The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s

By Mark K. Bauman; Berkley Kalin | Go to book overview

Rabbi Grafman and Birmingham's Civil Rights Era

TERRY BARR

The civil rights movement reached an apex in Birmingham as it had in Memphis, virtually simultaneously with a change in municipal government. Yet unlike James A. Wax, Milton Grafman served in a city with a rabbinic tradition of circumspect social consciousness and a strong tendency toward racial intransigence. He chose to walk his way through the civil rights era with careful steps. Caught in a middle ground, he was shocked when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., used him and his coworkers as symbols of the failure of the gradualist approach. In a controversial article published in the June 1994 issue of the Journal of American History, Michael J. Klarman has argued that moderate racial change was indeed occurring in such southern cities as Birmingham prior to the Browndecision of 1954. Changes were sluggish and local, however, and King and his lieutenants recognized the need for confrontation to obtain national support and federal assistance. Given strategic considerations, then, the moderation that individuals such as Rabbi Grafman saw working and wanted to continue to pursue would be counter- productive. Klarman quotes Wyatt Walker as stating with hindsight, "We knew that when we came to Birmingham that if Bull Connor was still in control, he would do something to benefit our movement. We didn't want to march after Bull was gone." Terry Barr's story of Grafman raises numerous "what ifs": What if King had waited until after Connor had been removed from office? What if the gradualist approach had been allowed to take its course? What if Grafman and others had been willing to take more dramatic steps? What if a James Wax, Jacob Rothschild, or Charles Mantinband had occupied a Birmingham pulpit? Historians can resort to hindsight when grappling with such questions but with little hope of reaching any more than controvertible hypotheses.

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