that.”

On Monday, Black activists called for leadership changes and protests at the BCRI, an institution ostensibly established to honor and advance the cause of civil rights.

On Wednesday, the BCRI’s chair, vice-chair and secretary resigned from the board.

“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.

Earlier, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin expressed his “dismay” at the decision to cancel the award gala, which he said came “after protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies.”

Local media revealed that pressure had come from, among others, the Birmingham Jewish Federation, a staunchly pro-Israel communal group.

On Wednesday, the news publication AL.com confirmed that the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center wrote to the BCRI to express “concern and disappointment” over the honor to Davis, citing her support for BDS.

Davis is the second high-profile Black intellectual to be targeted by pro-Israel lobby pressure in recent weeks.

In November, Marc Lamont Hill was dismissed from his role as a CNN political commentator following an Israel lobby campaign of lies and smears misrepresenting a speech he made at the United Nations in support of Palestinian rights and BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to pressure Israel to respect international law and human rights.

Temple University also faced pressure from the Zionist Organization of America to dismiss Hill as a professor – a step it has not taken amid warnings that this would violate Hill’s First Amendment rights.

Last June, the University of Vienna banned a public lecture by Dhoruba Bin-Wahad after a smear campaign against the veteran Black American activist, author and former political prisoner, and against the Palestine solidarity groups co-sponsoring the event.

Punish and censor

The civil rights group Palestine Legal called the BCRI’s decision to rescind the honor to Angela Davis “the latest incident in a well-documented nationwide campaign to censor and punish critics of Israel.

“The pattern of censorship targeting Israel’s critics is already well documented,” Palestine Legal added.

“So are attempts by Israeli government officials to divide Black leaders and suppress those who draw connections between freedom struggles of Black Americans and Palestinians.”

This article has been updated since initial publication.

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The just ideal of Israel of my youth is no longer. Sad.

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Angela is on the moral side of this discussion. As Americans we have a right and obligation to call out injustice and acts against humanity when we see it in the world. Angela is justifiably critical of Israel's human rights abuses of Palestinians.

When a lobby of a foreign national power can silence anyone for criticizing their country it is patently un-American and dangerous to the well-being of the United States.

In acting in this manner, the pro-israel lobby is acting against the Constitution of the United States.

While Israel has the right to protect its borders, it should not have the right to abuse, steal from and humiliate Palestinians as a people. That Netanyahu won his last election on the promise that there would be no two-state solution while he was in office is a testament to his disinterest in peace and justice.

Angela Davis was and is a strong and courageous spokesperson for justice.

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Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.