By Harriet P. Gross
I was immediately comfortable with the look and feel of Birmingham, Ala. Like my home city, Pittsburgh, it’s seen the iron and steel industries vanish, to be replaced by burgeoning medical facilities and innovations that create a new, solvent center for care and cure.
I was less comfortable with Birmingham’s old history. Growing up in the North, I accepted (who knew any better, then?) quotas for Jews and blacks, and neighborhoods that were segregated (both voluntarily and involuntarily), as a matter of course. But I did not grow up with water fountains and restrooms and doorways and bus seating labeled by race. And I never saw that “strange fruit” of the South: a newly lynched African-American, hanging from a tree for approving white crowds to view and cheer.
But I saw all these things — in a retrospective sense — while spending a recent weekend in Birmingham for the Southern Jewish Historical Society’s annual conference.
This year, the conference centered on local events of 1963, which the host city now proudly proclaims as “the year that changed America.” It was in Birmingham that, before the Kennedy assassination, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor ordered dogs and fire hoses to quell protests, and a bomb killed four little girls who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: their own church.
In the course of the weekend, we visited that 16th Street Baptist Church, now a shrine of sorts, and the Civil Rights Institute directly across the street — a museum that walks its visitors through Southern black history, from the arrival of slave ships and the public auctions of their “cargo” in port cities to the efforts for full racial equality that continue to this day.
Conference sessions focused on the involvement of Jews in a number of cities during the civil rights movement. Rosalind Benjet and I were presenters for the Dallas segment, pointing out both the moral idealism of Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Levi Olin, who marched proudly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the commercial realism of Stanley Marcus, who integrated Neiman’s based on his doctrine of “economic determinism.” (What we brought to the conference is now available to you at the Dallas Jewish Historical Society.)
Judaism was as much a part of our weekend as civil rights history. A bus tour took us to a commercial street still called “The Avenue of the Jews” — years after all of its Jewish merchants have departed for other venues — and to the vintage cemetery where Birmingham’s most prominent Jews have long been buried. Among them: Cynthia Ann Culpeper, a Jew-by-choice who became Alabama’s first female rabbi, serving a Conservative pulpit in Montgomery. Nursing was her previous career; when she learned she had AIDS — contracted while caring for patients — she came to Birmingham for treatment and, for the 10 years remaining before her death in 2005, taught in its Jewish day school and wrote extensively on both Jewish and AIDS-related topics. In a lighter vein, we also had a drive-by look at Momma Goldberg’s Deli!
Shabbat services at Birmingham’s venerable Temple Emanu-El, founded in the 1880s, provided the weekend’s high point for many of us. That was followed by a dinner with featured speaker Julian Bond, now 73, founder of the civil rights movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I asked him about current youth culture, and his answer, paraphrased in part below, is his challenge for today:
Every generation of young people upsets its elders in their language and dress: Recall the “flappers” of the ‘20s, the long-haired, braless “hippies” of the ‘60s, today’s heavily black-eyelinered “goths.” Remember “23 skidoo” and “Make love, not war.” All these behaviors were condemned by adults of their times as signs of young people’s degradation. Similar upsetting behaviors of today are not particular to young people of color; they are really about class. To see these behaviors changed, I believe one task to face would be elevating the economic conditions of those classes.