Were Birmingham’s Civil Rights Era Jews ‘Inside Agitators’?

By | Sep 14, 2021
Arts & Culture, Latest
Behind the Magic Curtain book cover

Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days

By T. K. Thorne 


Calvin Trillin, an incomparable reporter, brought his wry, Midwestern Jewish perspective to coverage of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, first for Time magazine and then for The New Yorker. He once observed, tongue in cheek, that it must have been awfully crowded in the South back then “behind the scenes.” Because that’s where so many moderate white people—including many Jews—claimed retrospectively to have been active during the historic turmoil. 

This was in stark contrast to Northern rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Arthur Hertzberg, Wolfe Kelman, Israel Dresner and Richard Rubenstein, who joined Southern marches and demonstrations from Selma to St. Augustine. And even more so to young Jews like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who came South as the movement’s shock troops and who lost their lives to the KKK.

These Jewish “outside agitators” sometimes faced hostility from local co-religionists, Jews reluctant to openly challenge the racial status quo of segregation because of justified fear for their physical safety plus their social and economic status. This was particularly true of small retailers, some of whom depended on customers of both races. Northern Jewish activists criticized these Southern Jews for being timid, tepid, and tardy in their support for racial equality, the great moral challenge facing 20th-century America, in their backyards.

But in her engrossing new book, T.K. Thorne challenges Trillin’s snarky view. Thorne, 67, who is Jewish and a retired Birmingham police captain, is the author of an earlier book, Last Chance for Justice, about the police investigation of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four African American girls. She argues, convincingly to a former skeptic like me, that a redemptive minority of Birmingham’s Jews were in fact “inside agitators” during that city’s tumultuous civil rights movement. Thorne’s book makes an invaluable companion to Trillin’s own Jackson, 1964, as well as to Jack Nelson’s book about Jackson and Meridian, Mississippi, Terror in the Night: The Klan’s Campaign Against the Jews, along with more modern, scholarly bookshelf additions such as like Jonathan Bass’s Blessed are the Peacemakers and Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear. 

In the South of the 1960s, the Jewish communities founded by 19th-century German immigrants were outnumbered by more recent arrivals of Eastern European origins. Still, for more than 100 years, the German Jews worked hard to fit in and were commercially successful. They succeeded in part by keeping to themselves any progressive views on slavery; a handful fought and died for the Confederacy. The same was true with post-Civil War Jim Crow segregation, when a few Jews shamefully embraced white supremacy as the near-final stage of assimilation (just short of intermarriage and conversion to Christianity). Among them were even some opportunists who joined the descendants of the Confederate veterans in White Citizens Councils, the coat-and-tie iteration of the KKK. 

Exceptions existed, to be sure. A number of anti-racist Southern Jews were Republicans who supported post-Civil War Reconstruction and were murdered for seeking racial equality. Before World War II, Atlanta Jews helped found a chapter of the Urban League. When the majority of white Protestants in the 1960s were ardent segregationists, few Jews joined them. 

Still, Thorne writes, despite silent deference or conspicuous fidelity to Southern white norms, efforts “to become part of the weave of the community,” there remained social barriers between them and white elites. Then, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. “Prior to the Brown decision, anti-Semitism, though present, was not a critical issue for Birmingham’s Jewish citizens,” Thorne writes. However, perceived Jewish support for the case inflamed some white Southerners. 

“For the most part, the Jewish community attempted to stay out of the civil rights fray,” Thorne says, “but what had happened on the night of April 28, 1958, exposed the tactic’s fragility. A canvas satchel with fifty-four sticks of dynamite was planted at Temple Beth-El. The following day a janitor found the dynamite, with its fuse apparently doused by overnight rain about one minute from detonation. The near-miss bombing shook the Jewish community…[T]he attempted bombing had shattered any Jewish delusion of protection by assimilation, civic involvement, or civic leadership. The threat they thought had been left behind in Europe was real here, too.”

That rainy night when dynamite was set outside Temple Beth-El brought the Birmingham Jewish community together in common cause,” Thorne observes. The bombing plot instantly healed what had been a division of Birmingham’s Jewish community between descendants of German immigrants and more recent—and more religiously observant—arrivals from Eastern Europe. Until then the two groups had worshipped in different synagogues and socialized in different circles. Any marriage between the two groups was considered “mixed.” 

The attempted bombing prompted self-defense efforts, while also galvanizing some Jews to work behind the scenes for racial equality. Thorne quotes Larry Brooks, editor and publisher of Southern Jewish Life magazine, in 2015: Despite “shorthand notions that ‘Jews marched with Blacks in the South’ on one hand, or ‘Jews in the South didn’t do anything to help’ on the other, the reality is much more of a gray area.” It is that gray area that fascinates Thorne: “Despite the danger, pressure, and fears, some members of the Jewish community [in Birmingham] spoke out publicly against racism and segregation.” 

Still, reticence surfaced when Northern Jewish civil rights activists came south, even among the secretly sympathetic. Locals complained that the Northerners had the luxury of taking principled, even self-righteous stands—and then going home as heroes, leaving locals to face the consequences from those who grouped all Jews together. “The Jewish community would not have been doing the civil rights movement any favors to declare an open partnership,” Thorne writes, since open support could stimulate charges of a “Jewish-communist plot.”

Sometimes, the dispute among Jews over civil rights played out within the even tighter world of Jewish clergy. Writ small, this region-wide conflict was dramatized on another rainy night in May 1963 on the Birmingham airport tarmac. As Thorne reconstructs the incident in his chapter “The Invasion of the Rabbis”: “The rabbis from New York equated what they perceived as silence on segregation from the Birmingham Jewish community with the atrocities of the Holocaust.” Rabbi Bernard Mandelbaum, then provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, had told Conservative Rabbinical Assembly of America conference attendees that its members could not be concerned “only with Nazi cruelty when acts of injustice were taking place in our country.” The implication taken by Mandelbaum and others was that Southern Jews were “good Germans,” ignoring what they saw around them, even while quietly negotiating a peaceful response to civil rights leaders’ demands.

For their part, Thorne writes, “the local community saw these rabbis—the ‘nineteen messiahs,’ as they came to be called—as outsiders who risked nothing by coming to Birmingham but could put the local Jewish residents at grave risk.”

Nonetheless, the Northern rabbis, including Rubenstein, did not get back on their plane, as local Jews implored them to do. Half agreed to meet with prominent local attorney Karl Friedman, but they were not dissuaded. And the rabbis’ visit had its intended effect, Thorne writes. “Though the rabbis’ visit was disturbing to the local Jewish community, it was a psychological boost to the members of the civil rights movement.”

Thorne, who was raised in a progressive, Reform family in Montgomery, was approached in 2013 by four men about writing a book about those white Birmingham residents who had worked behind the scenes, mostly in secret, in support of civil rights: “They wanted these stories to be told while they were still alive to tell them.” Her account includes stories of prominent local Jewish leaders who raised money, wrote legal briefs and sought to reign in notorious public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor.  Scholars’ assessments of these local leaders vary. Thorne presents a range of arguments regarding their effectiveness and dedication, including passionate accounts of heartfelt public condemnation of racist killings.

In an interview, Thorne told me that Birmingham’s Jewish women also played a significant role: They supported Black schools, raised money, sent kids to interracial camps, arranged tutoring, spoke in local clubs and even marched in Selma, at considerable risk.

A decade before Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr. took note of the regional division within the American Jewish community over civil rights. During the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, there was little visible local Jewish support. “The national Jewish bodies have been most helpful,” King said at the time. “But the local Jewish leadership has been silent. Montgomery Jews want to bury their heads and repeat that it is not a Jewish problem, but it is a fight between the forces of justice and injustice and I want them to join in with us on the side of justice.” Of course, there was reason for this silence in Montgomery, compared to Birmingham. As a tiny minority amidst a hotbed of rage, Montgomery’s Jews had real reason for fear. 

As a journalist, I’ve written about this subject for more than 50 years, since moving from the South Jersey suburbs to Durham, North Carolina, to attend Duke University. For most of that time—until I read Magic Curtain—I have subscribed to the conventional wisdom that Southern Jews were monolithically silent and complicit in segregation. But Thorne has convinced me that, in Birmingham at least, there was a righteous remnant we need to honor for their bravery. Most of these quiet heroes have now passed away, but as the prayer book reminds us, we need to “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust”—and what their actions teach us.

In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. told an Atlanta Jewish newspaper, “Our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood in tangible ways, often at great personal sacrifices.” Citing the deaths of Goodman and Schwerner, he said it “would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom—it has been so great.”

Mark K. Bauman, co-editor of To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement, pinpoints the contradiction between Jewish commitment to and support for civil rights—noted by the King among others—and the relative quiet of Jews in the South. “Fearful of violence and loss of business and community standing, Southern Jews sought quiet, gradual integration from within,” Bauman writes. “Yet King and his supporters recognized that protests plus often-violent reaction helped generate national legislation for long-term change. The strategy worked. [Bull] Connor’s nationally-televised police violence against the peaceful protestors helped pass the Civil Rights Act.  Likewise, King’s ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail’ attacking moderate, gradualists proved to be a well thought-out, calculated stratagem.”

For Southern Jews, by contrast, the “justifiable fear” of violence “limited their view of the necessity for confrontation” to bring about national change, Bauman argues. “Sadly, we see these challenges and struggle playing again in the present.” 

Behind the Magic Curtain offers us the guidance of history in how to respond to these challenges and struggles in order to finally bring about racial equality in America and the world. Amidst the rising wave of antisemitism, we need to acknowledge that as Jews there is only one, unified battle against intolerance.


Mark I. Pinsky has reported for 45 years on racial justice and injustice in the South. He is the author of the forthcoming Drifting Into Darkness: Murders, Madness, Suicide, and a Death “Under Suspicious Circumstances.”

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