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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Angela Davis Rose Above Birmingham’s Racism And Cowardice

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on January 25, 2023

An Editorial Opinion

Angela Davis is a human rights activist and civil rights icon. She is also a Birmingham, Alabama native, a political activist, a philosopher, and an academician.

Ms. Davis is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of more than ten books on class gender, race, and the U.S. prison system.

I hold Angela Davis in high esteem.

Davis was Charged with a Crime She did not Commit.

On August 14, 1970, Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder in connection with the death of California state Judge Harold Haley, who was killed during a shootout at the Marin County Courthouse in California seven days earlier. There was evidence that Davis had purchased several of the firearms that were used in the shootout. She had also corresponded with one of the shooters.

Within hours after a California state judge issued an arrest warrant for Ms. Davis, law enforcement agencies began a massive manhunt to find and arrest her.

On August 15, 1970, a federal warrant was issued that charged Ms. Davis with unlawful interstate flight to avoid prosecution for murder and kidnapping.

On August 18, 1970, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover listed Angela Davis on the FBI's Most Wanted Fugitive List and personally signed the Most Wanted poster. Ms. Davis was the third woman and the 309th person to be so listed.

Ms. Davis fled California and went into hiding.

On October 13, 1970, FBI agents found Davis at a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City. President Richard M. Nixon praised the FBI on its "capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis."

Davis was Tried and Acquitted of All Criminal Charges

In 1972, after 16-month pre-trial detention, included a long period of solitary confinement, Ms. Davis was released on pretrial bond from county jail. A few month later, she stood trial in Santa Clara County.

On June 4, 1972, after only 13 hours of deliberations, an all-white jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty.” Angela Davis was, once again, a free woman.

After her acquittal, Ms. Davis went on to become an accomplished and celebrated activist for human and civil rights for oppressed peoples around the world and a prison reform advocate in the United States.

Under Pressure from Local Whites, Birmingham Officials Snubbed Angela Davis

In September 2018, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) announced that Angela Davis would receive its prestigious Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, an award that is named for the late minister who once prominently led civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham. The announcement prompted a strong white backlash in Birmingham against Mayor Randall Woodfin and BCRI.

On January 7, 2019, Woodfin and BCRI bowed to the white backlash and rescinded Ms. Davis' Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. BCRI justified its action in a new announcement that said Davis "does not meet all of the criteria.”

Parroting white criticism of Ms. Davis, Woodfin cited Ms. Davis' vocal support for Palestinian rights and the movement to boycott Israel as the reason for rescinding the award. This was a "bullshit" justification for his cowardice.

Ms. Davis said her loss of the award was "not primarily an attack against me but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice."

The rescission of Davis’ award sparked outrage within Birmingham’s black community. It stunned human rights activists throughout America and around the world.

On January 25, 2019, an embarrassed and humiliated Woodfin and BCRI reversed themselves again and issued a public apology to Ms. Davis. Unfortunately, their insincere actions and half-hearted apology were too little, too late. The damage had already been done.

Woodfin's and BCRI's mistreatment of Angela Davis revealed to the world their true weakness and cowardice as representatives of the black experience in America.


As I understand it, Woodfin and BCRI still viewed Angela Davis as the “terrorist” that Richard Nixon called her. We must remember that Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace after betraying his oath of office and committing a litany of federal criminal offenses in conjunction with his Attorney General, a secret group called the “White House Plumbers,” and his West Wing staff.

Woodfin and BCRI still embraced J. Edgar Hoover’s characterization of Angela Davis as a “dangerous”"Negro," even though she was cleared of all criminal charges against her.

After his death, it was revealed that Hoover ran the most racist law enforcement program in FBI history from 1956 to 1972. This notorious program was called COINTELPRO. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Angela Davis are three of COINTELPRO's most prominent black victims.

A classy Angela Davis refused to comment further on the indignity served up to her by Woodfin and BCRI. She never came back Birmingham to accept the award that had been denied to her by those who buckled under the pressure of a white backlash.



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