The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Angela Davis is beloved, detested, misunderstood. What can a lifelong radical teach the resistance generation?

Angela Davis speaking at the Boutwell Auditorium on Feb. 16 in Birmingham, Ala. (Andi Rice/for The Washington Post)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It began with an honor, and then came the insult.

A prominent civil rights institution decided to honor Angela Davis, and Birmingham’s well-heeled prepared to celebrate in the town where the seeds of her legendary activism were first sown.

But as with most things involving Angela Davis, it would not be so uncomplicated.

Last month, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute unceremoniously yanked the award — only to re-offer it 10 days later. But by then, Davis wasn’t quite as keen to accept. The debacle drew national headlines and prompted supporters and old friends to rally an alternate event.

That return volley, a talk in mid-February before thousands in a historic downtown auditorium, was less glittering, less exclusive, distinctly more Angela. A thick line wrapped the block, filled with as many wickedly spiky Louboutins as Angela-inspired natural hairstyles.

Even Davis, whose iconic cloudlike ’do has silvered and deflated a bit since People magazine dubbed her the “sweetheart of the far left” in the ’80s, but who still has a stylishly bohemian way about her, seemed surprised at how the affair unfolded.

Davis believes her award was rescinded because of her public support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which targets Israeli companies (SodaStream, for example) to force action on Palestinian rights.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute doesn’t debate this, but it voiced other reservations: Davis, a longtime radical, didn’t disavow violence. And where did she fit into Birmingham’s civil rights story, exactly?

Davis was in her 20s when, in 1969, California Gov. Ronald Reagan ordered her ouster from a plum University of California at Los Angeles teaching job because of her affiliation with the Communist Party, turning her into a counterculture cause celebre. A year later, after a courtroom melee left a judge and four others dead and the guns traced back to Davis, she landed on the FBI’s most-wanted list, went underground, then was captured in a Howard Johnson, of all places. It was high drama, and the charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy sparked an international outcry to “Free Angela.” (Spoiler alert: They did.)

“I don’t know why I end up in the middle of these situations,” she joked jovially with the rapt Birmingham audience this month. “At age 75, here I am again.”

Here is the center of a yet another maelstrom, this one with resonance far beyond Angela Davis.

The tale is a parable for the resistance generation as it broaches subjects such as socialism, Palestinian rights, male privilege, prisons, systemic racism — issues that were once the crux of the radical Angela Agenda but are now liberal talking points. It reveals a crucial question about how we respond to activists: When should we push back — and when should we wait and see where they lead us?

To be an activist, or, more specifically, to be Davis, is to be a polarizing figure, misunderstood and detested and beloved all at once. Even in her own hometown.

“She’s someone who, from a very young age, has provoked enormous controversy over whether her ideas were good or bad,” says Jane Kamensky, director of Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. “She cast herself as a revolutionary. And we have liked our civil rights activists firmly in the reform tradition, and we have liked our revolutionaries male.”

But Davis’s significance, says Kamensky, “seems to me beyond question.”

The library acquired Davis’s papers and effects last year and plans to exhibit many of the items this fall. She’s on the walls of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture. Julie Dash, director of the iconic film “Daughters of the Dust,” is working on a Davis biopic. A designer even created a jacket she dubbed “the Angela,” and naturally, someone thought to put it on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Ocasio-Cortez is just one of the new wave of Trump-era public figures who have adopted not only Davis’s willingness to promote extreme ideas but also her self-assured delivery. And now, they’re experiencing similar pitfalls.

Women’s March’s co-chair Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian American activist who cheered Davis from the audience in Birmingham, has been called an anti-Semite for her support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, or BDS, and for the march’s associations with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill was fired for comments at the United Nations in which he called out “a narrow politics of respectability that shames Palestinians for resisting, for refusing to do nothing in the face of state violence and ethnic cleansing.”

More recently, new congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), both Muslims, have found themselves under fire for supporting BDS tactics.

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A movement launched a decade ago among Palestinans, BDS attempts to reframe the discussion around Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as one of apartheid rather than merely one of land or nationality.

Even as Davis walked onto her Birmingham stage to a standing ovation, Omar was batting off a call for her resignation from none other than President Trump. She had posted a retweet with the phrase, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” and then, when asked who “is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel,” she tweeted, “AIPAC!”

Many decried the tweets as anti-Semitic for their implication that money was behind U.S. support for Israel, evoking old stereotypes about Jewish people. Omar apologized for her statements.

In an interview with a few journalists before her event, Davis said she was pleased that the whole award debacle had led to a “conversation on internationalism.”

As for Omar, “I think there are those who completely misread her comment and turned it into a comment that could possibly have some anti-Semitic implications,” said Davis, who recently posed for a campaign holding a sign reading, “I Stand With Ilhan.” “The reason that happened is because we haven’t had any conversation about the meaning of anti-Semitism!”

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Tallie Ben Daniel of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports boycott and divestment efforts, has defended Omar, as well as Davis. Davis has “had such an in­cred­ible life advocating for civil rights and human rights more broadly,” she said, “so to see her be called to account felt terrible, and irrational, and especially that it was around her advocacy for Palestinian rights.”

It's been more than 60 years since Davis lived where 11th Court hit Center Street, which was the line of demarcation for the whites and blacks of segregated Birmingham. While Davis's old school in the neighborhood has been dramatically renovated, the houses in the hills encircling it remain disconcertingly ramshackle.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously sat in a cell in the Birmingham City Jail and, in the margins of a newspaper, penned an impassioned open letter to the city’s white clergymen — to the world, really — that still serves as a manifesto on race relations. But he had been an outsider; the black community’s main spokesman was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, for whom the civil rights institute named its award. Shuttlesworth led black Birmingham through the days when it was widely known as “Bombingham,” when the explosions aimed at terrifying African Americans sometimes detonated in his own home and then, one morning in 1963, rang inside his church, 16th Street Baptist, killing four girls and changing everything.

Segregated Birmingham was both a boon to Davis and stifling, politicizing her even as it sucked the oxygen from her ambitions. She left after winning admission to a high school in New York, and after college at Brandeis University, she went abroad to study for years.

She returned different from Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders she had known in her youth. She ran with Black Panthers and Marxists, and she called for revolution. Though she was not at the Marin County courthouse the day of the shooting that transformed her life, and though she maintained her innocence, she was imprisoned for more than a year before her acquittal. Afterward, she advocated not for the reform of prisons but for their demise.

With her striking beauty and outspokenness, she captivated a world trying to make sense of the counterculture.

“She inspired a lot of black intellectuals, in addition to being a person about whose fate we were concerned in how the criminal justice system was treating her,” says Henry Louis Gates, director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. He recalled that Davis, who studied philosophy, was the reason he enrolled in a philosophy course and that he had once had hung a “Free Angela” poster on his wall.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a museum that sits across the street from 16th Street Baptist. In 2002, Shuttlesworth became the first recipient of his eponymous award, which has gone to the likes of actor Danny Glover, D.C. House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and political adviser Vernon Jordan.

Davis might have been its most polarizing recipient.

“People had associated her with — and I’m not saying she did it — some anti-Semitic comments,” the Rev. Thomas L. Wilder Jr., the interim chair of the institute, told The Washington Post.

Among the groups to protest was the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, which sent a letter calling Davis’s support for BDS “very troubling as it targets the Jewish people exclusively.” (The center did not respond to requests for an interview.)

“How can a nation-state present itself as not subject to criticism?” Davis asked her audience in Birmingham. “It’s wrong. Outright wrong. It is as important to be critical of Israel as it is to be critical of the United States.”

But Davis has also cautioned others against attributing the feelings of a few to many. “It gave the impression that somehow the city’s Jewish community was opposed to my receiving the prize, which wasn’t true at all,” she said, emphasizing her years of work with Jewish people in various movements.

But there were others, Wilder said, who argued that when she was in Birmingham, “she was not necessarily closely associated with the movement” for civil rights, and still others who suggested that Davis’s career and messaging had not necessarily been in the same spirit of nonviolence that Shuttlesworth extolled.

But Wilder, who was among those to vote to yank the honor and cancel the fundraising gala planned around Davis, expressed remorse.

“We were trying to keep our one major fundraising event from becoming an object of protest and something that would not be successful,” he added. In retrospect, “when we took that decision out of the closet and put it into a larger landscape, it really looked bad.”

“It was embarrassing. For Birmingham and for the Civil Rights Institute that has a remarkable history,” said Katie Davis, 35, who was in the audience at Davis’s talk. “It’s not representative of Birmingham and not even representative of the Jewish community in Birmingham.”

With a laugh, Gates says he understands why Davis would hesitate to claim the now-radioactive award, but he doesn’t worry for her legacy.

“One of the things we cannot allow for,” says Gates, “is censorship. She’s free to have her opinions, and other people are free to debate them. If those principles are violated, the principles of free discourse are violated. Then, I think, we should all be upset.”

But, he added, “the thing about Angela, I think she enjoys debate. She’s a philosopher, for God’s sake.”