Have been Southern Jews within the Civil Rights period “Inside Agitators?” – The Ahead

Cover of _Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies and Unsung White Allies of the Civil Rights Days of Birmingham_, TK Thorne's latest book.  from the striker

Courtesy TK Thorne

Cover of Behind The Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days, TK Thorne’s latest book.

TK Thorne’s book “Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days” challenges the accepted view that all southern Jews stayed away from the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

TK Thorne from the striker

TK Thorne

In her introduction, Thorne quotes Larry Brooks, editor and publisher of Southern Jewish Life magazine, who stated in 2015 that despite “the shorthand phrase that ‘Jews marched with blacks in the South’ ‘or’ Jews in the South ‘on the other hand, the reality is rather a gray area. “

Thorne, 69, a Jew and retired police captain in Birmingham, focuses on this gray area. When it appears in the era of the Black Lives Matter, it is a timely reminder of the long history of Jews and blacks fighting together for racial justice.

Mark Pinsky: When the civil rights movement broke out, the trope of conservative white southerners was that everything was fine between the races until the established order was disrupted by the arrival of “outside agitators”. Many of them were Jews who came from the north. But your book suggests that many southern Jews were indeed “internal agitators” for racial equality. Is that a stretch?

TK Thorne: Not far. That’s exactly what I found.

Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanu-El has been frank and constant in his conversation about civil rights. In one case, he tried to persuade the city to withdraw permission for the Ku Klux Klan to have a stand at the state fair. Karl Friedman, a prominent lawyer, raised money for the NAACP and helped with some of its legal briefs. Friedman helped create an integrated bank to reduce the power of white banks to retaliate and pressure black civil rights activists, and to give blacks access to credit and banking services. As a result, a bullet was fired through his living room window and a racist message was burned into his front yard.

Another attorney, Abe Berkowitz, campaigned to revoke the clan’s state charter. He had black clients and was heavily involved in efforts to get rid of the racist police superintendent “Bull” Connor.

What about Birmingham’s Jewish women?

Dorah Heyman Stern sought to investigate the prisons (which were mostly black people) and push reforms and set up a hospital that treated patients regardless of race or solvency; Anny Kraus persuaded professors at Birmingham University (now UAB) to donate scientific laboratory equipment to a local black college; Betty Loeb made the Klan’s Rogue Gallery for her activism, and Gertrude Goldstein traveled to Selma in 1965 before Bloody Sunday with the Siegels, Krauses and Baers and other whites, marched past angry Klansmen armed with bats to make a public statement before the District court to take steps in support of black activists who are fighting for the right to registration and election.

In a chapter of the book you titled “The Invasion of the Rabbis” you tell of a rainy, early morning confrontation between Abe Berkowitz and 19 New York rabbis under the leadership of Richard Rubenstein at the airport. They had come with other Jewish clergy and activists from the north to support the civil rights demonstrators.

Yes, local Jews were embroiled in delicate negotiations between the local business community and the city government at this point in order to find a peaceful solution to the racial problems. Abe Berkowitz tried to get Rubenstein to get back on the plane or to listen to the local Jewish community so as not to ruin the settlement talks. Rabbi Grafman observed the group that a local Conservative synagogue had advertised a rabbi. “If you’re so interested in making a difference in Birmingham, why don’t you become a rabbi here?” Rubenstein and his group refused to leave and joined Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights protesters, although some of the group agreed met local Jews.

In 1973, however, Rubenstein returned to Birmingham to speak to the Jewish community. According to Karl Friedman, who was present, Rubenstein said, “I came here to apologize. I was young and ruthless, and I thought it was something that would do me credit. “

They say that you essentially got into police work, first as a fellow, before attending the police academy and becoming a sworn officer and working your way up from patrolman to station manager. Although the events you describe in the book were described prior to your time in the department, was it difficult for you to write about officers who were Klan members or sympathizers?

Yes, it was unsettling; it was unsettling to learn about it. I tried to be as honest as possible with the truths I found. There were abuses. There’s no way to make this pretty; it’s just wrong.

What was it like for you personally growing up a Jew in Montgomery during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s?

Our family belonged to the Beth-Or temple, which, like many reform congregations in the south, consisted mainly of 19th-century German-Jewish immigrants. That was during the “old reform” period, mostly Sunday school – no Bat Mitzvah, no Hebrew.

What about racial attitudes in the early 1960s as the civil rights movement gained momentum?

My parents, Jane and Warren Katz, were both progressives in Montgomery who were very strong believers in civil rights and justice. They offered social support to activists. My mother’s family was from Alabama. My maternal grandmother, Dorothy Merz Lobman, attended Wellesley College with the decidedly liberal Alabama Virginia Durr, a close friend of Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the sister-in-law of Justice Hugo Black. Years later, Dorothy and her husband Bernard burned a cross in their garden for helping black women gain access to their jobs during the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery. My father was a Brooklyn transplant.

I attended an all-white public school, and once when I was in third grade I used the N word at home – which was common among my classmates. My mother turned pale and said, “We don’t say that word.”

They found that the reactions of the Jewish communities in Montgomery and Birmingham to the civil rights movement were contrasting.

Yes, Montgomery’s Jewish community was smaller than Birmingham’s and also more conservative. I think the smaller the Jewish community, the more insecure they are.

I haven’t been able to find a single other Jewish person in Montgomery except for my family and the rabbis who have spoken up and done anything during the civil rights era. I hope to be surprised one day but so far it has been very disappointing although it is easy to judge now. I know there was a lot of fear in the Jewish communities back then. Birmingham was a different kettle of fish, although many people were “deep down,” as one Jewish activist put it.

Mark I. Pinsky has been writing and teaching since 1968 about the Jewish experience in the American South (“Kasha & Cornbread”). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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