At the Crossroads of Civil Rights History

 

Birmingham Jewish Federation Update
Brian Siegal
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.

The film 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 of Alabama.

"Crises" 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.

The large 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 1964-65.

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 up."

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 nationally.

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.

However, racism 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.

At this 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.

Birmingham this 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.

Brian Siegal, director of AJC’s Miami and Broward County Region, grew up in Birmingham.

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