Marker dedication kicks off Beth-El Civil Rights Experience

Viewing the marker at the July 17 dedication

The dedication of a historical marker at Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El as part of its new Civil Rights Experience “is not the end but the beginning,” said Margaret Norman, director of programming and engagement at Beth-El. “It is a very fitting beginning… there is much to learn from looking at this portion of our past.”

The marker, which was dedicated on July 17, details the attempted bombing of Beth-El by a Ku Klux Klan cell in April 1958. The fuse malfunctioned on the satchel of 54 sticks of dynamite, enough to level a city block. The bomb had been placed below street level in a window well outside the social hall, a spot that was filled in about 15 years ago. The marker is placed in front of that spot.

The committee organizing the Civil Rights Experience envisions it as a stop for groups doing civil rights tours through the state, especially Jewish groups from around the country.

They have launched an audio tour that includes the story of the attempted bombing “as well as 10 others at the intersection of Birmingham’s Jewish and civil rights histories.” A team of docents is being trained to give tours of historical displays at Beth-El, and at least 10 groups are expected to visit by the end of the summer.

A community sneak peek will be held on Aug. 25.

At the marker dedication, Norman said “it seemed a natural starting place for our project to have the first physical piece of the civil rights experience marking this important moment in our own congregation’s history.”

Ron Levitt, who would become the former president of Beth-El an hour later at the congregational meeting, said the project spun off from a joint January 2018 weekend with Temple Emanu-El, “Forging Ahead: Civil Rights Stories and Song.”

At the Beth-El event in 2018, Senator Doug Jones and former Attorney General Bill Baxley, who had prosecuted those responsible for the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, spoke about that long-delayed effort. Baxley also said that it was J.B. Stoner’s group that was behind the Beth-El bombing, but not the church bombing. Before that, there had never been a public declaration of who was responsible for the Beth-El attempt, and the case was never officially solved, let alone prosecuted.

Levitt said the enormity of the weekend showed that it would not be a one-off program, leading a team of volunteers to develop the Civil Rights Experience, bringing Norman on as the professional leader. He said it is a “transformative program for Temple Beth-El and our community”

Rabbi Steven Henkin, who had just arrived in Birmingham to take the pulpit at Beth-El, welcomed the crowd. Referencing the current wave of antisemitic acts, he said “Our work is not done, as long as hatred of any sort exists in this world.”

Melissa Young, project historian, said she was excited to explore the overlap of the Jewish community and the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, but was cognizant “that history was complicated and messy, and involved real people, rather than heroes or villains to celebrate or condemn.”

Over two years of exploration, she saw the wide range of reactions to the attempted bombing and to the civil rights demonstrations. “Some reactions were incredibly admirable, and others were not so admirable,” but she found the committee to be willing to talk openly about all of the history.

Lisa McNair

Lisa McNair, sister of Denise McNair, one of the four girls killed in the 1963 church bombing, said that for many years, she did not know about the attempted bombing of Beth-El. That is “another testament to how we need to work hard to make sure the whole history of our history in Birmingham is shared and told.”

Reflecting on the loss of her sister, she said “We don’t want to have that pain any more.… we don’t want to have such horrible things, to have children’s lives taken from us. We have to be a party of one, each of us” in the fight against hate.

Committee member Suzanne Bearman, a Beth-El member, spoke about being in Birmingham during that time. She arrived in Birmingham in 1960, two years after the attempted bombing, but when “segregation was still in full bloom.”

She was “horrified” by segregation and wanted to be an agent of change, but did not have the power to do much more than volunteer at various organizations. She recalled being on a sequestered jury in 1970 where the judge ordered extra hotel rooms so Black jurors would not be in the same rooms as white jurors, and she protested about it to the bailiff, who agreed but could not go against the judge.

Though she mentioned things she did, “I’ve come to realize, with the help of my grandchildren, just how much more I could and should have done. We can all do more. We can all grow.” And that, she said, is one of the lessons of the attempted bombing.

“The marker reminds us to be grateful that the bomb did not go off… it reminds us that our history was not always made up of the good old days, an there is more work ahead of us to make this community better for everyone.”

She also notes the marker’s mention of white sympathy toward Beth-El, which was not evident after attacks on Black churches.

Bearman closed by reciting part of a prayer written by two Ohio rabbis, a Jewish prayer for Juneteenth.

Norman then read the text of the marker, before everyone went outside to see it.

Those attending the dedication left the sanctuary through the front doors, going to the side of the building to view the marker. Each participant poured a cup of water into a watering can, with the combined waters used on the flowers around the marker, “as a moment of coming together and growth.”