Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The revocation of the Shuttlesworth award for Angela Davis by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute highlights who is deciding the city’s civil rights narrative.
Birmingham, Alabama, is recognized as the “cradle of the civil rights movement” and today one of its daughters born from that cradle, Angela Davis, has been disowned in the city due to conflicts over who gets to tell Birmingham’s civil rights story. On January 5, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), a 26-year-old museum and research center, announced that it was rescinding its “Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award” after announcing scholar-activist Angela Davis as the winner in October. The award was to be handed out on February 16 at its annual gala, which has also been cancelled.
Davis does “not meet all of the criteria on which the award is based,” reads a statement from BCRI’s board. “While we recognize Ms. Davis’ stature as a scholar and prominent figure in civil rights history, we believe the decision is consistent with the ideals of the award’s namesake, Rev. Shuttlesworth.”
It has been reported that some Jewish leaders and residents of the city protested Davis because of her support of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to hold Israel accountable for injustices it has imposed upon Palestine. In December, an editorial in the magazine Southern Jewish Life questioned Davis’ credentials, due to her outspoken stances against how Palestinians have been treated by Israeli authorities. Previous winners of the Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award include Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte, who both have also been critical of Israel. By snubbing Davis for this award, Birmingham suddenly finds itself in similar territory to when King called out white religious leaders for trying to dictate the pace of civil rights progress in 1963.
That year, while jailed in Birmingham, King responded to a group of white Jewish and Christian church leaders who criticized him for mobilizing “outside agitators” for civil rights protests in the city. Wrote King in the letter:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. ... I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice ...who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom...
King was challenging the idea that the city’s white leadership could override the civil rights narrative that was being crafted from King’s own blood, sweat, and tears, and those of Shuttlesworth and thousands of other frontline soldiers in the streets of Birmingham. Could King have imagined that African Americans in the city might still have to make this point today? Rejecting Davis for this honor not only undermines the work the city is doing to enshrine its civil rights legacy, but it also brings into question who gets to craft Birmingham’s civil rights narrative.
Davis said the BCRI’s decision is “not primarily an attack against me but rather against the spirit of the indivisibility of justice,” and defended her stance on Israeli-Palestinian issues in a public statement:
I support Palestinian political prisoners just as I support current political prisoners in the Basque Country, in Catalunya, in India, and in other parts of the world. I have indeed expressed opposition to policies and practices of the state of Israel, as I express similar opposition to U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to other discriminatory U.S. policies.
Davis was born in Birmingham and sprang from the city’s Dynamite Hill neighborhood, so named for the regular occurrences of racist white vigilantes bombing houses in the desegregating community to terrorize African Americans moving in there. Her childhood friends Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, were two of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
That church today is one of the anchor institutions of the city’s heralded civil rights district, which itself is an integral part of the city’s revitalization plans. In 2016, PR firms were sending out materials promoting the civil rights district, emphasizing that “the city that was once home to the center of turmoil during the Civil Rights Movement is now becoming a global model for human rights, crime prevention and inclusivity.”
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is also a key component of that district, and Davis once spoke glowingly about the research center that would later shun her.
“What I fear is that many of the 50th anniversary observances … are just to close the book on the racist violence of the civil rights era so that we can embalm that violence and transform it into something to be gazed at through the conventional lens of the museum,” said Davis on the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. “Maybe there’s something to be learned from the way that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute frames that bombing, as opposed to regular museum exhibit. And if any of you have ever visited the Civil Rights Institute, you know that it is an absolutely incredible museum with amazing exhibits.”
Less than three months ago, BCRI’s president Andrea L. Taylor, an African American, sang Davis’s praises in announcing her as the award recipient, saying, “We are thrilled to bestow this honor on Angela Davis, and excited about her return to her hometown of Birmingham, which is the very launching pad of the modern human rights movement. Arguably, she’s one of the most globally recognized champions of human rights, giving voice to those who are powerless to speak.”
Taylor’s name is not signed to BCRI’s statement about rescinding the award. No one bothered to sign their actual name to the statement, but Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, an ex-officio member of BCRI’s board, released a statement saying he was “dismayed” over the decision, and seemed to apologize for his limitations about intervening.
“While the City of Birmingham proudly contributes operational funding to the BCRI, it is our practice not to involve city government in the programmatic decisions of organizations that receive city funding,” said Woodfin in the statement. “Our job, as a city government, is to measure the value of BCRI—and every organization that receives funding from the City—to the community based upon its legal and ethical pursuit of that mission.”
Woodfin’s public comments speak to how heavily invested the city is in ensuring its civil rights district’s success. The district was not a universally embraced project when the project was first announced, and the BCRI was at the center of the controversy. Built under Richard Arrington, Birmingham’s first black mayor, the BCRI museum faced stiff opposition from both white corporate leaders and black residents who didn’t want to pay for it. Voters rejected bond proposals for building the BCRI twice. It only came into fruition after the city sold off one of its buildings for the $9 million used to break ground for the new center. Birmingham has provided roughly $2 million to the BCRI over the past two years for operational expenses.
“A major emphasis in 2013 was the City’s 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement and how Birmingham changed the world,” reads the city’s 2018 annual budget report. “Our challenge, is to continue to attract and expand the city’s tax base. This will be done by initiatives in our Economic Development Division while working in concert with the City Council.”
Birmingham is literally banking on its civil rights legacy. Woodfin is a child of that legacy and a direct descendant of Jim Crow’s immediate victims. He presides over a city where three-quarters of the residents are black and roughly a third of its residents live in poverty. The stage for this situation was set, no doubt, by the Bull Connor brand of white supremacy that presided over Birmingham 50 years ago. The civil rights district was supposed to ignite a new narrative for the city.
The civil rights district that hems this new narrative includes not only the BCRI and the 16th Street Baptist Church, but also Rev. Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church, and the restoration of the A.G. Gaston Motel, once the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s headquarters, which the city allocated $10 million toward. In 2017, President Barack Obama designated Birmingham’s civil rights district as a national monument under the National Park Service.
Unfortunately, the district will now also be known as the place that refused to honor one of Birmingham’s own drum majors for racial justice. The BCRI, which did not respond to requests for comment, is a Smithsonian Institute affiliate, and has positioned itself as the primary guardian and standard bearer of Birmingham’s civil rights legacy. The Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award is named for the late African-American pastor-activist who shared many jail cells with his friend Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement’s golden age. The award is today one of the highest honors from a pillar organization of a historic district that’s currently being developed to establish Birmingham as the premier destination for civil rights history. And Davis won’t be a part of that narrative.
University of Alabama, Birmingham history professor Horace Huntley told AL.com that Rev. Shuttlesworth “would be embarrassed and bewildered by such an action,” and black activists are now calling for a boycott of the city’s marquee civil rights center. Ahmad Ward, BCRI’s former vice president of education and exhibitions, lambasted the Davis snub in a lengthy Facebook post:
Who can we, as the Black community, honor? As far as I know Professor Davis has promoted no violence towards anyone. If that exists, I will accept correction. So...who are we allowed to honor? Professor Davis is a Black ICON. Revered globally. Her hometown just called her “unworthy.”
The same city that boasts being the “cradle of civil rights” also shares the distinction of having the fifth highest incarceration rate in the world. There is likely a connection to that and Davis—who grew up in Birmingham amidst house and church bombings; who was wrongly imprisoned herself, like King and Shuttlesworth before her; and who has produced decades of scholarship on the mass incarceration crisis—would be the ideal person to make it. Revoking Davis’s award shows Birmingham’s civil rights legacy continues to suffer, and no restoration of historic buildings and parks can pave over that.