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Birmingham Institute’s recission of Angela Davis award over BDS becomes an embarrassment to pro-Israel groups that applied pressure

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There are two big stories involving Israel and BDS in the American news this week. One is the Senate Republicans pushing a bill to punish supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and thereby divide the Democratic Party.

The other is the uproar over the decision by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to rescind an award to Angela Davis because of the activist/scholar’s support for BDS, which one Birmingham Jewish group claimed “targets the Jewish people excessively.”

Davis was to receive the Fred Shuttlesworth prize on February 16. The BCRI changed its mind about the award, and canceled the gala, because of what is being reported as pressure from the Jewish community.

The story is proving to be a giant embarrassment to both the Civil Rights Institute and those Jewish organizations, showing the overreach of the Israel lobby. Angela Davis is now being showered with praise and the Institute is being condemned internationally; so much so that the top three officers of the organization resigned within days of rescinding the award (the chairman is a Honda executive). And one Jewish organization that applied pressure on the BCRI has tried to back away from its own letter to the Institute!

Roy Johnson, a reporter for, summarized the scandal on Roland Martin’s show.

This has been a big blow to the institute, it’s been a black eye that certainly extends around the world, the coverage has been global. You had to see some heads roll… The board is in the crosshairs of a lot of people in this city.

Both the Birmingham City Council and the Birmingham School Board made statements in support of Angela Davis, a native daughter of the city. Davis will be honored at a “grassroots” event on February 16, Johnson said; and it sounds like that event will be a gala of its own. “Organizations around the city are coming out in favor of honoring Angela Davis.”

Johnson stated bluntly that the decision was a mistake. He is still trying to determine “how they came to this extremely bad decision, and what were the factors, what were the pressures… and how they could not see this fallout coming.”

As for those pressures: “It came… due to pressure from Jewish organizations, from many Jewish organizations in the city.”

Two of those organizations are the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and the Birmingham Jewish Federations. The executive director of the Federations publicly condemned the award on the organization’s Facebook page (a post later removed, according to NPR). The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is surely sensitive to the Federations because, according to federal nonprofit filings, the Institute has received many gifts over the years from people who also give money to the Federations.

As for the Holocaust Education Center (BHEC), Roy Johnson reported at AL.Com that on January 2, its board sent a letter to the Institute, in which it “expressed concern and disappointment” over the award and urged the Institute to “reconsider your decision.”

In the letter, obtained by, the organization cited “recent outspoken support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, [which] is very troubling as it targets the Jewish people excessively.

“We do not suggest that Israel should be immune from criticism,” it continued, “but BDS ignores gross human rights transgressions by other countries around the world and focuses solely on Israel, the world’s only Jewish state.”

Johnson reported that the BHEC’s entire executive committee and its director signed the letter but they are now trying to walk it back.

“Our intention was to go on record about our concerns in a private letter sent to BCRI leadership,” [Board President Deborah Layman] said in an email to, responding to query about the BHEC’s letter. “We had no further part in the decision made by BCRI to cancel the event, and we were surprised at their decision.”

Regrets they’ve had a few: “I haven’t run across anyone in the Jewish community that expected that BCRI would comply with their request and then cancel their event,” Johnson said on Roland Martin’s show.

The award had also been slammed in Southern Jewish Life magazine, which headlined its story: “Prominent BDS activist Davis to receive Civil Rights Institute’s Shuttlesworth Award,” and referred to Shuttlesworth as a “towering” figure in the civil rights movement.

The embarrassment is resonating in terms of black-Jewish relations, of course. The two groups were allies during the civil rights struggle, but BDS is evidently pushing the mainstream Jewish organizations apart from black institutions. And people are making the connection between Davis’s rebuke and CNN’s firing of Marc Lamont Hill because he had said at the U.N. that Palestine should be free “from the river to the sea.”

The list of casualties is a long one. I’d add history teacher Joel Doerfler’s resignation from the Riverdale Country School last spring after he came under an onslaught of pressure for his pro-Palestinian views, mounted by donors to the school who met privately with the American Jewish Committee to coordinate their campaign. And of course the firing of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign after he had tweeted his outrage over the Gaza massacre of 2014 and the school’s chancellor sought to “appease among others, pro-Israel donors.” The chancellor later resigned from UIUC largely because of the embarrassment that case caused. But Salaita’s career was in the process derailed.

The Angela Davis case looks to be different because the pushback is so instantaneous, the embarrassment so keen, and the damage is being experienced by the bad guys, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, and the Jewish Federations.

On that Roland Martin show, Joe Madison of Sirius XM radio says, “It takes you back to the 60’s and even the 50’s… I’m just so glad that Fred Shuttlesworth is not alive to see this.”

Rina Shah Bharara  says what Rashida Tlaib says (and is being unfairly maligned for saying), this is about the American interest: “Last I checked this is the United States of America, it’s not Israel. This whole idea of defending Israel at all costs is so confuses me on so many levels. I see it happening most out of the right. It’s coming out of the left as well. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians… why we can’t inject our American ideals into this… and say this is wrong.”

While William Spriggs, an economist at Howard University says something we are bound to hear more and more as BDS breaks up the Democratic Party’s traditional affiliation with Israel:

“It creates division within the progressive community when we don’t need division.”

More responses. The NPR story on the case quoted Jewish Voice for Peace:

To argue that Angela Davis is unworthy of a civil rights award is beyond shameful. And to dance around the fact that it’s due to her outspoken support of Palestinian rights makes it outrageous.”

A JVP Academic Advisory Council letter in support of Davis– “The decision seems to stem from a misinformed view that to advocate for Palestinian human rights is somehow offensive to the Jewish community” — has over 350 academic signatures. JVP is also collecting signatures from non-academics.

And here is a National Lawyers Guild statement:emphasizing the ways that the civil rights movement inspired BDS.

it is appalling that the award would be rescinded due to Dr. Angela Davis’s support of Palestinian political prisoners, and the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The BDS movement is part of a long tradition of freedom movements using economic pressure as a non-violent tactic. This legacy is particularly strong in the American South. In fact, Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the movement, points out BDS was“ inspired partly by the American civil rights movement.” The well-documented and internationally recognized violations of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli government and military are an intentional consequence of ideological, political, legal, economic, and military systems known better as Zionism.  BDS is not, and should never be confused with, anti-semitism. Rather, it is our moral consciousness put into action. Suggesting that BDS is synonymous with anti-semitism invisibilizes Jews, including members of the NLG Southern Region, who oppose the state of Israel’s human rights record and support BDS as a non-violent resistance strategy.  Palestine matters because ending colonialism matters. Palestine matters because we must stand up and say that all people have the right to dignity, and self-determination. Palestine matters because the fight against global white supremacy won’t be over until the structural inequalities throughout Israel/Palestine are addressed and made right.

The NLG makes the obvious connection to the Republican Party’s efforts to go after BDS, an effort many Democrats will surely join after the shutdown ends!

This week the US Senate attempted to bring bill S1 to the floor that would attempt to silence the BDS movement and chill our freedom of speech. Dr. Angela Davis has always spoken truth to power, and devoted much of her lifelong activism to international solidarity.  By connecting U.S. grassroots campaigns against state violence and racism to movement struggles in other parts of the world, Dr. Davis helps the world become more intimate. She 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.

I’d note that Alabama Senator Doug Jones was one of four Democratic senators to side with Republicans on that BDS measure in a vote two days ago. And Doug Jones is a former vice chair of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. He surely feels much of the pressure that the BCRI did. I imagine donors are a concern for him.

Thanks to Adam Horowitz.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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22 Responses

  1. Rusty Pipes on January 10, 2019, 1:39 pm

    Unfortunately, although NPR did a decent job of covering the story at one of its local affiliates, WBHM, it wasn’t picked up on the national news programs for that day.

  2. JLewisDickerson on January 10, 2019, 5:27 pm

    RE: “Roy Johnson, a reporter for, summarized the scandal on Roland Martin’s show.” ~ Weiss

    3 Members Of Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Board Resign Over Angela Davis Decision

  3. DaBakr on January 11, 2019, 2:13 am

    Nobody seems concerned for her brutal support for some of the worst human rights abusers of her time. Cuba. Communist tyrants and support for Eric honiker of East Germany for shooting fleeing immigrants over the Berlin Wall. I believe her cometary was shortening like, “they spits not be fleeing socialist regimes”. See was no human rights icon in any sense except to idiots

    • Misterioso on January 11, 2019, 10:12 am


      Sigh. Once again, Mr. “Whataboutery” desperately and irrelevantly spews forth.

    • genesto on January 11, 2019, 12:37 pm

      — or the neo-Nazis in Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine – not to mention the US – all supported by the JSRDCAJ (Jewish State that Really Doesn’t Care About the Jews).

      Anything to say about that DeBakr??? I thought not!

    • eljay on January 11, 2019, 6:04 pm

      || DaBakr: Nobody seems concerned for her brutal support for some of the worst human rights abusers of her time. Cuba. Communist tyrants and support for Eric honiker of East Germany for shooting fleeing immigrants over the Berlin Wall. I believe her cometary was shortening like, “they spits not be fleeing socialist regimes”. See was no human rights icon in any sense except to idiots ||

      I don’t know enough about her but I do agree that if she was a human-rights hypocrite she deserves to be condemned for her hypocrisy.

      You’re right to be troubled by hypocrisy, DaBakr. So when are you going to start condemning yourself and your fellow Jewish supremacists (Zionists) for your on-going hypocrisy?

    • Talkback on January 12, 2019, 3:32 am

      DaBakr: “Nobody seems concerned for her brutal support for some of the worst human rights abusers of her time.”

      I think that she wrongly supported these regimes because she thought that socialism could be a solution AGAINST racism.

      But your brutal support for some of the worst human rights abusers of your time is based on nothing else than racism and supremacism.

    • MHughes976 on January 12, 2019, 9:44 am

      I don’t share her Marxism in any degree and some of her remarks about dissidents in Eastern Europe are still shocking. That isn’t enough to justify public insult. I might not have voted for her in the first place were I on a committee awarding honours but disinvitation is insult and a campaign for disinvitation is intimidation, which should not have happened. The only justification surely would be the discovery of new and shocking information about the person who was going to be honoured but the information about Davis’ bad remarks is decades old. I hope that her supporters will be able arrange an event at which she will explain her sentiments about Palestine.

  4. Misterioso on January 11, 2019, 10:39 am


    “On Saturday January 5, I was stunned to learn that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Board of Directors had reversed their previous decision to award me the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. Although the BCRI refused my requests to reveal the substantive reasons for this action, I later learned that my long-term support of justice for Palestine was at issue. This seemed particularly unfortunate, given that my own freedom was secured – and indeed my life was saved – by a vast international movement. And I have devoted much of my own activism to international solidarity and, specifically, to linking struggles in other parts of the world to U.S. grassroots campaigns against police violence, the prison industrial complex, and racism more broadly. The rescinding of this invitation and the cancellation of the event where I was scheduled to speak was thus not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice.

    “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. Through my experiences at Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City and at Brandeis University in the late fifties and early sixties, and my subsequent time in graduate school in Frankfurt, Germany, I learned to be as passionate about opposition to antisemitism as to racism. It was during this period that I was also introduced to the Palestinian cause. I am proud to have worked closely with Jewish organizations and individuals on issues of concern to all of our communities throughout my life. In many ways, this work has been integral to my growing consciousness regarding the importance of protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

    “The trip to Birmingham, where I was born and raised, to receive the Fred Shuttlesworth Award, was certain to be the highlight of my year—especially since I knew Rev. Shuttlesworth personally and attended school with his daughter, Patricia, and because my mother, Sally B. Davis, worked tirelessly for the BCRI during its early years. Moreover, my most inspirational Sunday School teacher, Odessa Woolfolk was the driving force for the institute’s creation. Despite the BCRI’s regrettable decision, I look forward to being in Birmingham in February 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.”
    Angela Y. Davis,

  5. genesto on January 11, 2019, 12:42 pm

    Phil, why no mention about the several posts by If Americans Knew , going back well over a year, regarding Senate Bill S.1?

    Time to bring them back into the fold by acknowledging their excellent journalistic work on this issue and stop worrying about what JVP thinks!

  6. Lillian Rosengarten on January 11, 2019, 12:57 pm

    Oh my goodness Da Bakr,
    You are certainly a neocon and a racist.

  7. Ossinev on January 11, 2019, 2:11 pm

    “Sigh. Once again, Mr. “Whataboutery” desperately and irrelevantly spews forth.”

    Careful. He may well accuse you of Anti-Whataboutism which for Ziobots like Debakr is an insidious strain of Anti- -Semitism.

  8. henspert on January 11, 2019, 2:22 pm

    established jews… resisting a humam rights resistance is futile. because the world knows the truth. humanity communicates wide and deep. sheldon adelson and msm (media) trys to be platos cave but msm is in the cave and we have broken out.

  9. brent on January 11, 2019, 8:52 pm

    An encouraging turn of events. Here is evidence of the power of the concept of civil rights, equality. I predict if equality became the dominant narrative, it could overshadow “Israel has the right to defend itself” narrative and our Congress would evolve fairly quickly in response. Of course, a campaign for equality would have to emerge from Palestinian political culture and not its political support system, even though that system would be empowered immensely. Success breeds success.

    An equality campaign would be embraced by many humanist Jews, especially if the stoning of Israelis was held in check. Placards, words, are far more powerful.

    Abbas has talked about advancing the one state concept if negotiations fail so it would be reasonable for him to should show a measure of respect toward Trump’s anticipated proposal to resolve the conflict. All the while holding the one state trump card in abeyance. Trump stated he’d be good with one state or two so long as both sides agree. The consideration of equality in one state incentivizes the “Jewish State” mindset to come up with feasible two state arrangments.

    I have often wondered why its been the case that Palestinian Citizens of Israel have not gotten more serious about civil rights and equality. Any theories out there about this?

    • oldgeezer on January 11, 2019, 11:24 pm

      “The consideration of equality in one state incentivizes the “Jewish State” mindset to come up with feasible two state arrangments.”

      oops. You goofed there. Israel has not, and does not, accept a two state solution.

      They have to accept that long before they realize and accept finding a feasible solution let alone wake up and realize their actions have resulted in no feasible solution.

      • brent on January 12, 2019, 11:32 am

        oldgeezer, myself being one,

        You pulled from my analysis , my take on where to go from here, and responded to an assumption I do not make… that a 2SS was desired by Israel….never been the case. (I am wondering if there is a basis for concluding Palestinians desire it either?)

        The actual power of the equality argument is that there is no defense to it, therefore, it is a path to “take” a separate state or a binational state if a path to them could not be found. As equality resonated through the Congress and Members would see the opportunity to shake loose the bit in their mouth, the tide would turn toward fairness.

        Let me know if you think this is hogwash.

    • Mooser on January 12, 2019, 11:50 am

      “An equality campaign would be embraced by many humanist Jews, especially if the stoning of Israelis was held in check. “

      Yes, there’s been hundreds of deaths and thousands of maimings among Israelis who have heard about Palestinian stone-throwing.

    • Mooser on January 12, 2019, 11:54 am

      “Trump stated…”

      And I expect that you’ll agree that he was right to so decree. And I am right, and you are right, and all is right as right can be!

  10. Mooser on January 12, 2019, 12:05 pm

    “Let me know if you think this is hogwash.”

    “Hogwash” is a pretty passe locution. Strictly L-7.* No-courant, and basically nye kulturny! The bright young kids today call it “concern trolling”

    *Remember Sam the Sham’s admonition!

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