July 5, 2020 — Miami, Florida
This piece originally appeared in Southern Jewish Life Magazine.
Our society is undergoing a re-examination of our attitudes and actions related to race and discrimination following the brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. Closing the wound of American racism will require more than reform of law enforcement procedures, important as that surely is. It will require letting down our guard and listening to our neighbors. It will require redressing stubborn inequities and indignities. It will require the courage to face hard truths in our communities.
At the same time, we, as a Jewish community, must reassess our role as allies and upstanders. In doing this introspection and work, other seminal moments of history can be instructive.
One event that was a similar turning point in how America approached race and discrimination occurred 57 years ago when the University of Alabama underwent desegregation by two incredibly brave African American students — Vivian Malone and James A. Hood.
George Wallace had been elected governor of Alabama in 1962 under a segregationist platform. In his 1963 inaugural address, he promised his white followers: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” The U.S. Supreme Court, however, had declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.
On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy federalized National Guard troops and deployed them to the University of Alabama to force its desegregation. On that fateful day, Governor Wallace stood in the entry way of the enrollment office. But facing the troops, Wallace ended his blockade and allowed the two students to enroll.
My father, Don Siegal, who died last November after a life of pursuing justice, taught me about this essential episode of history and his role in it. He was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, and grew up steps away from the University of Alabama football stadium. Following in the footsteps of his three older brothers, he attended the University of Alabama, graduating in 1964, and from its School of Law in 1967.
I was born and raised in Birmingham. My parents wanted to inculcate their Jewish values of showing empathy and standing up for ourselves and others. The primary way that they conveyed this to my sister and me was through stories about the civil rights movement and their experiences at the University of Alabama. I thought that I had heard every story in their repertoire, but I was particularly inspired on July 24, 2013, at the screening of a film in Washington, as part of the “March on Washington” film festival.
The film “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment” presents the 24-hour period when Governor Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to block the admittance of the two black students to the all-white University of Alabama. Shot candidly within the White House, “Crisis” captures President John F. Kennedy as he decides to commit the power of the presidency to back racial equality.
My father was one of the four featured speakers on the panel discussion that followed the film. Moderated by Michele Norris-Johnson, the other panelists were Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert Kennedy; Helen Shores Lee and Barbara Shores Lee, daughters of a civil rights lawyer and leader.
The first-hand accounts and behind the scenes anecdotes of that fateful day were mesmerizing. My father spoke about the effort that had been organized by the then Dean of Students, John Blackburn, to have my father, then Student Government Secretary/Treasurer and other student leaders, going to campus organizations and fraternities to discuss and accept desegregation. In contrast to other universities where riots had occurred upon desegregation, the University of Alabama was peaceful, and the students were given much of the credit for this, even by President Kennedy.
My dad believed that everyone on campus knew that he had been a proponent for integration. So, when he ran against the powerful “Machine,” a confederation of student organizations which had previously had a monopoly on the Student Government president, and won, he felt that it was partially a show of support for integration. More than anything else, he and my mother always spoke about the bravery of Vivian Malone and James Hood and the need to continue to stand up and combat racism and discrimination.
This passion for justice and confronting bigotry continued after their college days. To his very last day, my father was proud to be from Alabama and believed that the ongoing hard work of confronting systemic racism, just like confronting antisemitism and other forms of hatred, was the responsibility of every single one of us. Acting on these convictions and values, my dad and my mother, Bobbie Siegal, created an endowed scholarship at the university for Diversity and Inclusion in honor of Blackburn for his role in the peaceful integration of the University of Alabama in 1963. The scholarship provides opportunity to deserving and persevering students, and also honors Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood for their bravery, and former University of Alabama President Bob Witt for his leadership and foresight.
My mother also continued this commitment to addressing racial justice by serving on the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, chair of the National Conference for Community and Justice, and many others. She was recognized by Positive Maturity Birmingham as a 50 Over 50 leader for her work on civil rights and continues to work on these issues today.
Our country is again at a crossroads. Stories like this inspire me and others to acknowledge that we all have a role to play in confronting the scourge of racism. Only through looking to our past, envisioning a better future, and relentlessly working toward justice and equality will we come closer to the realization of America’s promise that “all men are created equal.” Not some men — and women — but all.
Birmingham native Brian Siegal is regional director of the American Jewish Committee’s Miami and Broward office.