Editor’s Note: This is part of our ongoing series, “Not Just Black and White: The Jewish Community and the Civil Rights Era.” We will have many more pieces in the coming months, centered on the 50th anniversary of events in Birmingham. Previous piece: Scottsboro: A Southern Tragedy, A Jewish Controversy
In April 1963, a group of eight Birmingham clergy — including Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Milton Grafman — wrote “A Call for Unity,” an open letter to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., asking that planned demonstrations in Birmingham be postponed so the city’s new government could have time to deal with issues of desegregation. King’s response, the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” is studied worldwide.
Far less known is an earlier open letter from Grafman and the same clergy members, published just after Governor George Wallace’s Jan. 14, 1963 inaugural address, where Wallace promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In addition to the eight from the later statement, there were three additional signatories on the January statement, including Rabbi Eugene Blachschleger of Temple Beth Or, Montgomery.
A group of clergy gathered at the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham on Jan. 16 to issue “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” criticizing inflammatory remarks and recommending against defying court orders that mandated desegregation.
The statement was a reworking of an October 1962 statement by the Huntsville Ministers Association. Grafman said just after it was released that it had been planned before Wallace’s speech, but Wallace’s comment made the statement “very well timed.”
The statement, signed by the 11 clergy members, was delivered to the two Birmingham newspapers and appeared on Jan. 17, then across the state over the next few days. It stated that “hatred and violence have no sanction,” laws must not be ignored by individual whims, court decisions must be respected, and every person’s freedom should be equally protected. Immediately, a backlash came from segregationists, many of whom couched their objection to integration on Biblical grounds.
At the time, ministers who spoke about “moderation” were seen as promoting integration, and often lost their pulpits. Stephen Grafman, son of Rabbi Grafman, said at a Temple Emanu-El talk last month that a statement like the seventh point of the January letter, “That every human being is created in the image of God and is entitled to respect as a fellow human being with all basic rights, privileges, and responsibilities which belong to humanity,” was very difficult to say in the Birmingham of 1963.
Clergy who entertained the idea of desegregation often lost their pulpits. A few years earlier, vocal public support of the Montgomery bus boycott was a major factor in Agudath Israel parting ways with Rabbi Seymour Atlas.