Cohens and McNealy model PEACE for Birmingham

David and Lois Cohen, and Barry McNealy (BCRI photo)

By Richard Friedman and Kiara Dunlap 

An unlikely friendship between an older Jewish couple and a younger Black leader has sparked change in their communities — and transformed their lives.

And if you know these three folks, it’s easy to see why. They are passionate, personable and persistent in their dedication to making the world a better place.

David and Lois Cohen, activists in the Birmingham Jewish community, over the past three decades, have developed a deep and inspiring friendship with Barry McNealy, an African American historian and educator well-known throughout the city.

The deep bond the Cohens and McNealy have developed has been built on camaraderie, love and mutual respect. They’ve also created a program that has changed the lives of young people throughout our city and birthed ideas that have brought Jews and Blacks in Birmingham closer together, deepening ties between the two groups.

The framework through which they have made this impact is PEACE Birmingham. Started in the 1990s, People Engaged in A Cultural Exchange initially focused on providing a safe space for teens from the Black and Jewish communities to know each other better, share experiences and perspectives, and become allies. Hundreds of teens have gone through the program as it has evolved.

It was crucial, though, that in PEACE Birmingham’s formative years that an environment was created where the participants could talk openly and freely, sharing their inner thoughts and, at times, their pain, speaking from the heart.

To do that, it was necessary to create an atmosphere where all participants could talk honestly. Through the experience Lois, at the time the director of education at Temple Emanu-El and one of the architects of the project, and David connected with McNealy, then an emerging leader in Birmingham’s African American community.

Talking to the Cohens and McNealy today, 30 years later, one sees the enduring impact of their friendship.

At a 2022 program, for example, which featured the play “Anne and Emmett” at the Birmingham Museum of Art, McNealy was on a panel discussion. The play imagines Emmett Till, murdered in the Civil Rights era, and Anne Frank, famed diarist who died in the Holocaust, meeting in the afterlife. The evening was sponsored by the Birmingham Jewish Federation and McNealy was on a small panel after the show, interpreting the production for his mainly Jewish audience.

During his remarks, he talked movingly about his long-time friendship with the Cohens and how transformative it has been for him, referring to them as his “big sister and big brother.”

This should not be surprising to anyone who knows David and Lois — they exude warmth, love, passion for the community and every conversation with this husband and wife is energetic and affirming.

Odd Pairing

At first glance, the Cohen-McNealy friendship may seem like an odd pairing. Yet, talking to the three of them underscores their commonality — and conveys a lesson to all who are striving to make Birmingham better.

The Cohens, who for decades had maintained a home in Mountain Brook, and McNealy, who grew up in Birmingham’s housing projects, believe that only through getting to know one another can we truly understand what we have in common, along with appreciating and respecting how our perspectives differ.

Said McNealy, “I met Lois and David when I was much younger. I was attending Miles College and working at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute as an intern when it opened about 30 years ago. There was a program called ‘Young Scholars’ and I was selected to represent Miles.”

At the time, McNealy said he didn’t know a lot about other cultures outside of his own.

“Being young, I wanted to learn and at BCRI I was exposed to a number of things. One of those was PEACE Birmingham, a program partnering with Temple Emanu-El. When I first met Lois and David, I didn’t know a great deal about the Jewish community. In terms of Judaism the only Jews I was familiar with were Moses, Jesus and Sammy Davis Jr.!” he recalled with a smile.

“The Cohens and I talked about our shared histories — and how we thought about various things. There were some really intense personal and revealing conversations.”

Speaking from their home with David sitting next to her, Lois talked about how their relationship with Barry began deepening.

“Barry and I were committed to the same thing — to bringing people together to understand each other’s cultures and the challenges facing our communities. From the start, our discussions have been sometimes difficult and painful; not in terms of communication but in terms of the subjects. I felt at times as if I was talking to my own son.”

The friendship has been a two-way street. “I feel like I have grown and developed because of our relationship with Barry,” said Lois. “I’ve learned things from him I never would have known or begun to understand by being in each other’s homes, traveling together and just talking.”

The tough conversations have continued. In the last few years, discussions among the three about police violence against African Americans and the ways in which Black Americans are sometimes perceived of by some in the law enforcement community have been troubling, said Lois.

Painful and Unsettling

There have been other memorable turning points.

David recalls Black teens coming to their house as part of the PEACE Birmingham experience. “We had arranged to meet the kids at Brookwood Mall for them to follow us into Mountain Brook. While waiting for us, they had been approached and questioned by the police. The kids didn’t make a big deal of it, I guess because they are used to things like that. But for Lois and me it was a very painful and uncomfortable experience.”

Another unsettling episode occurred for Lois when a PEACE Birmingham group visited Washington years ago. “We went to the Holocaust Museum and then the Smithsonian. I had called ahead of time telling the Smithsonian that I was bringing a bunch of kids to the museum to learn more about African American history. Yet, there was very little there and virtually nothing about slavery.”

A visit years ago to Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, also was jarring. Jackson was a slaveowner. The guide brushed over the issue, implying that Jackson’s slaves were happy people who enjoyed a good life. McNealy’s eyes widened and his discomfort was palpable. Lois picked up on it immediately and talked to him. They then made their thoughts known to Hermitage staff, which now gives a more honest depiction of slavery.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to their special and enduring relationship came from McNealy as he reflected on the three decades that they have known each other. “When I have needed someone to be on my side, Lois and David have been there. They have been shoulders to cry on, ears to listen and arms around my shoulder.”

And a moment came as their relationship first began to deepen when McNealy needed those arms around his shoulder. He contracted Bell’s Palsy, which distorted and paralyzed half of his face. He has since mostly recovered but has never forgotten the role Lois and David played in helping him navigate his ordeal.

“When the virus first attacked him, speaking was difficult for Barry. He looked as if his face had been impacted by a stroke. This was not a good thing for someone who intended to make his living, as an educator, through speaking,” recalled Lois.

“Lois consoled me and talked about the blessings that God had bestowed on me, helping me to reframe the challenge in a broader context and position myself to meet it,” McNealy remembered.

“Barry was so upset that he couldn’t smile anymore,” said Lois. “I said Barry, you don’t smile with your mouth. You smile with your eyes. Years later he told me how wonderful that made him feel.”

(Kiara Dunlap is a recent graduate of HBCU Miles College, She co-wrote this story with Southern Jewish Life associate editor Richard Friedman though her joint internship with Southern Jewish Life and the Birmingham Times.)