Creator T.Okay. Thorne tells Story of Birmingham’s Unsung Civil Rights Allies

By Javacia Harris Bowser
For the Birmingham Times

When you think of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, certain names spring to mind: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to name a few. But there are others you might want to learn about from award-winning author TK Thorne.

In her new book, Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days, New South Books, 29 helped Birmingham’s black community fight for equality and justice.

Many of the stories highlighted in the book are about members of the Birmingham Jewish community, such as attorney Abe Berkowitz, an outspoken civil rights advocate who did not hesitate to confront Public Security Discretionary Officer Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor and Betty Loeb. who led the local branch of the National Council of Jewish Women in their efforts to improve law, suffrage, and welfare – which included providing books, supplies, and free eye exams to children regardless of race.

When Black Birmingham attorney J. Mason Davis was unable to have lunch in a certain place where other downtown attorneys could because it served “only whites,” Jewish attorneys Karl Friedman and Jack E. Held ate had lunch with Davis at the vending machine in the courthouse basement to build a friendship that lasted over the years. They later became partners in the Sirote and Permutt law firm in Birmingham.

When Thorne was approached by a group of local lawyers and executives in 2013 to write “Behind the Magic Curtain,” the author was intimidated by the suggestion.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “The scope of what they asked seemed huge.”

Even so, the group thought Thorne would be the perfect writer for the project. She thought she had been tapped for that company because of her book, Last Chance for Justice, which accompanies the investigation into the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

“I thought, ‘These guys think I’m a civil rights expert,’ which I wasn’t,” said Thorne, who learned that she was won over by her historical novel, “Noah’s Wife”.

“One of the gentlemen said, ‘Anyone who can write a book about Noah’s wife thousands of years ago and can make me believe that this really happened can write this book,'” Thorne said with a laugh.

“True calling”

Thorne was born Teresa Katz and grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. The oldest of three (her sister is a graphic artist and glass designer who lives in Alabama, and her brother works for a Johns Hopkins physics lab in Maryland), Thorne never wanted to be a writer or a cop when she was young. She dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

“What I really wanted was to meet aliens,” she said. “I thought that was the coolest thing.”

Her father told her that her eyesight was not sharp enough for the job.

“He didn’t mention that only US Air Force male fighter pilots were astronauts at the time,” she said. “I was pretty down and had no idea what to do from there.”

Eventually Thorne discovered his love for writing. “I’ve loved storytelling since I was three or four years old, and I’ve always been the boy on the block directing the plays,” she said. “When I was 15, I knew writing was my real calling, but I also realized that it wouldn’t be my way of making a living, so I had to do that while I was doing something else . “

And Thorne wanted “something else” to be about helping others.

“My mother was very involved in making the world a better place,” Thorne said of her mother, who was a lobbyist for the Alabama League of Women Voters and an environmental advocate who also advocated education, constitutional and judicial reform in addition to fighting against the election taxes. “That was my example in life.”

Thorne, a retired captain of the Birmingham Police Department (BPD) and former director of the City Action Partnership (CAP), has authored four books. Her award-winning historical novels “Noah’s Wife” and “Engel am Tor” invent classic Bible stories from the perspective of nameless, briefly mentioned women in the book of Genesis – the wives of Noah and Lot. With “Last Chance for Justice” Thorne dived into non-fiction books. She also tried to write a story about murder, mystery and magic with her book House of Rose.

Thorne earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Alabama. After her marriage, she moved to Birmingham with her husband in 1976, her studies took her to the BPD to research the troop’s social work program and later to work as an intern.

After graduating from college, Thorne was hired as a fellow for the department. To understand better what the officers needed, she had to go with them – and she fell in love: “I think what attracted me to it was that you never knew what would happen next.”

She enrolled in the police academy and was to serve with the BPD for more than two decades before retiring as district captain.

Thorne, 67, believes her police background helped her write and research Behind the Magic Curtain.

“Part of the research for this book [involved] As a detective, I followed things from this perspective, ”she said. “I want to know what the facts are, I want to know the truth, so that mindset has helped.”

She worked on the book for nearly eight years, interviewing 50 people, reading several books by people involved in the movement, and reviewing videos kept at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Woven into Behind the Magic Curtain are the firsthand memories of Tom Lankford, a Birmingham News reporter who was involved in law enforcement in the 1960s.

“I was a cop during a transitional period so I heard stories about and knew the culture he was dealing with,” Thorne said.

Lankford was part of the group Thorne contacted about writing the book, and his engaging stories helped her take on the project. When she started reading his notes, she said, “I was addicted.”

Look back to go forward

Thorne hopes her book, shedding light on unsung heroes of history, will help readers better understand the present and pave the way for a better future.

“In the 1960s, racism was on your face and it was part of the law,” she said. “Now it’s hard for the white community to see that because it’s not what it was when my generation was growing up. As an unaffected person, it took me a long time to find out what was meant by structural racism, and I’m still learning. “

Thorne hopes that Behind the Magic Curtain will open people’s eyes to the roots of the systemic racism that continues to plague our society, creating injustice and unrest.

Richard Friedman, associate editor of Southern Jewish Life magazine and former executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, believes Thorne’s new book is badly needed.

“The history of civil rights is not just history. It has ongoing relevance to the way we live our lives, ”he said, adding that sharing little-known stories about white allies can show people that they can make a difference.

“We tend to think of the great battles of our time being waged by these soldiers on the front lines, and they clearly play a very important role,” added Friedman. “But the reality is, these struggles are for the health of America’s citizens, and the people behind the scenes play a much bigger role than we think.”

Friedman considers it particularly important to highlight the contributions of the civil rights movement of the Birmingham Jewish community, which has also struggled with anti-Semitism in the south.

“It’s a lesson that even as you navigate your own predicament, you cannot become immune and insensitive to those who get into a bigger battle and a deeper battle,” he said.

Thorne agrees and hopes her book will challenge others to be courageous and fight for what is right today.

“If these people can get up, so must we,” she said. “We don’t have to be silent now.”

Signed copies of TK Thorne’s “Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days” can be purchased locally from Alabama Booksmith (2626 19th Place S., Birmingham, AL 35209) or online at The author will discuss her book during the Zoom event, “Legends, Lessons and Legacies: The Jewish Community’s Impact on Birmingham’s Civil Rights Movement,” hosted by Southern Jewish Life and Israel InSight editor Larry Brook and co-sponsored by the Atlanta Israel Coalition ; The event is scheduled for June 21st at 7 p.m. Central and registration is possible online ( Additionally, Thorne will host a personal book signing of Behind the Magic Curtain and her new novel, House of Stone, on July 15th at 6pm Central at Temple Beth-El (2179 Highland Ave., Birmingham, AL 35205); Registration is possible at

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