Civil Rights Institute Apologizes as Questions Remain

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This plaque rests at the feet of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's statue in front of the  Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
This plaque rests at the feet of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's statue in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM 90.3 FM

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute apologized Monday for the way it handled the decision around issuing the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. Officials canceled the award presentation to human rights activist Angela Davis after it had initially decided to give it to her.

“We acknowledge that the culmination of our decisions and actions has caused division in the community and compromised the good name of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on the world stage,” the board said in a prepared statement. “Regardless of the outcome of our vote, many have rightfully questioned our selection process, which we vow to improve.”

Last week Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said BCRI should apologize. He also requested the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute meeting minutes in an effort to understand the board’s selection process for the Shutttlesworth Award. But the minutes, now posted on the city’s transparency portal, don’t show much about the selection of Angela Davis as the award recipient.

Last week, three officers on the board resigned following the backlash from a decision to cancel presentation of the Fred  Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award to Davis, a Birmingham native and human rights activist.

The minutes show that the board wants to add new members to increase the total to 21. Four people have been selected and must be approved by the Birmingham City Council through its Parks and Recreation Committee.

Councilman William Parker heads that committee. He says the nominations have been received, but are still “in committee.” In other words, there has not been a vote on the nominations

The only mention of the award presentation was in the September minutes that show:

BCRI President Andrea Taylor announced Davis as the award recipient at the Sept. 18 meeting.  Usually, the award is presented at a November gala, but it was moved to February to accommodate Davis’ schedule, Taylor said.

No one objected at the time of Taylor’s announcement. Vice Chairman Walter Body led that meeting.  Board members Jeffrey Bayer, Bing Edwards, John Oros, and Cameron Vowell attended in person. Rosilyn Houston and Rev. Thomas Wilder Jr. participated by phone. Staff members Carol Wells, Charles Woods, and Taylor also attended. The City of Birmingham was represented by Denise Gilmore, director of cultural preservation.

The group approved two  new  members — Robert E. Palazzo,  dean of the  College of Arts & Sciences; and Jared Weinstein a partner with Thrive Capital and a board member with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.

The December  minutes show that Jason Eppenger of Citizens Federal  Bank and Traci Morant of Resant Bank were nominated for the board.

Board membership has been an issue since the controversial decision to cancel the award for Davis.

“The crisis of leadership at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute represents a clash of values, wherein the institution responsible for stewarding powerful, poignant and respectful dialogue, has demonstrated that they do not value dialogue with residents of Birmingham and the public at large,” Woodfin said in a statement.

The city provides $1 million each year to the institute. It also contributes to the upkeep of the facility that opened in 1992.

Woodfin says the resignation of some board members is a good first step, but there are still unanswered questions.

“We know very little about what transpired on that board that has brought us to this point,” Woodfin says.