Dear Mayor Randall Woodfin, Members of the BCRI Board and Council Members of the City of Birmingham,
We write to you today as the Executive Committee of the National Council of the American Studies Association. The ASA is the oldest and largest scholarly organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of U.S. cultures and histories. We send you this letter, protesting the actions taken against one of our long-standing members, Professor Angela Y. Davis, and decrying the measures enacted in opposition to the legacy of the great Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and that of the civil rights movement.
In a 1962 sermon, Shuttlesworth said this about the state of race relations in your city and state: “Alabama and Birmingham have become drunk off the wine of the Southern Way of life, and have become mad with power. Not willing to sober themselves with the vitality of Twentieth Century Light, they persist in 1860 standards.” Just days ago, commenting on the BCRI board’s decision, Mayor Woodfin might as well have been channeling Shuttlesworth when he said, “I am dismayed because this controversy is playing out in a way that harks backward, rather than forward… [It] portrays us as the Birmingham we have always been, rather than the one we want to be.” As students, teachers and scholars of this history, we say to you that we are greatly concerned about your city as a past, present, and future beacon of freedom struggles.
It appears that Professor Davis’s award was cancelled because of her scholarship and activism on behalf of the Palestinian people. It is important to note that her work in this regard is absolutely consistent with the aims and ideals of the Civil Rights Movement. Consider, for instance, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Trumpet of Conscience” lectures given in November and December of 1967. In those lectures he voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War and its disastrous effects on the Vietnamese people and America’s youth. Because of his stance, black and white leaders condemned him, and he was subsequently branded as “anti-American.” Explaining how his opposition to the war arose from his civil rights work, he said, “Since the Spring of 1967, when I first made public my opposition to my government’s policy, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my decision. ‘Why you?’ they have said. ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ And when I hear such questions, I have been greatly saddened, for they mean that the inquirers have never really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, that question suggests that they do not know the world in which they live.” Professor Davis’s work on behalf of Palestinian rights flows from this movement that saw civil rights and peace as inseparable.
Our world desperately needs the combined wisdom of the civil rights and peace movements because it is one in which nation-states throughout the globe routinely heap violence upon everyday people. King bore witness to that in his opposition to the Vietnam War, and Davis has challenged us throughout her career to speak out against that violence no matter its country of origin. Indeed, the lesson of the civil rights movement and the other freedom struggles is that we have an obligation to critique and protest violence in all of its quarters.
We are, therefore, appalled that the history of the civil rights movement would be used to muzzle protests against inequality. Birmingham’s Dr. Horace Huntley made the historical and ethical stakes of the BCRI incident clear when he said, “Such an action is less indicative of what the Board knows about Angela Davis and more instructive of what the Board fails to understand about Rev. Shuttlesworth.” Huntley’s remarks illustrate that even the dead are not safe when political and economic elites resolve to use histories of freedom for their own self-serving ends. We, therefore, call on the BCRI board to reverse its decision and present Prof. Davis with the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award.
Out of the deepest reverence for this history of freedom, another lesson emerges: The historical record is often more instructive than its official superintendents. Refusing to see communities and struggles as separate from one another, Dr. King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963. In it, he said, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In a similar spirit, Davis says in her 2016 book Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, “The question is how to create windows and doors for people who believe in justice to enter and join the Palestine solidarity movement.” A city that sees its struggles and histories of freedom in relation to other movements and communities, this is the Birmingham that we need.
President: Roderick A. Ferguson, University of Illinois, Chicago
President Elect: Scott Kurashige, University of Washington, Bothell
Past President: Kandice Chuh, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
Executive Director: John F. Stephens
Councilor: Soyica Diggs Colbert, Georgetown University
Councilor: Eng-Beng Lim, Dartmouth College
Councilor: Deborah Vargas, Rutgers University