If it Wasn’t for the Rain

By Noah Lapidus

If it wasn’t for the rain that doused the burning fuses, my synagogue would be no longer.

In 1943 my grandfather celebrated his Bar-Mitzvah at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama. He opened his speech with the words, “These are dark days for the Jewish people.” Little did he know that fifteen years later, 54 sticks of dynamite would be placed outside Temple Beth-El in an attempt to perpetuate those dark days. The culprit was never identified, although the police strongly suspected Bobby Frank Cherry, the same white man who later murdered four Black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. If the rain hadn’t doused the burning fuses then maybe Rabbi Milton Grafman, of the nearby Temple Emanuel, would not have so eagerly condemned Dr. King in a letter to the Birmingham News. Dr. King responded with a Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Southern Jews played an important role in the Civil Rights movement, as victims, as activists, and as perpetrators. Only by confronting this tripartite existence, in our past and in ourselves, can we confront the inequities of our present. That is why I work for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project.

I never met Bea, but sometimes we visit her on Mother’s Day. She is buried on Birmingham’s Northside, not far from the cemetery where generations of my Jewish ancestors are buried. As the Jews sought a better life on the Southside, where we still live today, Alabama’s Black population flooded the Northside from rural areas. Bea’s family was among them. Bea, Beatrice Cox, was born in 1917 in Mt. Hebron, Alabama. Named for the region where my ancestors prospered in the Judean Hills millennia ago, Mt. Hebron lies on the northern tip of the Black Belt. Bea’s father was a farmer, her grandfather was enslaved. By age eleven Bea found herself a laborer, but in her teenage years the Cox family uprooted to Birmingham’s Northside. It wasn’t long before she was hired by my grandmother.

Dad says he loved Bea so much that it made Bubbe jealous. Bubbe, my beloved grandma, was born poor on Birmingham’s Southside in 1931. Her parents were raised on the Northside, children of Ashkenazi immigrants who settled in an era when the Northside was indistinguishable from a shtetl. Bubbe’s grandmother had witnessed her mother’s murder during a pogrom in Romania. Bubbe’s mother was only a girl when Leo Frank, a Southern Jew, was wrongly convicted for the rape and murder of a young white girl and lynched two years later. Considering her humble beginnings, I often wonder why Bubbe paid Bea so little, or allowed Bea so little time to spend with her own children. My Dad remembers riding on the back of the bus with Bea as a young boy, but we speak more about Bea’s famous fried chicken and mashed potatoes than we do about her plight, or the plight of her children. I wonder if Bea’s son would have still been imprisoned had his mother not been raising my Dad. I wonder if he has contempt for my Dad. I wonder if he has contempt for me.

In a roundabout way, it was Bubbe that led me to the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. When I was a child my grandma used to take me to visit the Old Jewish Cemetery on the Northside. She would introduce me to her ancestors while I collected their vital data with pen and paper. As my genealogical skills grew, so did my passion for social justice. Each time I visited the cemetery I reconciled with its surroundings, the place where my ancestors lived and where Bea’s posterity live today. I can’t help but feel that our past and present are intertwined, that I continue to benefit directly from the privileges my father was afforded at the expense of Bea’s children. I can’t help but feel that I might not be here today if the rain hadn’t doused the burning fuses. My primary job for CRRJ has been to track down the descendants of victims and perpetrators of Jim Crow era violence. Each descendant I find is one step closer to finding the victims, activists, and perpetrators in my life and in myself.

Rediscovering Alabama

By Noah Lapidus

I always carried pride in Alabama, the state where my great-great-grandfather settled in 1885 to service the miners of Brookside, the state I adorn red and white for every Saturday. The Alabama I grew up in always seemed so much better than the Alabama I was berated about in Boston. It’s easy to judge from afar, I always said.

Amos Starr was born in Friendship, Alabama in 1909 and Mary Norris was killed in Camp Hill, Alabama in 1947. Giles Scott was born in Trinity, Alabama in 1917 and McKinley Fox was killed in Glendon, Alabama in 1937. I was born and raised in Alabama, but until working with CRRJ, I hadn’t heard of Friendship, Camp Hill, Trinity, or Glendon. I also hadn’t heard of Ohatchee, Eight Mile, Ethelsville, or the vast majority of municipalities where the victims I encounter were born and murdered.

I’d been so shielded from the Alabama I once thought I knew. Shielded from the Alabama where Willie Edwards was forced by Klansmen to jump off of the Tyler-Goodwin Bridge to his death. Shielded from the Alabama where Timothy Hood was murdered for removing a Jim Crow sign from a crowded public bus. Shielded from the Alabama where Ike Williams, George Teague, and Charles Harris were killed by county police within a single month.

In October, however, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project held a symposium in my hometown of Birmingham. From around the state victims of racial violence and their descendants gathered to share their stories and to be heard. The Birmingham Chief of Police, A.C. Roper, even apologized for the extrajudicial murders committed by his department in the Jim Crow era.

What I’ve lost in pride, I’ve gained in hope.

 

 

 

 

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