Rabbi Grafman, Dr. King and the Letter from Birmingham Jail


Rabbi Milton Grafman led Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El during the city’s civil rights struggles.

“Are you still a bigot?”

Every year for the rest of his life, students studying Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” would call Rabbi Milton Grafman, knowing little of the situation in 1963 Birmingham, and pose that question.

His son, Stephen Grafman, a Washington attorney, said his father’s reputation “is still stained by what simply is not correct,” and this month’s 50th anniversary of the letter is a chance to explore the full context and history behind the letter.

“The substance of the letter is beautiful and it will stand the test of time,” Grafman said. “The problem is that some of the backdrop to the letter is not correct and still needs to be corrected.”

In the letter, King responds to a call from eight moderate white clergy in Birmingham, including Rabbi Grafman, who suggested that his April 1963 demonstrations were untimely. King spoke of his frustration that so few ministers and rabbis in the South were on the side of equal rights publicly, and that negotiations had continued to be little more than a stalling tactic.

The most segregated city

Among hotbeds of segregation, Birmingham was seen as a special case. For decades, absentee industrial owners from up North had used racial division as a means to keep whites and blacks occupied and prevent them from agitating for better working conditions. Racial segregation was the law of the land.

As the civil rights movement gained ground against the status quo in the 1950s, reaction from local white supremacists was fierce and violent. The city became known as “Bombingham” because of the numerous bombs set off at black churches and at homes of black activists — and attacks against whites who sought to upset the status quo.

Caught in the middle was the Jewish community, which endured harsh anti-Semitic rhetoric by the Klan and white supremacists, and an attempted bombing of Temple Beth-El in 1958. Beth-El is just up the street from Emanu-El, and shortly after the attempt, threats were made that Emanu-El would be next.

The demonization of Jews began with the Scottsboro Boys case in the 1930s. In 1931, nine black teenagers were arrested in northern Alabama after being falsely accused of raping two white girls. The “Scottsboro Boys,” as they became known, were quickly convicted and sentenced to death.

The case became a national issue, and their lawyer on appeal was a Jewish New Yorker, sent by the American Communist Party though he was not a Communist himself.

The anger and resentment toward the attorney became the prototype for the mythic “Yankee Communist Jew” outsider who was trying to use integration to destroy the Southern way of life. That became an ongoing drumbeat for white supremacists well into the 1960s, bolstered in their eyes by the fact that roughly half of whites from around the country who came to the region to work for desegregation were Jewish.

Rear Admiral John Crommelin, otherwise regarded as a war hero, ran for office several times on virulently anti-Semitic platforms. The 1960 bombing of Beth Israel in Gadsden, an hour up the road from Birmingham, was done by a teen who had just been to a Crommelin rally and was inspired to act.

In 1961, the Freedom Riders sought to test court rulings mandating the desegregation of interstate bus facilities. The integrated buses rolled into Alabama and were met by Klansmen who torched one bus near Anniston and beat the riders in Birmingham.

Sid Smyer, who headed the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, was in Japan for the International Rotary Club convention in May 1961 when coverage of the attack on Freedom Riders in Birmingham was splashed all over newspapers worldwide. In Japan to also recruit business, he instead had to do damage control. Though a segregationist, upon his return to Birmingham, he realized that the city had to change.

To truly effect change in Birmingham and get rid of Bull Connor, the notorious Commissioner of Public Safety, an end-run around the city government was planned. Abe Berkowitz, a Jewish attorney who was outspoken on civil rights issues, was part of a group that plotted to change the city from a three commissioner form of government to a mayor-council system and elect new people. To do that they had to get enough signatures on petitions to force a special election, knowing Connor and his Klan-riddled police department would do everything they could to thwart them.

They quietly fanned out on election day in August 1962 and got enough signatures at the polling places, having the petitions protected that night by armed guards.

That November, after a contentious campaign, voters in Birmingham narrowly approved the change in government, forcing Connor to run for mayor if he wanted to continue in office. The election took place in March 1963, with Albert Boutwell, regarded as more moderate, claiming 39 percent to Connor’s 31 percent, forcing a runoff.

The runoff election was held on April 2, with Boutwell taking 58 percent of the vote, ousting Connor. But Connor refused to leave office, so the city functioned — so to speak — with two governments until the courts could sort out the issue almost two months later.

Showing how ingrained anti-Semitism was, Grafman noted that a common anti-Boutwell taunt was “Eight, six, four, two, Albert Boutwell is a Jew.”

Restarting the movement

King had been looking for a time to come into Birmingham and force the issue regarding desegregation. During the summer of 1962, King tried to desegregate Albany, Ga., but the police chief kept things under control. When King was arrested and sentenced to 45 days in jail in lieu of paying a small fine, the police chief saw that King’s fine was quietly paid and he was released after just three days, unable to become a jailed symbol of the struggle or gain widespread media attention.

Harvey Shapiro, editor at the New York Times magazine, had contacted King’s group while King was imprisoned in Albany to suggest that King write a “letter from prison” in the tradition of early Christian saints and other martyrs. But King was released too quickly.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who headed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, wanted King to come to Birmingham, knowing Connor would over-react and force the issue onto front pages nationally. Plans were set in motion for sit-ins and demonstrations at lunch counters and department stores — most of which were Jewish-owned. There was also a planned black boycott of downtown merchants.

With the possibility of a change in government, King kept putting off the demonstrations — until April 3, the day after the runoff election, when Birmingham had just elected a new leadership.

With Connor voted out and it being only a matter of time before the courts affirmed it, and with a new government much more interested in making racial progress, there was a fear that King’s demonstrations would cause a backlash and do more harm than good.

That was the concern being aired by the eight clergy in their April 12 statement, “A Call for Unity” — that the demonstrations were “untimely” given that Birmingham was on the verge of “a new day” and needed a chance to make progress with the biggest obstacle, Connor, out of the way.

Grafman points out that it was a concern shared by others who never felt the sting of progressive backlash afterward — Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Rev. Billy Graham and the Washington Post, among others, said the demonstrations were untimely.

Nevertheless, the clergy noted “we recognize the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.”

The demonstrations had limited success during the first weeks. Many were arrested, and on April 10 Connor raised the bail bond amount substantially and an injunction was issued against the demonstrations. On Good Friday, April 12, King was arrested for defying the injunction, and he was taken to the jail. He would be released on April 20.

While in the Birmingham jail, King decided to take up Shapiro’s suggestion, writing the now-famous letter on scraps of paper and later on a legal pad — but when Shapiro received the writings, he could not get the higher-ups at the Times to publish it. Instead, it appeared weeks later in a few magazines including “Liberation,” “The New Leader” and “Atlantic Monthly.”

Grafman and the other seven clergy never received a copy — they saw it the same way everyone else did.

Though it was written on April 16, the letter was first published in mid-May. Within days, hate mail started pouring in to Rabbi Grafman. “The Jewish community nationally, particularly in the New York area, reacted with vicious letters (on a subject) about which they knew very little,” Grafman said.

That vitriol continues even today — just moments after Barack Obama was sworn in as president, Stephen Grafman received an email sneering about what his father must think about there being a black president.

After the letter was published, Rabbi Grafman was called “a disgrace to your temple, to your religion and… to your God.” Others said they were “ashamed” to be part of the same religion as Rabbi Grafman. The ministers’ statement’s praise for the Birmingham police’s calm response was likened to thanking the Gestapo for how they handled the Jews.

Grafman noted that when the ministers had issued the statement and when the letter was written in mid-April, it was still early in the demonstrations and the police for the most part had been restrained in their response. But when the letter was published, it was shortly after the early May now-infamous clashes with the police dogs and firehoses, so any notion then that the police had been “calm” was laughable.

In early May, the movement had changed tactics. Finding it difficult to recruit adult demonstrators who would be subject to arrest, organizers started the Children’s Crusade. On May 2, over 1,000 black students left school and began to march. They were arrested, completely filling the jails. The next day, another thousand followed, and that is when Connor — still fighting his ouster as commissioner — decided to go for the firehoses and the dogs.

As the national media showed the shocking footage from Birmingham, the situation became a full-blown crisis. National figures flocked to the city to lend support as the marches continued. Meanwhile, negotiations continued behind the scenes, with a desegregation agreement finally reached on May 10. Federal troops arrived on May 13 to restore order.

The Letter

Shortly after the crisis in Birmingham ended, King’s letter started appearing, and Grafman suffered the backlash.

In the letter, King speaks of traveling the “length and breadth” of the state, seeing churches and wondering “Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred” in his 1963 inaugural where Wallace gave his famous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech.

In fact, those eight clergy, plus three others, had spoken out at great risk to themselves.

In January, those 11 clergy — including Rabbi Eugene Blachschleger of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery — issued “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense” three days after the inauguration.

The appeal, which did not specifically mention Wallace or his speech, 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.

One of the original signatories in January, Father Soterios Gouvellis, refused to sign the April statement. In his chapter in the book, “Autobiographical Reflections on Southern Religious History,” Andrew Manis wrote that “it was not terribly long after this that we had a new priest,” and “one of the factors was the same race consciousness that pressured Protestant ministers to avoid challenging the accepted racial arrangements,” and Greeks in particular as relative newcomers “could ill afford a troublemaking priest.”

That circumspection was also felt in the Jewish community as well as the Christian world. Any minister who was too outspoken was subject to looking for future employment outside the region.

Rabbi Grafman’s predecessor, Rabbi Morris Newfield, as president of the Reform movement’s rabbinic group, had to investigate the departure of Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein from Kahl Montgomery in 1933 after Goldstein spoke out in defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner of Mishkan Israel in Selma was also subject to great pressure after speaking out on the same issue.

More recently, Rabbi Seymour Atlas had left Agudath Israel in Montgomery after a backlash for his speaking out in support of the 1956 bus boycott sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks.

Grafman said King overstated things by charging that the eight ministers “deplore the demonstrations,” noting that the demonstrations were controversial even in the local black community — and the ministers merely thought the timing was wrong.

Many historians think King’s reference to not standing by as Jews suffered had he been in Nazi Germany was a direct slap at Rabbi Grafman. His son noted that Rabbi Grafman was one of the few American Jewish leaders to visit Nazi Germany, in 1938. When he came back, he reported on what he saw, and there were still a lot of “doubting Thomases who could not believe such things were going on.”

Far from being a coward, as some historians have charged, Rabbi Grafman stood in the face of difficult times and did not hide, Stephen Grafman said.

A native of Washington, Rabbi Grafman was ordained in 1933 after growing up in Pittsburgh, and became rabbi at Adath Israel in Lexington, Ky. On Pearl Harbor Day in 1941, he arrived in Birmingham to start at Emanu-El, a pulpit he would hold until his retirement in 1975. He would live out the rest of his days in Birmingham, the only one of the eight clergy to do so.

In 1956 he had been invited to speak on a panel at the University of Mississippi for Religious Emphasis Week. Shortly before then, one of the other panelists, from Ohio, won $32,000 on the quiz show “$64,000 Question” and declared that he was giving some of his winnings to the NAACP.

That did not sit well in Mississippi, and the legislature forced the university to rescind the invitation. When Rabbi Grafman found out, not only did he pull out of the panel but encouraged the other speakers to do the same.

That destroyed the friendship he had with Ole Miss Chancellor J.D. Williams, who Rabbi Grafman had known since their days in Kentucky.

Once word of Rabbi Grafman’s actions hit the newspapers in Birmingham, the threatening phone calls and letters began. He bought a whistle that he kept by the phone, to ring the ears of those who got particularly obnoxious. But he never de-listed his phone number.

In 1958, the Grafmans sought to buy property off Pine Ridge Road in Birmingham’s suburbs, but the seller refused to sell it to them because they were Jewish.

In the fall of 1963, after the demonstrations, Rabbi Grafman was one of 16 whites on the 25-member Committee on Group Relations set up by the city. He also traveled to the White House one week after the September 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, to discuss with President Kennedy how to further racial progress.

He was one of the few whites to attend the funeral of the four girls killed in the Sixteenth Street bombing. Six hours after the funeral, he had to lead services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. During the Kaddish, the memorial prayer, he recited the names of the four girls, then for one of only two times in his rabbinate, he disregarded his notes and spoke off the cuff.

He “proceeded to excoriate the congregation for the next 45 minutes for its sins of omission and commission concerning segregation and the treatment of blacks.” The congregation later received a bomb threat, but the next morning he continued taking the congregants to task for their hiring practices. He asked them to take part in a memorial and rebuilding fund started by a group of clergy, of which he later became a trustee.

In 1964, Rabbi Grafman said the Ku Klux Klan should not have a display booth at the Alabama State Fair. The Klan sued him for libel, and Grafman reflected it was fortunate that all the Klan did was sue him given the Klan’s propensity for registering displeasure through dynamite.

In 1970, a vote to accept two black members failed at Birmingham’s First Baptist Church. Pastor J. Herbert Gilmore immediately resigned and took much of the church staff with him, forming the inclusive Baptist Church of the Covenant. The new church was welcomed by Grafman into Temple Emanu-El until it could find its own facilities.

Shortly afterward, the Birmingham Ministers Association was debating the schism. Rabbi Grafman listened to the arguments back and forth, and then was asked for his opinion. He asked the ministers if they had read the words of Jesus and if they had walked where he had walked in Jerusalem. “I have,” he told them. “When you read these books and when you walk in his path, you will have your answer. He has settled this matter.”

Moments later, the vote to pass a resolution supporting racial inclusiveness in churches was unanimous, and a few years later he would be elected president of the group.

He chaired an unprecedented biracial citizens’ committee in 1979 to investigate the shooting of a black teen, Bonita Carter, by a white police officer. The committee was appointed by Mayor David Vann, but fallout over the shooting helped propel Richard Arrington into office later that year as the city’s first black mayor. Arrington then appointed Rabbi Grafman to the Police-Community Relations Committee.

Rabbi Grafman also spoke out over the 1990 controversy over a Professional Golf Association tournament at Shoal Creek after the developer — a good friend of his — defended not having black members. Even then, the city’s most prominent country clubs had no Jewish members, and in 1991 the Jewish country club opened to non-Jews, including blacks.

Despite the criticism over the letter, Rabbi Grafman kept silent about it for 15 years. “Emotions were so high that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for people to accept anything other than what was in Dr. King’s letter,” he felt, and any response would not be productive.

When Rabbi Grafman died in 1995, local civil rights activist Abraham Woods had kind words about him, saying he was one of Birmingham’s “great assets,” something Stephen Grafman said would have pleased and somewhat surprised his father.

At the funeral, Stephen Grafman said, among the crowd was one black man he did not recognize. He not only attended the service at Emanu-El, but also went to the graveside service and back to the Grafman house. It turned out to be Orzell Billingsley, who was King’s attorney and had been the one to escort King out of the Birmingham Jail in April 1963. Billingsley told Grafman he wanted to be there to pay his respects.

Vann said nobody was hurt more from King’s letter than Rabbi Grafman, and that “he is anything but a bigot. He was a critically important leader who had a great moral commitment to end segregation.”

Stephen Grafman said “the ministers as a whole were completely misunderstood,” and he regularly attends talks about the letter, though he acknowledges it is almost impossible to overturn 50 years of narrative about a letter that will go down as one of the most important documents of the 20th century.

In the late 1990s he attended a seminar at Duke University, and afterwards an African-American professor who taught about the letter approached him, asking for copies of some of the hate mail Rabbi Grafman received after the letter was published.

Some time later, Grafman received a letter from the professor, saying he read those missives in class as a clear example of “how good people get mis-used” by history.