'Resistance Can Be Fun’: Angela Davis Speaks in Alabama After Award Snub
“I have never loved Birmingham as much as I love Birmingham tonight,” Dr. Angela Davis said to a crowd at Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham.
Davis was greeted with a standing ovation, fists raised, as she took the stage to address the generations of activists that came together to make sure she was in Birmingham on Feb.16.
“It is really a joy to be here this evening,” Davis said. “It almost feels as if we are marking a new beginning.”
Davis was originally invited by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to accept its annual Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights award. But six weeks ago, the BCRI rescinded the award due to Davis’ long-term support of Palestine. Activists held demonstrations in the city, including a demonstration in Kelly Ingram Park, directly across from the Civil Rights Institute and three BCRI officers resigned. The Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation stepped in and created their own event for Davis on Feb. 16.
Davis said the misstep is an opportunity for a teaching moment, which shouldn’t overshadow the legacy of the BCRI. Davis also noted the legacy Palestinians who stood in solidarity with African Americans as they fought for racial equality.
Dr. Angela Davis, activist, academic and poet was born in Birmingham in 1944. She is known for her life of activism, especially during the Civil Rights movement, and her involvement in the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party USA.
Davis spoke tonight with Dr. Imani Perry, also from Birmingham and now professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, at a public event put on by a grassroots organization, Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Boutwell auditorium, a longtime city institution, has hosted a number of historic events and notable figures, some marked by racial conflict. In 1925, the Ku Klux Klan sponsored a minstrel show to raise money for Birmingham City Schools. In 1938, the auditorium was the site of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, featuring speakers Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Davis said she was first turned onto activism as a child in Birmingham. “The thing about growing up in Birmingham, is that we learned to resist,” said Davis.
She grew up on the divide between the black and white sides of the city. “We used to dare each other to run across the street and run up on their porch and ring their doorbell, knowing good and well what we were doing was illegal. And it was fun!” said Davis, smiling as she addressed the audience. “One thing I learned about growing up in Birmingham… resistance could be fun!”
Davis also discussed prison reform and the need for the abolition of the U.S. prison system. “Racism is embedded in the very apparatus of policing,” Davis said. “We have to think about something very different and also the abolition of policing as we know it.” She pointed to Ferguson, Missouri for changing the way the world sees black activism.
Davis studied French and philosophy at Brandeis University and earned a masters degree from the University of California San Diego.
Davis said her love of philosophy and critical theory was inspired by the way her mother talked to her and her siblings about segregation in her community. “When I was younger, I would ask my mother ‘why can’t we go into the amusement park. Or, why can’t we go to the big library?’" Davis said.
The activist and academic says her mother was always honest with her about the harsh realities of segregation. But her mother also taught her that segregation didn’t have to be permanent.
"She’d tell me ‘this is the way things are now, but this is not the way it always has to be.' I learned from my mother to live in the existing world and at the same time inhabiting an imaginary world. How can I imagine a Birmingham of the future?”
Now, as a legacy civil rights revolutionary and feminist, Davis says she’s in constant dialogue with the next generation of activists.
“Change has always come from the younger generations. It’s very bizarre that as we get older, we forget that,” said Davis as the audience erupted into applause. “We forget what it’s like to be young. Sometimes we have to challenge our elders.”
Davis ended with a call to accept younger activists, to stand with all people who experience oppression and to be patient in knowing acts of resistance may not be sustain change immediately.
“We have a relationship to our history that is modeled after the capitalist market, and we don’t necessarily recognize that the work we do today, while we may not see immediate consequences tomorrow or even next year or even 10 years from now," Davis said." But maybe down the line 20 years, 50 years, or 100 years from now, the work we do makes a difference.”