In praise of Birmingham’s Angela Davis

Civil Rights

If anyone deserves a civil rights award, Angela Davis certainly does.  The activist and scholar have been on the front lines of the civil rights movement all of her life, including prison reform and human rights issues. 

When I learned in October that she would get the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) which operates the Civil Rights Museum there, I was delighted.  I imagined the wide smile this daughter of Birmingham must have flashed when she learned that she would be honored.

Loud disagreement

Everyone wasn’t thrilled, though. Some people in this conservative Southern town seemed disturbed that she had been a member of both the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party.  Others were concerned about her support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against the Israeli occupation. 

Some ill-informed people consider the BDS movement “anti-Semitic.”  They suggest that any questions about Israel shows a bias against Jewish people. But Davis is concerned about the humanity of Palestinian and other people. She is rightfully concerned about the spate of laws recently passed that downright outlaw the BDS movement. 

According to the Middle East Monitor, a teacher in Texas, Bahia Amawl, refused to sign an oath that required her to pledge that she “does not currently boycott Israel,” that she will not boycott Israel and that she will “refrain from any action that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel.” 

Texas law

Texas is among some 25 states that have passed laws forbidding the state from doing business with companies that boycott Israel!  It will also not invest pension funds in companies that support BDS.  Thirteen more states including Washington, D.C., have similar laws to the Texas law pending, pitting people’s First Amendment rights of free speech against support for Israel.  And Florida Senator Marco Rubio had the nerve to introduce national legislation that mirrors the Texas law.

Lots of people in Birmingham aren’t having it.  Though the ‘Civil Rights Institute’ has rescinded its award to Dr. Davis, there has been significant protest about the decision. 

Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin, a non-voting member of the Museum’s board, did not participate in the decision to rescind the award. The city provides the museum with about $1 million a year in operating funds. Woodfin expressed his dismay about the decision.  Three board members have resigned from the board. 

Who does that?

Who rescinds an award after it has been granted for statements that were not recently made, but are a matter of record? Angela Davis has long been an outspoken activist, just like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was. Nothing had been changed from the time Davis was notified of the award and Jan. 4, when it was rescinded. 

The BCRI did not have to honor Davis, but their canceling the award is a special kind of insult. Fortunately, Angela Davis has a thick skin, and she knows exactly who she is. 

She didn’t cringe when then-California governor Ronald Reagan had her fired from UCLA for her membership in the Communist Party.  She didn’t flinch when she was incarcerated for a crime she did not commit. She will not tremble because the BCRI rescinded the award. Demonstrating the indomitable spirit that she is known for, Angela Davis will travel to Birmingham in February for an alternative event. 

Birmingham showed a young Angela Davis who they were when four little girls, some of whom she knew, were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  And they are showing her who they are once again. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised. 

Litmus test?

One of the founders of the Women’s March has demanded the resignations of Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour because they attended one of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Saviour’s Days.  Marc Lamont Hill lost his CNN commentary gig because he spoke up for Palestinian rights.  Alice Walker has been criticized because she supports BDS.  Now Angela Davis is being denied an award. 

I support Palestinian rights as well as Israel’s right to exist.  Are the two incompatible?  No. The one-state solution, with a right to return and full citizenship rights for Palestinians, makes sense.  But Israel is not about to budge, and BDS as an attempt to influence it. 

States passing laws to outlaw free speech erode the first principle of our Constitution and undercut the actions at the foundation of our nation.  Remember the folks who dumped tea into the Boston Harbor because of an unfair tax?  Today, that action might be against the law!


Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available at



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