In 1976, I came to Birmingham, my wife’s home town, to work as a reporter for the Birmingham News, Alabama’s largest newspaper. Five years later, I made a career change and became Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation which serves our small Jewish community.
Having lived in Birmingham 37 years, I have come to understand the impact of the 1963 racial bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on the psyche of my city. The 50th anniversary of the bombing, which killed four young black girls, will be this Sunday (Sept. 15). Other Jewish community leaders and I will be among a broad cross-section of Birminghamians attending a special service at the church that morning.
I’ve been thinking about my life as an eighth grade student in my native New Jersey at the time all this was taking place in Birmingham, and the negative stereotypes family, friends and I developed about Alabamians. I could hardly have imagined 13 years later I would be a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, covering such racially-tinged stories as school desegregation, the election of Birmingham’s first black mayor and a congressional race in which the father of one of the girls killed in the bombing was a candidate.
Moreover, I found myself wondering what friends and family in New Jersey would have thought if they had been in the room when, in late 1979, I interviewed George Wallace for a Birmingham News end of the decade edition. The former Alabama governor, a prominent 1960s symbol of racial segregation, was in pain that day from wounds suffered in a 1972 assassination attempt. The only thing that lifted his spirits was when he found out I was from New Jersey.
“Ah, the people of New Jersey were good to me!” Wallace beamed. He talked about his runs for the Presidency in the 60s and 70s and support he received from New Jersey voters.
I could see his yearning for lost power overtaking him as he became almost trance-like.
Growing up in New Jersey, I remember hearing the fathers of two friends use the N-word to denigrate African-Americans. My wife, who grew up in Birmingham, however, never heard the word actually used in conversation until her freshman year at the University of Maryland — by someone from New Jersey.
Yes, without question, conditions down here for blacks, due to harsh laws, violence, racial politics and demagogic leaders, made life more difficult than it was for blacks up north. Yet, as I think about living in New Jersey and now Birmingham, I wonder if the attitudes of “ordinary people” in the two states were and are all that different? Everywhere, I believe, there are those open to others and those who are not.
I have been to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church many times, as a Birmingham News reporter and a Birmingham community leader. Our Jewish community has excellent relations with the church, which has become an international symbol of mutual respect and healing. I have seen much reconciliation, redemption and racial progress as blacks and whites have come together over the decades to build a new Birmingham. We’re not perfect, but we keep working at it.
As part of its coverage of the 50th anniversary of the bombing, the Birmingham News asked community leaders, including me, to finish this sentence: “My Birmingham is…” I answered, “My Birmingham is beautiful, uplifting and sacred — and perplexing, frustrating and, at times, maddening.” That’s my description of the city I have come to love.