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If there were a pilgrimage essential to the American experience, Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Birmingham, Alabama would be it. Disney after a Superbowl is nice and all, and St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago sounds, well, however it is that sounds, but if we’re talking about places and events that define pride in place and heritage, that American optimism we all seek, if you’re looking for life in the places you only thought of as confined to history books and tearjerk-films, and if we’re going to be facing truths that are hard as the weathered faces looking out at the high school marching bands from the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church, you have to be in Birmingham.
It’s easy, perhaps, to get caught up in the images you saw in history class. If you stand in Kelly Ingram Park, you’re marching with the children in May of 1963. You are also standing in a gorgeous, harrowing monument. You are standing in an America that has come so far, you are standing in an America that is only halfway there. You are living and breathing with thousands of others who are also trying to take in the anxiety, the hope, the weight of human history in one corner of a small city in the South, all while trying to have a nice time with their friends and neighbors. There’s barbecue trucks and balloons, after all, and no one can be glum when there’s those things present.
Beyond that, though, there are parades. There are dancers and groups of high schoolers in clubs that, G-d willing, are going to change this city for the better. Most of the volunteers at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute today were local high schoolers, giving out their graduation dates and college plans to curious patrons with unbreakable joy. It was a great day to be in Birmingham, indeed.
I took my father, a child of the Civil Rights era to the BCRI for his first visit. He grew up in North Jersey in the middle of race riots. He was a little Jewish boy who loved Dr. King and Fred Shuttlesworth as much as he loved Batman. Watching his heroes on the screens of the BCRI did not turn him into a wide-eyed child, but a man changed by time and geography, experiencing history again in new shoes he bought and laced in Birmingham. It was a similar reaction on the faces of the over 50 crowd. And for the under 12s, the eyes went from wide to contemplative. A girl noticed in the purse of one of the little girls who died in the 16th Street bombing was a tissue. The girl pulled a tissue from her own purse, looked at her mother, and they moved on to the next room. When I say these things happen in real life, I wish I wasn’t talking about everything.
The Civil Rights Institute is one Birmingham’s most important, most beautiful, and most haunting stops. It does what it does well. It does it succinctly. It does it powerfully. It would be a disgrace to discuss this time of year without begging people to take the time to go and experience it. This I will continue to do. But I also set out to write this post about the Jewish experience of the 1960’s.
Writing this in the wake of last week’s nation-wide JCC bomb threats is just more evidence that the storms haven’t passed. Every week, I teach in the basement of Temple Beth El. My classroom has a small window that looks up into the parking lot. In April of 1958, 54 sticks of dynamite were planted under the Birmingham synagogue. It rained. The dynamite failed to go off. The suspect was Bobby Frank Cherry, the man who planted the bombs under 16th Street Baptist. 1958 was the year of 8 other bombings and bomb attempts to synagogues in the South, one in Illinois. Many of the white activists of the era were Jews. The strong magnetism to justice, whether it be social, political, or spiritual, led many Jewish communities to become involved in the fight for voting rights. Jews were common Klan targets. Jews were greedy, communists, out to destroy state’s rights, out to destroy the white race, out to destroy the Christian way of life, and all of these were just things I learned from pamphlets handed out during the late 50’s in Alabama.
Alabama’s Jews existed in the bizarre social limbo that Jews have found themselves in for centuries. Not insiders, not outsiders, but a group of people carrying on the only way we know how, hoping to make the world around us a better place, never ignoring the suffering, never ignoring the impact human error has while singing and dancing, putting hospitality to practice, and always looking back to see if any questions needed to be asked. Can we ask them now? Is everyone okay? What needs to be done to get us there?
And now, the population of Alabama’s Jews is tiny. There are apartment buildings in Brooklyn with more Jews than there are in the city of Birmingham. But I teach the next generation of Jews and I know that on Friday nights, when their parents bless them, may you be like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, that they mean it and that there is a spring of hope in this city.
I don’t know what you did on your MLK Day. It isn’t over yet. I don’t know what you’re going to do with the rest of it. Yesterday, I recommended some documentaries and places to donate. Today, think of one line from Dr. King’s most famous speech. You probably had to memorize some of it at some point in your school career. Take one line and think of a way to make it a reality. Dr. King built the Birmingham we know today. We are a city at the brink of a rebirth. Don’t let his words get buried beneath these streets; let them rise up and take their rightful place in the heads of the people walking on them everyday.