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Being a Jew in ‘Bombingham’ Alabama

Investigators probe bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama./FBI Photo

Holocaust analogies abound in Birmingham.

That became clear within minutes of meeting Sol Kimerling, the 84-year-old historian who embodies Southern charm — and who served as our tour guide for the day. Dressed in a blue checkered shirt, brown corduroys and dapper black shoes, he drove us to the famous 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bomb exploded in 1963, killing four African American girls.

That wasn’t the first racially motivated bombing in the area — not even close. Between the late 1940s and mid 1960s, Birmingham saw almost 50 unsolved bombings, earning it the nickname “Bomingham.” For Jews, two incidents stand out: the attempted bombing at Temple Beth-El, the Conservative synagogue we visited on Friday, and the bombing of Bethel Baptist Church, led by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Because these two incidents happened within weeks of each other, they served as a “turning point” for Birmingham’s Jews, Sol said. He compared the incident to Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht, when “alarm bells rang in every Jewish house.”

Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church Image by Anne Cohen

On a Sunday morning we watched Christians — dressed in their Sunday best — climb up the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. We followed — we love a good Baptist “Hallelujah!” The huge sanctuary was packed: old and young, black and white, all sat together. Participatory singing and clapping shook the pews. One woman just kept reaching for the heavens. The mood was so vibrantly joyous that it was hard to believe we were sitting in the spot where four little girls were killed for the “crime” of being black.

Right across the street from the church is Kelly Ingram Park, where Birmingham police and their attack dogs famously clashed with civil rights protestors. Today, the park is calm and beautifully manicured, but menacing dogs — in the form of sculptures — lie in wait, ready to pounce. Watching over everything is a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a sculpture of two children who represent the hundreds of youths jailed for marching without a permit. Sol took it all in stride, happily pointing out the weld work that formed the dog’s joints.

Sol Kimerling points out a sculpture of a crowd control dog in Kelly Ingram Park

Our guide is a perfect encapsulation of the history of the Jews of Birmingham — who have a much longer, stronger history than you might think.

Originally from Romania via New York and Atlanta, Sol’s family arrived in Birmingham in 1915. Like many Jews, they settled in the North side of town. At the time, that area housed both blacks and Jews, who were starting from scratch financially. As we drove past a handful of small derelict houses, Sol pointed to an empty lot. “That was my grandfather’s house,” he said.

The family business was scrap metal, which involved a peddler going from house to house looking for material he could then sell. As Sol likes to say: “The fortune of the Kimerling family began once my grandfather got the right to work the Birmingham dump. Not so glamorous.”

As they grew wealthier, Sol, like most Jews, moved to the South side of town. But their early proximity to blacks meant that they knew — and remembered — what it was like to be the marginalized ‘other.’ Even today, the now-defunct Jewish businesses that fill downtown Birmingham stand down the block from former black-owned businesses. Driving through downtown Birmingham is like opening a phonebook of dead Jewish department stores — Sol pointed to one building after another: Lichter’s, Pizitz, Loveman, Blach’s…all empty.

Graves in Birmingham’s old Jewish cemetery date back to the 1870s.

By his own account, Sol has lived “a normal life, full of contradictions.” An all-star football player, he wanted to know if he could play on Friday nights; the rabbi told him, yes, as long as you’re at shul on Saturday morning. Then there were the High Holidays, about which Sol says: “On Yom Kippur, we listened to the ball game on the radio. Except one year, we listened to Hitler.” He remembers Birmingham as a city light on day-to-day anti-Semitism, yet he would often get into schoolyard fistfights with boys who called him “dirty Jew.” He smiles today, defending his actions. “How else are you going to get it done — write them a letter?”

Those contradictions extend to Jewish involvement in civil rights. On the one hand, the Southern Jews didn’t march. “They did what they could,” Sol shrugged. Jewish business owners used their influence to reform city government, ousting racist Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, who held the city in his iron grip for over a decade.

Many unsung Jewish heroes have been swallowed up in the broader narrative of civil rights (perhaps rightly so). Take, for example, the two Jewish lawyers who, in Sol’s memory, posted bail for the hundreds of youths arrested at the Children’s Crusade of 1963. Their positions as leaders in the Jewish community meant that their word could be trusted.

Same goes for Dorah Sterne, the wealthy Jewish woman who held racially integrated luncheons. Or Florence Siegel, who led a campaign to change the way African Americans were portrayed in white textbooks in Alabama.

But for Sol, there’s one major Jewish player we should all remember: Abe Berkowitz, a civil rights lawyer — also the foremost Zionist leader of the Southeast. Berkowitz and his group actually smuggled arms to Jews in Palestine in the days leading up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. And here’s where the Holocaust analogy comes into play again: Racial segregation in the South hit a little too close to home for Berkowitz, who had seen what happens when that discrimination is directed against Jews in Nazi Germany.

“We didn’t have a dog in that race,” Sol said of the civil rights movement, “but it was the right thing to do — and that’s the Jewish ethic.”

Next stop on our road trip: Memphis, Tennessee (where, incidentally, Sol was once run out of town by police who didn’t like his cousin’s muffler-free stripped-down Model A).

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