By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist
Birmingham has enjoyed positive coverage in the national news media in recent years. From the New York Times to the Food Network’s Andrew Zimmerman and many in between, national platforms have drawn the nation’s attention to the unique quality of life in Birmingham, particularly its variety of high quality restaurants. Of course, locals have known this for years, but it’s nice to see others around the country take notice. It’s also nice to have a clarifying juxtaposition to the city’s turbulent past.
When the city made national headlines in recent weeks, however, it was the ghosts of that past that returned to haunt us. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute had planned to honor Angela Davis with its annual Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, only to rescind the award after protests from local Jewish groups. The BCRI was roundly criticized by local media and politicians, and eventually apologized for the decision before deciding last Friday to reoffer the award to Davis. The controversy is a mirror into some painful realities.
The decision by the BCRI drew immediate criticism from Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, as well as the Birmingham City Council, which passed a unanimous resolution praising Davis. Never slow to pass up an opportunity to engage in some Alabama-based self-loathing, many in the state and local media rendered their garments, and saw the decision as a betrayal of the ongoing pursuit of civil rights around the world. In a piece for al.com, Roy S. Johnson argued that the decision stained the BCRI’s legacy.
I wonder what part of Davis’ life and activism is a credit to the BCRI’s legacy? Was it her involvement with the perpetrators of the Marin County Courthouse shooting in 1970? Yes, Davis was ultimately found not guilty of the specific charges, but no one disputes her involvement, which is evidence of a profound lack of judgment. Davis was a college professor in her mid-twenties at the time; this was no mere youthful slip-up. How would Johnson find her unrepentant membership in the Communist Party U.S.A.? One might forgive youthful enthusiasm for communism, especially prior to World War II, but Davis happily joined the party and defended Moscow through two decades of terror throughout the third world, with nary a word of support for political prisoners behind the Iron Curtain. Or would the legacy of the BCRI be improved by acknowledging Davis’ support for maniacal cult leader Jim Jones, who played audio of her own messages to the residents of Jonestown as they worked in the fields of Guyana just weeks before they died in mass suicide? Or finally, maybe Davis’s long-standing opposition to the state of Israel, including her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movements could be a feather in the cap of the BCRI. Roy Johnson and Randall Woodfin do not appear to have considered these factors in their praise of Davis.
It was the concern of Jewish group in Birmingham that caused the award to be rescinded, and I would argue for good reason. Davis is not simply critical of American policy in Israel. There are good faith arguments to be made there. No, Davis’ support for BDS strikes at the heart of Israel’s very existence in that it calls for efforts to delegitimize the Jewish nation. Anti-Jewish boycotts have a long and sordid history, and if one wants to clarify that opposition to Israeli policy is distinct from anti-Semitism, there are plenty of opportunities to make plain one’s support for Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. That Davis has consistently failed to do so, and has made her opposition to supposed Israeli apartheid a cornerstone of her life’s work, has rightly made Jewish allies of the BCRI concerned. It is worth noting that support for the BDS movement has been a lightning rod for controversy, costing the Women’s March support from several corporations as well as the Democratic National Committee. Even Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the newly elected Democratic Congresswoman and budding star, had to keep her support for BDS under wraps until after election.
It is not just Davis’ anti-Semitism that should concern us, but her long-standing refusal to oppose tyranny around the world. As the writer Cathy Young noted in two pieces on the matter, one in Forward and another in the Bulwark, Davis’ entire life’s work has been so devoted to anti-capitalism and anti-American causes that she has wilfully turned a blind eye to the oppression of the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, and several other tyrannical regimes. Her support for such regimes has meant a long-standing refusal to speak out on behalf of political prisoners in those nations, including fellow feminists and LBGTQ allies.
It is perfectly fair for Davis or any other activist to question or perhaps even oppose certain aspects of American policy, from foreign relations to criminal justice. But couldn’t Davis do so without cavorting with the perpetrators of the Marin County courthouse shooting or supporting lunatics like Jim Jones? Can’t you question capitalism without supporting the brutal tyrannies in East Germany and Cuba? George Orwell managed to do so. Can’t one take issue with American-Israeli relations without supporting attempts to economically cripple and delegitimize the Jewish state? The entire arc of Davis’ adult life has lent aid and comfort to the enemies of freedom, peace, and prosperity.
Roy Johnson praised Davis for speaking “her truth to power” for almost seventy-five years, but it is telling that her truth has usually meant praise for Brehznev, Castro, and Arafat. She could have easily opposed Nixon, Reagan, and Bush without going so far. She did not do so, and it is right that someone should finally stand up and say “No,” to awarding her an honor in the name of human rights.
The legacy of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is only stained in so far as it proved unwilling to stick to its initial decision to rescind. The legacies of those local political and media leaders who refuse to acknowledge Davis’ profound lack of judgment and long-standing support for violence and oppression are, like Davis herself, far more tainted. Davis’ early upbringing in Birmingham was undoubtedly difficult, as her family and neighbors suffered at the hands of bigots attempting to force middle class blacks out of their neighborhood. She has seen true bigotry first hand, and she could still testify to the hard work done to bring that to an end. Her passion is unmistakable, but far too often it has been aimed in the wrong direction.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute made the right decision in originally rescinding the award after other organizations noted the problems in Davis’ past. The latest decision to reinstate the award is unfortunate. So much positive work has been done in Birmingham by organizations of both Jewish and African-American backgrounds, and this controversy only harms that progress. Birmingham, and our ongoing conversation about race and reconciliation, deserves better.
Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.