Birmingham Jewish Federation Update
August 1, 2013
Recently, there was a screening of a film in Washington, DC. This fascinating
film is entitled "Crises: Behind a Presidential Commitment." The movie
is a documentary featuring an astonishingly intimate record of a key civil rights
confrontation 50 years ago.
captures the 24-hour period when then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace literally and
famously stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963 to block the admittance of two
black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, to the then all-white University
highlights President John F. Kennedy as he decides to commit the power of his
presidency to back racial equality. It also captures U.S. Attorney General
Robert Kennedy's strategy in dealing with the issue and the confrontation
between Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Wallace.
audience at the Washington gathering included Vivian's sister, Dr. Sharon Malone,
who helped put the event together, and Sharon's husband, U.S. Attorney General
Eric Holder. The evening also featured a panel discussion that was particularly
meaningful for me.
Three of the
speakers were Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, oldest child of Robert Kennedy, and
Helen Shores Lee and Barbara Shores, daughters of Arthur Shores, a leading civil
rights attorney in Birmingham who was advisor to Malone and Hood and whose home
was bombed a number of times. The fourth panelist was my father, Don Siegal, a
member of Birmingham's Jewish community.
My dad was born
in Tuscaloosa in 1941, and from 1960-67 was at the University of Alabama for
undergraduate and law school. He was involved in the Student Government
Association (SGA) when integration occurred and served as SGA president from
One story that
my dad shared in Washington recounted his picking up a young African-American
waiter who needed a ride because his car had broken down. Later that day, my dad's
father confronted him and said that he had been told by someone who came into
his auto parts store that "your son better not be giving any more rides to
blacks if he knows what's good for him and if you don't want your store blown
In response to a
question from the audience about why he thought students at the University of
Alabama allowed integration to occur without violence, my father gave two
responses. First, he said, there was a belief among students that if it could
be done without violence it would enhance the reputation of the university
The other answer
provided a glimmer of hope. Many on campus knew that my dad had been a
proponent for integration since he and some other student leaders had spent
several months going to campus dormitories, fraternities and sororities to
discuss the issue. So, when he ran against the powerful "Machine" (a
confederation of student organizations which had previously had a monopoly on
the Student Government presidency) and won, he felt that it was partially a
show of support for integration.
It was clear that
everyone at this Washington event had deep respect for the two African-American
students whose willingness to put their security, dignity and very lives in
jeopardy changed the course of history. And, there also was recognition that we
have come a long way in the past 50 years.
still exists today and must be confronted. The moderator of the panel, Michelle
Norris from National Public Radio, offered a metaphor on how to learn from
history. She said that we must look in the "rear view mirror" at
history to understand where we are going.
particular time, it has never been more important to remember and appreciate
our history, both good and bad, and to draw strength from our collective saga
to make us an even better country in the future.
year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of 1963 -- a pivotal year in the Civil
Rights movement and in Birmingham's history. Perhaps, when we look back and
understand the sacrifices made and those who were willing to speak up in
different ways, we can be inspired to confront the very difficult issues that
still face us as Americans.
director of AJC’s Miami and Broward County Region, grew up in Birmingham.