On Friday, January 4, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute revoked its invitation to honor city native Angela Y. Davis at a February gala event where she was to receive the institute’s Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. Many individuals inside and outside the city objected to giving Davis this award due to her record as a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), brief association with the Black Panther Party, and ongoing association with Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement.
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, an ordained Baptist minister, founded the Alabama Christian Movement in 1956 after the state outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Later that year Shuttlesworth and his family were unhurt after the Ku Klux Klan detonated 15 sticks of dynamite under his house. He later fostered demonstrations in 1963 that led to desegregation of public facilities and hiring of blacks by downtown employers.
Throughout those turbulent years, Shuttlesworth and the NAACP renounced relationships with the CPUSA, and for good reason: the party targeted Alabama’s so-called Black Belt (language that CPUSA used) along with the mine and steel workers in Birmingham. Angela Davis, who was born in Birmingham in 1944, joined the CPUSA in the early 1960s and twice ran for vice president on the party’s ticket. She retained her CPUSA affiliation until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Examining the Davis record, during her freshman year at Brandeis University she joined the Che-Lumumba Club, a group sponsored by the CPUSA and named for Argentine Communist Ernesto Che Guevara and Congolese Communist Patrice Lumumba. (One of the leading Kremlin-run universities in the USSR was Patrice Lumumba University, which became a leading training ground for Middle East jihadists.) After earning a master’s degree in African-American Studies from the University of California, San Diego in 1968, Davis enrolled at East Berlin’s Humboldt University to earn a doctorate the following year. After the University of California, Los Angeles immediately hired her the California Board of Regents under Gov. Ronald Reagan just as immediately fired her. She was reinstated after the American Association of University Professors threatened UCLA with the blacklist.
In August 1972, Davis began her international support for human rights with a visit to Castro’s Cuba, a country she visited earlier as part of an American anti-Vietnam war delegation. A month later, it was off to East Germany, where Communist leader Walter Ulbricht conveyed upon Davis the Star of People’s Friendship Award along with an honorary doctorate from Leipzig University. In October, she was in the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Central Committee to receive an honorary degree from Moscow State University. Seven years later, in 1979, Davis was back in the USSR to receive the Lenin Peace Prize. In her acceptance address, Davis praised, “The glorious Lenin and the great October Revolution.”
How can 20 million Gulag dead jibe with any human rights award?
Defenders of presenting Davis with the Shuttlesworth Award point to her extensive scholarly and academic achievements. These include a professorship in ethnic studies at San Francisco State and as professor of human consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also received a visiting professorship at Rutgers, UC Santa Barbara, and Syracuse University. In 2014, Davis was back at UCLA as a Regents Lecturer. Her scholarly writings are largely ideological polemics on feminism, revolution, and prison reform. Her academic accomplishments speak eloquently to the decline of American higher education.
What about Davis as social activist? In August 1970, she became the third woman ever named to the FBI’s 10 most wanted list when she provided guns used to abduct Judge Harold Haley, a prosecutor, and three female jurors from a Marin County, California courthouse. During the escape attempt, Judge Haley and three of the criminals involved were killed in a shootout. Davis was arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder. A jury’s not guilty verdict was based their contention that her ownership of the weapons involved did not imply criminal conspiracy.
Now that Davis is a mid-septuagenarian, some say her missteps are “ancient history.” Not so. In May 2017, sponsored by George Washington University Students for Justice in Palestine, Davis condemned Israel for its “ethnic cleansing strategies.” At GWU, Davis attempted to connect Black Lives Matter to her campaign for prison reform by stating: “If we call the U.S. a prison nation … Palestine under Israeli occupation is the world’s largest open-air prison.”
Charitably, one might assume that the attention and accolades conveyed on Angela Davis by American academic institutions and narrowly averted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute issue from ignorance of her record caused by decades during which the study of history has devolved into fables conceived in self-serving multicultural and diversity polemics. To be ignorant of the past is to defile the present and destroy the future.