Angela Davis and our shared legacy fighting antisemitism and racism
Progressive Jewish and Black communities have always supported each other; taking away Angela Davis’ award ignores our history at our peril
By Jay Saper
A week after the killings in Pittsburgh and Louisville, Angela Davis declared: “Antisemitism and racism are historically linked. Calling up one unleashes the other.” Speaking at New York University, Davis pointed out that while black churches were burned and bombed when she was a child, Jewish synagogues were facing a similar fate.
My Aunt Jeri’s synagogue in Jackson, Mississippi, was one of them. In 1961, her rabbi, Perry Nussbaum, started visiting the Freedom Riders who had been hauled off to jail. Each week, he drove 130 miles to bring soap, cigarettes, and letters to the activists. He provided a vital link of communication between them and their families. Behind bars, Nussbaum conducted the first integrated service in the state of Mississippi. For these efforts, white supremacists bombed his synagogue and his home.
It is a betrayal of the legacy of black and Jewish solidarity that Davis so passionately upholds that some members of the Jewish community in Birmingham pressured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute into rescinding the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award previously offered to Angela Davis.
I first heard Davis speak in 2011 at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Atlanta upon her return from the Indigenous and Women of Color feminists delegation to Palestine. Davis reminded us that we cannot be progressive on every issue except Palestine, but instead must connect all of our struggles. Refusing to indulge in antisemitism, she was principled in her critiques, clearly differentiating between Israeli governmental policies and the Jewish people. Afterwards, Davis told me she first learned about the injustices faced by Palestinians from her fellow Jewish classmates while she was a student at Brandeis.
A few years later, I began teaching at the high school Davis had graduated from, where I discovered a long and overlapping history between Davis and Jewish communities active for racial justice that extends far beyond the lessons she learned at Brandeis.
Davis, who turns 75 later this month, grew up in Birmingham under Jim Crow segregation. When she was a young child, her family moved into an all-white Birmingham neighborhood. Police Chief Bull Connor encouraged white supremacists to unleash violent backlash. Before long, the neighborhood became known as Dynamite Hill.
Davis’s mother, Sallye, was active in building a Black Freedom Movement, and worked to free the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping two white women by an all-white jury. While many white people gathered around to cheer on the lynch mob, those few who didn’t were Jews. The lead defense attorney for the Scottsboro Boys was Samuel Liebowitz. Despising the pronounced display of black and Jewish solidarity, prosecutor Wade Wright asked the jury, “whether justice in this case is going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.”
This was neither the first, nor the last, time that white supremacists would make known their distaste for Jews and blacks working together. Seven years prior to the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, white terrorists set Davis’s own church on fire after it hosted an interracial group of blacks and Jews.
The integrated New York City high school Davis left Birmingham to attend has long served as a hotbed for radical Jews. Davis’s classmate and friend Kathy Boudin would go on to join the Weather Underground after the FBI assassinated leaders of the Black Panther Party. Boudin’s father was a prominent social movement lawyer who represented Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Julian Bond.
Another of Davis’s classmates was Michael Asch. His father founded Folkways Records, which put out music from Elizabeth Cotten, poetry by Langston Hughes, an autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois, and interviews with Huey Newton and Angela Davis from behind the walls of prison.
During high school, Davis joined a youth activist group and demonstrated against nuclear weapons and picketed Woolworths in solidarity with sit-ins across the South. It was within this organization that Davis met Bettina Aptheker, a family friend of W.E.B. DuBois and who would later become one of the closest members of Davis’s defense team during her sensational trial.
After attending a distinctly Jewish high school, Davis enrolled at Brandeis University. She heard James Baldwin and Malcolm X speak on campus. The professor Davis credits as having the deepest impact on her life was the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany.
Davis’s unwavering commitment to a free Palestine is directly informed by a bold Jewish tradition of working for justice, and it is particularly reprehensible that some members of the Birmingham Jewish community worked to keep her from receiving the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award.
As Jews, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain by honoring the courageous life Davis has chosen to lead. Now is precisely the moment to reinvigorate our commitment to connecting our struggles, instead of tearing them apart. To betray Davis is to betray the best of who we have been and the best of who we might become. We do so at our own peril.
The Jewish community rarely speaks in a unified voice. In addition to writing letters to the families of Freedom Riders after visiting them in jail, Rabbi Nussbaum also reached out to rabbis across the state of Mississippi, asking them to support the civil rights activists. All but two rebuked him. It is up to us to choose which of these legacies we want be a part of.
The Jewish community has no greater ally in the struggle to end antisemitism than Angela Davis. She has shown up for us again and again. Now we must show up for her.
Jay Saper is an educator and organizer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.