Angela Davis, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Problem of Monetizing Our Past


Follow the money.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded its decision to honor activist Angela Davis with its highest award, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth Award, and canceled the annual gala at which she would have received it. This following complaints from high-rolling sponsors ($50,000) for the most esteemed spot and from Jewish community leaders because of Davis’ association with the BDS movement. BDS is the acronym for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Its mission is to “work to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

The cancellation of the award and gala raises fundamental problems with the monetization and commodification of Birminghan’s troubled past. Or of any area’s past.

Birmingham was once so heinous, so notorious it was dubbed “Bombingham.” Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s home in what came to be known as Dynamite Hill was one of those infamously bombed by foaming at the mouth segregationists. Shuttlesworth was a firebrand blue collar preacher, completely unlike Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He made the elites of the Civil Rights Movement nervous.

Dynamite Hill is the neighborhood in which Dr. Angela Davis grew up.

Then came the Children’s March, Sheriff Bull Connor, his police dogs, the fire department’s water hoses, the cameras, and the assassination of JFK. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Birmingham began to rebuild its image. The Civil Rights Movement was monetized. It became an attraction, a must-see for any visitor. The City built the BCRI, strategically situating it between the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the bombing where the Four Little Girls were killed, and Kelly Ingram Park, site of the Children’s March.

Birmingham became a required site to see on any and all “Civil Rights Tours” with the BCRI becoming its premier stop. For a mere $55, Red Clay Tours provides hotel pickup, the luxury of a small group experience, and air conditioned comfort.

It’s a good museum, especially for those who didn’t grow up in Birmingham or any part of the segregated South as I did.

The problems with these kinds of museums is that they stop the present. They suspend the past like a fly in amber. They are symbols of what once was, not signs pointing to the future.

Unless, of course, there is some intention at forward movement for which the BCRI has announced with clarity it has not with its recision of the award to and gala for Angela Davis.

Enter Israel, the BDS, and Palestine. The monetization and suspension in amber of the Civil Rights Movement meets the horrendous on-going slaughter of Palestinians, a human rights violation of unimaginable magnitude.

The inability of the BCRI to act as a sign vis-à-vis Israel, its lie of omission which at the moment it was crafted became an act of commission in genocide is precisely the same problem I observed at the National Holocaust Museum.

It is a problem fundamentally related to a problem with Bryan Stevenson’s National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, formally known as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I have not yet been to it but sooner or later I will. I expect it to be as moving and powerful as everyone says it is. But we have to acknowledge that lynching is, for the most part, part of our past.

In one of my earliest published pieces on immigration, I referred to the deaths of migrants in the southwest as “the new noose”, a phrase which was eliminated from the published article, whether by me or the editor I don’t recall.

Why not a museum to the ongoing, horrific problem of an official policy of the US government to push migrants to their deaths as part of its policy of “deterrence” of illegal immigration? Will there develop at the NLM a wing dedicated to that?

How do we memorialize the past without monetizing it, without suspending it in amber, and without it becoming complicit in future efforts to guarantee civil and human rights?

Is that even possible?

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