By David Gespass, NLG Alabama & Past NLG President
Among the many privileges I had as president of the Guild, one of the greatest was picking up Angela Davis at the airport and introducing her as the keynote speaker at 75th anniversary #Law4thePeople Convention in 2012 held in Pasadena, CA. Her warmth, humanity and insight have shined through every time I have seen her.
Earlier this month on February 16, she returned to Birmingham, brought here by the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation (BCTR) and just as younger Guild members have assumed leadership of our organization, young Guild members here were instrumental in her returning to her hometown.
For those who do not know, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) announced last October it would be giving Angela its Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. However, six weeks before the awards dinner was to take place, its board of directors met in executive session and announced it was rescinding the award because she “did not meet its criteria” for the award, in a statement that has since been removed from the BCRI website. The local community responded immediately. Two days after the announcement, the NLG Alabama chapter issued a response. Two days later, the Guild’s Southern Region issued its own statement, declaring that “By connecting U.S. grassroots campaigns against state violence and racism to movement struggles in other parts of the world, Dr. Davis… brings us closer to understanding the nature of justice, and that the collective work needed to dismantle systemic injustice requires that we call out all oppression.”
BCRI’s announcement was made on a Friday and, by the following Monday, members of the community came together to announce that Angela would be coming to Birmingham for a free event on in lieu of, and on the same date as, the abortive awards dinner. Three members of BCRI’s board resigned, in a ludicrous and pointless attempt to mitigate the damage to its reputation and to reduce the outrage. Within days, the global social justice and civil rights community collectively joined in the outrage, leading the BCRI board, moistened finger held high in the wind, to rescind its rescission and say that, if Angela were to accept, she would receive the award after all.
None of the board’s actions has, as yet, mollified anyone. It appears that the reason for the original rescission (as opposed to the rescission of the rescission) was Angela’s support for Palestinian rights. It was learned later, because the board was silent, that the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center – which I, for one, had never before heard of – first raised the issue and that led to the board’s first reconsideration. To date, the BCRI has failed to explain the reasons for any of its actions or even reveal who on the board voted how any of the three times, at least, that it voted.
The BCTR is multi-generational, composed of older folks who were Angela’s childhood friends and young activists. Those who did the work to produce the event were young African-American women, including NLG members Tiffanie Agee and Jilisa Milton. The event, “A Conversation with Angela Davis,” was first planned for the 750-seat Lyric Theater, but when the free tickets were gone almost immediately, the mayor’s office offered the city-owned 5,000-seat Boutwell Auditorium.
Earlier in the day, at Tuggle Elementary School, where Angela’s education began, the BCTR presented “Power to the People: Activism and Justice Forum,” aimed principally at young human rights and social justice activists. This event was planned with Angela’s participation and direction after she expressed a desire to provide mentorship to community activists. She emphasized its importance that evening, noting that change always comes from youth. After all, she said, when we say we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, that means we can see further. Jilisa (a 2018 Hawyood Burns Fellow) presented at one session on the challenges of organizing in the South and I did a lunch presentation on Palestine/Israel.
The forum ended with Tiffanie introducing Angela and moderating a discussion with her that was all too short. In just six weeks, the outrage and betrayal that surged through all but the most unrepentant Zionists in Birmingham was transformed into something far greater and more meaningful than the expensive – and, by dint of being expensive, exclusive – BCRI fundraising banquet at which Angela was to receive her award. The BCTR united people from disparate generations and widely varied politics, in common cause.
The event substantiated at least two axioms: that the struggle for human rights and justice will include Guild involvement for decades to come, and that the people united will not only never be defeated, they will never be silenced.