BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Southern Jewish Life) — “Are you still a bigot?”
Every year for the rest of his life, students studying the Rev. 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, 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 in that hotbed of segregation 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.
After the violent attacks in 1961 on Freedom Riders in Birmingham, civic leaders realized that the city had to change, if for no other reason than it was bad for business. To truly effect change 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 succeeded in changing the city from a three-commissioner form of government to a mayor-council system. Connor was voted out but refused to recognize the April 1963 election. The courts sorted out the issue nearly two months later.
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 demonstrations fizzled.
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.
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who headed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, wanted King to come to Birmingham, knowing Connor would overreact 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 delaying the demonstrations — until April 3, a day after Birmingham elected a new leadership. The new government was much more interested in making racial progress, and 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 Connor out of the way.
Stephen Grafman points out that it was a concern shared by others who never felt the sting of progressive backlash afterward. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the Rev. Billy Graham and the Washington Post, among others, said the demonstrations were untimely.
On April 12, 1963, King was arrested for defying an injunction against the demonstrations, and he was taken to the jail. In the Birmingham jail, he decided to take up Shapiro’s suggestion, writing the now-famous letter on scraps of paper and later on a legal pad. The letter was published in mid-May, and within days hate mail started pouring in to Rabbi Grafman.
“The Jewish community nationally, particularly in the New York area, reacted with vicious letters about which they knew very little,” Grafman said.
The vitriol continues even today — 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.
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 in which 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 of that year, the 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.
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.
Rabbi Grafman, who started in Birmingham in 1941, had raised the supremacists’ ire many times.
In the fall of 1963, he 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 the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to discuss with President Kennedy how to further racial progress. And there were other.
Despite the criticism over the letter, Rabbi Grafman kept silent 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 Grafman said would have pleased and somewhat surprised his father.
At the funeral, Grafman said, among the crowd was Orzell Billingsley, who was King’s attorney and had been the one to escort King out of the Birmingham Jail in April 1963. Billingsley also went to the graveside service and back to the Grafman house. He told Grafman he wanted to be there to pay his respects.
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.
(This version is condensed from a longer piece, available at sjlmag.com. Newspapers in Southern Jewish Life’s catchment area — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and northwest Florida — may not run this piece.)