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.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is tomorrow. This is the first part of two pieces recapping some of the Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Era.
The history of the Jews in Alabama is one that is long, silent, and largely unrecognized. For one, the population of Jews has decreased by a large margin in the last three generations. Many left for Atlanta and Memphis, many stayed only as long as children weren’t in yeshivas (religious schools) before moving North, and many lost their Jewish identity for marriage, assimilation, the reasons go on and on. And while the journey of the Jews in the South is fascinating, I will be focusing only on the 1960s in Birmingham.