(JTA) – Three board members have resigned from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which rescinded its award to African-American activist Angela Davis, allegedly due in part to complaints from Jewish leaders.
The resignations follow controversy over the museum and educational center’s decision last week to withdraw the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from Davis. She was intended to receive the award next month in a ceremony that has since been canceled. Davis, a leading civil rights activist, is an outspoken advocate of the movement to boycott Israel. She also was a far-left leader in activist movements of the 1960s and ’70s.
The board members who resigned Wednesday were its chairman, Mike Oatridge; its first vice chair, Walter Body; and its secretary, Janice Kelsey.
Initially, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said in a statement that the decision to rescind the award, which was announced in September, came “after protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies.” Davis wrote in the pro-Palestinian publication Mondoweiss that she learned her “long-term support of justice for Palestine was at issue.”
Woodfin partially retracted that Sunday, Jan. 6 statement, issuing a new statement on Jan. 10 in which he said he did not intend to blame all local Jews for getting the award retracted, though he then reiterated that he still thought some Jews were to blame.
“Birmingham’s Jewish community is not monolithic in thought,” he said. “I consider myself an ally of Birmingham’s Jewish community… It was not my intent to suggest that the entire Jewish community was opposed to Dr. Angela Davis receiving the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award.
“With that said, members of the community, Jewish and otherwise, were indeed vocal in their opposition of Dr. Davis receiving the Shuttlesworth Award,” he said.
Who made it an issue is still not clear. None of the people who reportedly were involved in the decision agreed to a request from JTA for comment, including the Birmingham Jewish Federation’s CEO, Richard Friedman, and the civil rights institute’s president, Andrea Taylor.
JTA reached out to all 13 of the current and outgoing institute board members, but none would comment at length. Two of them, Thomas Wilder and Cameron Vowell, each briefly told JTA that Jews had been one of several constituencies that had reached out to the board about the award.
“There were people from the Jewish community who did weigh in,” Wilder told JTA. “There were people from the African-American community. There were people from several communities. … There were people from the Jewish community who were in favor of it, there were people from the Jewish community who opposed it.”
Vowell said of Jews who weighed in on the issue: “We were certainly contacted by some of them and they made us aware of some things we didn’t know.” She declined to comment further.
But there are hints that the local Jewish federation advocated for the award’s withdrawal. NPR quoted a deleted Facebook post by Friedman endorsing a statement by a retired local college president, Charles Krulak, who protested the award. Krulak had noted Davis’ associations with the Communist Party and her alleged role in the 1970 kidnapping and murder of a Superior Court judge. Davis was found not guilty on all counts. And on Sunday, the federation sent an email to its members thanking the museum for its decision, the Forwardreported.
Roy Johnson, a columnist for Al.com, wrote that “The loudest voices primarily – though not exclusively – came from the city’s Jewish leadership.” But Johnson also wrote that the decision did not come only at the behest of Jewish leaders. Body, the outgoing institute vice chair, told him the board “received questions from the African-American community, the Jewish community, and the white community. It was not just one community.”