Angela Davis Returns to Birmingham, Reflecting on Palestinian Rights & Fight for Freedom Everywhere

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Civil rights icon and scholar Angela Davis returned to her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, over the weekend. She originally planned the visit to receive the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but the institute withdrew the award last month, soon after the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center sent a letter urging the board to reconsider honoring Davis due to her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting the Israeli government and Israeli institutions. Facing swift and widespread outcry, the institute then reversed its decision and reinstated the award. But Angela Davis has yet to say if she will accept it. More than 3,000 people gathered Saturday evening for an alternative event to honor Davis hosted by the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation. The event featured a conversation between Davis and Princeton professor Imani Perry, who is also from Birmingham.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our look at the weekend of events in Birmingham, Alabama, celebrating Angela Davis. More than 3,000 people came to Birmingham’s Boutwell Arena for the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation’s event to honor her on Saturday evening. Organizers arranged the event in response to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s decision to rescind the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award it had offered to Davis. The institute later reversed this decision and is hoping she will return to accept the award soon. But Saturday night’s event featured a conversation between Dr. Angela Davis and Princeton professor Imani Perry, who is also from Birmingham. Dr. Perry opened the conversation.

IMANI PERRY: So, let’s begin with how we got here today. You were to receive a humanitarian award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. That award was rescinded, before being reinstated. But when it was rescinded, the people of Birmingham, Alabama, immediately responded.

ANGELA DAVIS: You know, I have never loved Birmingham as much as I love Birmingham at this moment.

IMANI PERRY: But let’s—I mean, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about that process, and, in particular, what we learn, both about history but also about the present, by virtue of what happened.

ANGELA DAVIS: You know, I didn’t have a chance to get miked like you, Imani—

IMANI PERRY: Oh, OK.

ANGELA DAVIS: —because I wanted to see everything that happened before I came on. So…

IMANI PERRY: Happened before, yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: And it is really a joy to be here this evening. I want to thank everyone for coming out, people in Birmingham, from Alabama, and I know my friends and comrades are here from New York—

IMANI PERRY: All over, yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: —and Chicago and Oakland—

IMANI PERRY: Yeah.

ANGELA DAVIS: —and all over the country. So, thank all of you for being here this evening. It almost feels as if we’re marking a new beginning.

IMANI PERRY: Yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: And what I can see is that, of course, when I learned that I was to receive the Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award—

IMANI PERRY: Yeah.

ANGELA DAVIS: —from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, I was overcome with joy. Reverend Shuttlesworth has always been one of my heroes. And I have always admired those, especially Odessa Woolfolk—

IMANI PERRY: Yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: —who had the vision that led to the creation of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. And so, I want to say from the very beginning that I don’t want to do anything that can damage the future of this very important institution in our community. But I was surprised to hear that later they decided to rescind the award. And then, when I discovered that it might have something to do with my involvement, over many years, in efforts to advocate for justice for Palestine, it became clear to me that this might actually be a teachable moment.

IMANI PERRY: Yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: That as much as the whole controversy might have, at least for the moment, damaged the reputation of those who made that decision, that we might seize this moment to reflect on what it means to live on this planet in the 21st century and our responsibilities not only to people in our immediate community, but to people all over the planet.

IMANI PERRY: Yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: And, of course, in occupied Palestine. Black people, especially, owe a great deal to Palestinians, who have been struggling for decades and decades and refuse to give up. They are an inspiration to people who are fighting for freedom everywhere on the planet.

IMANI PERRY: Everywhere, everywhere. Yeah.

ANGELA DAVIS: So, did I answer your question, Imani?

IMANI PERRY: Yes. But I want—and relatedly, though, because I think that there is a misperception, that is fairly widespread in this moment, that is important for us to talk about, that solidarity for—with Palestinian people does not mean one is anti-Semitic or does not also have solidarity with Jewish people, right? And yesterday—I think it was yesterday—there was a national solidarity Shabbat for you, right? And for those who aren’t aware, Shabbat is the—that is the Sabbath ritual for Jewish people. And one of the things that they said as part of the solidarity Shabbat—right?—is you are—”Angela, you are welcome at this Shabbat.” What—can you tell us about the significance of both the phrase itself but also for you, as a person who has been engaged in struggles for justice that are international for the majority of your life?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, first of all, I know that Jewish Voice for Peace has done an incredible job, not only at this particular moment, but in general—

IMANI PERRY: Yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: —creating a very powerful movement among Jewish people.

IMANI PERRY: Yes, mm-hmm.

ANGELA DAVIS: I was, by the way, just speaking at Brandeis last week. I went to Brandeis University, which was founded in the same year as the state of Israel. And I also point out that I learned about Palestine at a Jewish university.

IMANI PERRY: Right.

ANGELA DAVIS: And so, Jewish Voice for Peace has done an amazing job over the last years bringing people together all over, all over the country. So when I heard about this Shabbat, I said—well, first of all, it made me feel really humble—

IMANI PERRY: Yeah.

ANGELA DAVIS: —because I’m—you know, I don’t really think of myself as being special. No, hold on for a second. Let me say what I have to say. Let me say what I have to say. I think that a lot of work that has been accomplished by organizations and movements and huge numbers of people gets projected onto individuals.

IMANI PERRY: OK.

ANGELA DAVIS: I know we often assume that when we speak of the civil rights movement, immediately who comes to mind?

IMANI PERRY: Right. King.

ANGELA DAVIS: Dr. King. And, of course, Dr. King was a powerful figure. But he did not create the civil rights movement.

IMANI PERRY: Right, right.

ANGELA DAVIS: And I think, particularly at this moment in our history, when we are so influenced by the neoliberal ideologies of global capitalism, we have to figure out ways in which we can contest this individualism—

IMANI PERRY: That’s right.

ANGELA DAVIS: —that shapes the way we think about the world.

IMANI PERRY: Yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: So, what I want to say is that I’m happy, I’m happy to be here, but I think it’s important that you know that I am simply standing in for the work that was done by vast numbers of people, thousands and millions of people all over the country and all over the world. And so, that is how I—that is how I read the Shabbat.

IMANI PERRY: OK.

ANGELA DAVIS: And the slogan, “Angela, sister, you are welcome in this house”—”Angela, sister, you are welcome in this Shabbat” comes from a slogan that was used on many posters all over the country when I was underground fleeing the FBI. So, people put up these posters on their doors: “Angela, sister, you are welcome in this house.”

And you have to realize that the only reason people are familiar with my name and my history today is because people did that work of organizing the movement to save my life back in the 19—1970. Well, it started in 1969, when Ronald Reagan fired me from my job, but—you know, I don’t know why I always end up in the middle of these situations. I really—I really never asked to be at the center of it all. I was very happy to be organizing on the sidelines and doing the work to promote someone else. But somehow or another—I have no idea.

IMANI PERRY: Why end up at the center of it?

ANGELA DAVIS: I have no idea why. And even now, at age 75, here I am again. But I can tell you that what I’ve always tried to do is to utilize the moment, to take advantage of the particular arena. And I think we’re doing this here this evening—I was scheduled to be here on February 16th. And what is this date?

IMANI PERRY: February 16.

ANGELA DAVIS: And here I am.

IMANI PERRY: Yes.

ANGELA DAVIS: Not because of anything I myself did, but because of the amazing organizing work of the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation.

IMANI PERRY: And Reconciliation, yeah, yeah.

ANGELA DAVIS: So, thank all of you who were involved in organizing this event this evening.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome former mayor of Birmingham, Dr. Richard Arrington Jr.

RICHARD ARRINGTON JR.: Thank you very much. What a powerful, what an important moment of black history we have shared here this evening. I am to be very brief, and so let me just reiterate what brought this committee together. And I will do that just by reading what I’ve jotted down here.

This event began with a misunderstanding or a difference of opinion that sent shockwaves throughout our community and did not represent what we stand for and believe. There comes a time when a community must stand united and speak forcefully and with clarity about who we are. I am especially proud that in this moment of challenge we ran not in different directions, not venting the anger and the frustration we felt; instead, we ran to one another, linked arms, embraced one another and lifted up a daughter who is celebrated in the world community for her stand on human rights.

So, I close by saying we wanted to show our solidarity with her. We wanted to show it across generational and social lines. We wanted old people like me, distinguished community leaders like our judges and business leaders who you’ve heard from this evening, our millennials, our schoolchildren and the dynamic young black women God has blessed us with. We wanted to all stand together in that same spirit that I am sure runs in the bloodline from our ancestors from that fateful day of August 1619 in Jamestown—hope everybody knows that. Jamestown 1619. This is the spirit and bloodline that flows from our ancestors through each of us and through every one of our generation. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Richard Arrington, the first African-American mayor of Birmingham, at an event Saturday honoring Angela Davis. When we come back, we’ll hear from the head of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, who is hoping that Angela Davis will return to receive the Fred Shuttlesworth award. Back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Pitch Black Ark,” instrumental by Micronauts. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Democracy Now! spent the weekend in Birmingham, Alabama, where leading human rights activist, civil rights icon Angela Davis returned home in the wake of the controversy over the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which rescinded, then reawarded its Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award to Dr. Davis. In a news conference Saturday, before the major event Saturday night, Dr. Davis was asked if she would accept the award.

ANGELA DAVIS: I have not yet responded to the institute. I think that should be a collective decision, particularly a decision that is taken by activists here in Birmingham. The issues are not simply issues involving me as an individual, so I will take my lead from the community in Birmingham.

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Next story from this daily show

Birmingham Civil Rights Group Reoffers Award to Angela Davis—But She Says Community Should Decide

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