Echoes of Selma: Angeleno recalls Alabama summer of ‘65

How big of a “We” were the Jews in “We shall overcome”?

Since the nationwide release of “Selma” a week before the national holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I have wondered about the extent of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement. Was it just the Selma marches? Was our support also financial, in the voting booth? Or something more?

Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein concluded in their 1998 book “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time” that “Jews served in the forefront of the fight to end racial segregation in education, public accommodations and voting.” But wanting to hear it from someone who was actually in the “forefront,” I spoke with a Jewish recruit in the fight.

David Sookne may not sound like someone who served on the front lines of our nation’s battle for civil rights. The semi-retired mathematician and computer programmer — a resident of suburban Los Angeles with whom I pray a couple of times a month — is exacting in speech and even tempered.

David Sookne in 2013. (Edmon J. Rodman)

He’s also blessed with an excellent memory: Sookne can name the people in the Roosevelt administration down to the level of the undersecretary.

So he vividly recalls his seven weeks spent in Alabama’s rural Crenshaw County as a foot soldier in the voter registration campaign for blacks organized by King through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was the summer of 1965 — after the Selma marches but before the passage of the Voting Rights Act that would be one of their outcomes.

Sookne, then 22 and enrolled in a doctoral program in in theoretical mathematics at the University of Chicago, signed up after following the news stories about the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer — a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964 in which several supporters and volunteers were murdered, including two young Jewish men.

After first driving home to Springfield, Md. — his parents didn’t want him to go — he headed for Atlanta.

Sookne had already had his first taste of the risks involved with working for civil rights.

During spring break in ’65, he was among three dozen University of Chicago student volunteers in Somerville, Tenn., helping to build a structure to be used as a meeting place for voting rights activities.

In the local home of the organizer, John McFerren, who was black and a World War II veteran, Sookne heard a car pull up outside, a “pop-pop-pop” and the car pulling away.

“McFerren went to the living room wall and pulled something out,” Sookne recalled. It was a bullet from “a .22,” he recalled McFerren saying.

“‘They are just trying to scare us,'” McFerren said, according to Sookne. “If they were trying to kill us, they would use something bigger.’”

“That was my introduction to the danger of voter registration,” Sookne said.

As part of the training in Atlanta, Sookne and hundreds of volunteers heard King speak, as well as Bayard Rustin, a pacifist and civil rights leader. He also went through about a weeklong training session that would help prepare him for the domestic battle ahead.

“We practiced various things like not reacting to insults,” said Sookne, who had a student deferment from service in the Vietnam War. “We also practiced curling up on the ground, protecting vital organs in case we got beaten up.”

At the end of the week, the volunteers were given their assignments, and Sookne drove his pale green Volkswagen Beetle in a caravan that stopped first in Montgomery, Ala. From there he drove to the small town of Luverne, where he met up with six others, including organizer Bruce Hartford, also Jewish, who had found the group housing in a local residence.

Sookne recalled that about five minutes after they reached town, they were met by the local police chief, Harry Raupach.

“He told us to write down name, address and next of kin,” Sookne said, “just in case something happened to us.”

He also recalled that Raupach, who was originally from the North — “and not a Klansman,” Sookne said — saved the group more than once from being beaten up.

Knocking on people’s doors at a time when the passage of the Voting Rights Act seemed imminent — the law would make registration easier — made signing up voters a hard sell. So the group members turned their efforts toward another goal: integrating local restaurants.

In the town of Brantley, they ran into trouble.

“They didn’t want their all-white restaurants integrated,” Sookne said.

At a nonviolence training session on a ball field there, he recalled “three carloads of young men in their late teens and 20s” pulling up, with perhaps five of them getting out.

“They told us we better get out of Brantley or they would beat us up,” Sookne said.

Hartford, who was also present, has written that the locals — he refers to them as “All Klan” — had “ax handles and chains and clubs.”

Sookne said the volunteers made a dash for his VW.

On the highway trying to make it back to Luverne, he could see that two cars were in close pursuit, with perhaps others farther behind. When the highway widened a few miles before the relative safety of Luverne, Sookne recalled one of the cars passing, pulling in front and boxing him in.

“We slowed to about 25 miles per hour,” Sookne said.

He took a turnoff and veered left “onto a winding gravel road where the VW had an advantage.” His car pulled ahead, but turning onto a second highway to Luverne, the Klansmen were still in pursuit.

Suddenly, Hartford recalled, a couple of cars “filled with black men armed with shotguns” got between the VW and its pursuers. Hartford, who was in the car, believes some people in Brantley had called them about the situation.

“They escorted us back into Luverne. The Klan didn’t want to mess with them,” Hartford wrote.

In the fall, back at college, Sookne received a letter from King sent to all the SCLC volunteers — 20 to 30 percent of whom were Jewish, both Sookne and Hartford estimate.

“It is a rare privilege in life to participate in the fulfillment of an idea whose time has come,” the letter began.

For Sookne it was also a way, he said, of expressing “Tzedek, tzedek tirdoff” — “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Even if, as it turned out, he was also being pursued.

Alabama youth group pulling billboard quoting Hitler

An Alabama billboard quoting Adolf Hitler is being taken down at the request of the advertising company that leased the space.

The advertisement for Life Savers Ministries, a Christian youth program, features five smiling children beneath the quote attributed to Hitler, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future,” according to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia.

It went up May 31 on a Lamar Advertising billboard near a mall in Auburn, Ala., and was to be removed Tuesday.

“We are pulling the billboard and certainly never intended to cause confusion,” Life Savers Ministries founder James Anderegg told the Ledger-Enquirer.

He added, “Herbert Hoover would have been a far better one to quote when he said, ‘Children are our most valuable resource.’ We are a children’s organization and had honorable intentions and nothing less.”

The Opelika, Ala., group, founded in 1996, serves “hundreds of boys and girls brought from around 20 different rough and tough locations,” according to its website.


When football and Yom Kippur collide

While many of us are finding this year’s Yom Kippur conveniently scheduled because it falls on the weekend, at Texas A&M the holiday clashes with one of the most significant days on the football calendar: Aggies vs. Alabama. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Saturday is not just Yom Kippur but also when the Aggies play Alabama in a college-football game of biblical proportions — and some of the school’s Jewish students have decided that mixing the two is kosher.

How are Jewish students handling it?

  • The school’s rabbi, Matt Rosenberg, plans to end Yom Kippur prayers around 1 p.m., in time for the 2:30 p.m. game.
  • The campus Hillel will be screening the game on a big-screen TV.
  • Some students who are fasting and planning to attend the game at Kyle Field will break with the A&M tradition of standing throughout the contest: They have reserved about 20 seats in the stadium’s handicapped section.
  • Because of the expected heat, Hillel’s prime minister, who plans to attend the game, said she’ll be bringing a water bottle.
  • One Texas junior is resolving the conflict by fasting on Friday instead of Yom Kippur, which is on Saturday:

“We figured we’d make a deal with the Lord and do it a day early,” he said. As to whether the Lord agreed to his terms: “I sure hope so,” he said. “We’ll find out if we beat Alabama.”

Ala. justice removed over Ten Commandments advances in bid to return

A former Alabama chief justice who was removed for placing a monument to the Ten Commandments in his courthouse won the Republican primary in a bid to get back his job.

Roy Moore won slightly more than 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary, obviating the need for a runoff. He thanked God for the victory.

A panel had removed him in 2003 for disobeying a federal court order to remove the monument. A number of Jewish groups that had strongly opposed the monument supported his removal, in part because Moore had cast the matter so emphatically as a Christian one.

Moore’s critics believed his career as an elected official to be over when he was crushed in 2006 in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

The Montgomery Advertiser quoted him as saying he would not return the monument, but that he backs legislation under consideration that would allow such displays.

“I will always acknowledge God,” Moore said, according to the Advertiser.

He now faces Harry Lyon, a lawyer, who is the Democratic nominee.

Santorum’s Southern sweep mars Romney’s front-runner status

Rick Santorum swept two Southern states in Republican primaries, complicating Mitt Romney’s status as front-runner and all but burying Newt Gingrich’s chance for the nomination.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who emerged from last place in polling as recently as December to become the conservative challenger to Romney, scored 33 percent of the vote in Mississippi and nearly 35 percent in Alabama. Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, finished second in both states, with 31 percent in MIssissippi and 29 percent in Alabama. Romney was third with 30 percent in Mississippi and 29 percent in Alabama.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) came in a distant fourth in both races after barely campaigning in either state.

Romney, who during the campaign has tried to shuck his reputation as a moderate, had campaigned hard in a bid to prove he could win in conservative Southern states. The former Massachusetts governor is leading substantially in delegates, but his path to the nomination has been far from smooth as conservative candidates continue to mount substantive challenges.

Gingrich had suggested that if he failed to win in Mississippi and Alabama, his campaign was in trouble, predicated as it was on winning Southern states.

If Gingrich leaves the race, campaign watchers will look to see who his main backer, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, decides to support. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, twice salvaged Gingrich’s campaign with huge cash infusions; Gingrich and Adelson have been friends since the 1990s, in part because they share hard-line pro-Israel positions.

Romney has the backing of much of the Jewish Republican establishment, having attracted the bulk of Jewish donors and advisers. His appeal to Jews is based partly on his moderation and ability during his governance of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 to appeal to liberals and independents.

Additionally he and his wife, Ann, have referred in talks to Jewish groups to their Mormon faith, likening themselves to Jewish Republicans who have pushed for prominence in a party that still draws much of its support from a Protestant base.

Both Santorum and Romney have battered President Obama for what they depict as his hostility to Israel and his fecklessness on dealing with Iran, and both say that they will repeal much of the heath care reform package passed by Obama.

Some of Santorum’s domestic policies, including statements suggesting that a “Jesus guy” is most suitable for the presidency, have alarmed some Jewish groups.

Jewish community aiding tornado victims

Jewish groups are mobilizing assistance in areas of the U.S. Southeast struck by devastating tornadoes this week.

The Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama has opened a Tornado Recovery Fund to raise money for victims of the storms and tornadoes, which struck Wednesday and continued Thursday morning. The federation is coordinating a community relief effort with the United Way of Central Alabama, focusing on the Birmingham region, which was particularly hard hit. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, and more than a million homes and buildings were without power as of Friday afternoon.

Knesset Israel Congregation of Birmingham held a communal meal Thursday night and was planning to do the same over Shabbat, to aid those without electricity. The congregation’s rabbi, Eytan Yammer, is giving monetary aid to victims from his discretionary funds.

Nearly 300 people were killed in six states, two-thirds of them in Alabama alone. So far, no Jewish deaths or injuries have been reported, although several Jewish homes in Alambama were damaged by trees, according to Southern Jewish Life.

“Fortunately, much of our Jewish community was minimally affected by the storms, though we have received some calls for assistance,” Collat Jewish Family Services Executive Director Lauren Perlman reported Thursday.

“In Birmingham, there’s no separation between the Jewish community and our broader community,” said Joyce Spielberger, director of community relations and overseas programs at the Birmingham Jewish Federation. “There is not one person in Alabama that has not been affected.”

B’nai B’rith International also has opened a mailbox for donations to the affected area.

Scars Fall on Alabama

Scars Fall on Alabama

Close to half the Reform temples in Alabama are named “Emanuel,” which is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Jews all over the state are hoping it proves true this fall, when voters pick a governor.

In a way, the Alabama governor’s race is the very embodiment of a dilemma Jews face nationwide as they confront the growing strength of the Christian right. On one hand, Republican incumbent Gov. Fob James, a passionate defender of Israel whose conservative domestic views put him sharply at odds with most Jews. On the other hand, his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, best known for not being Fob James.

But James is no mere conservative. He’s one of the nation’s most strident political crusaders for a Christian America. He recently won headlines by defending a judge who hangs the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall. His advocacy of school prayer reportedly borders on promoting civil disobedience. Critics say that his attacks on federal courts and the First Amendment — he claims that it doesn’t apply to states — are fueling an atmosphere of religious war in Alabama.

He resoundingly clinched his party’s renomination in the June 30 primary runoff after one of the most divisive races in recent memory. Local Jews are shaking their heads.

“The politics here are becoming really frightening,” Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham says. “This seems to be the place where the Christian right is making its beachhead.”

James is not really as devout a Christian as his rhetoric suggests, say most observers. But his wife is. Bobbie James’ brand of fundamentalism is said to be one of the chief influences on the governor’s agenda. A millennialist who considers Israel the key to God’s plan, she’s visited Israel at least 15 times. She’s close to several haredi rabbis and Likud politicians. One rabbi flew from Jerusalem to her husband’s last inauguration, in 1995, to blow a shofar and read from the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Afterward, the band played Hatikvah.

Challenger Siegelman is not Jewish, despite his name. But his wife is. The Siegelmans are regulars at Montgomery’s Conservative synagogue, Agudath Israel, where their older daughter was bat mitzvahed in February. When Hatikvah was played at the 1995 inauguration, the lieutenant governor’s wife was reported to be the only one on the reviewing stand able to sing along.

And, yet, it’s Fob James who has made friendship for Israel and Jews a cornerstone of his agenda. His Alabama-Israel trade mission last fall was a high-profile event that yielded important contracts for Israeli firms. He elevated the state’s annual Holocaust commemoration from a small reception to a major public ceremony. “We stand with you forever,” he declared in his 1997 keynote, “and vow before God Almighty: Never again.”

Few doubt his sincerity. It certainly isn’t a bid for Jewish votes. Only 9,000 of the state’s 4.3 million residents are Jewish, barely one-fifth of 1 percent, and most are Democrats. Last year, a mild ruckus erupted during a meeting at the Birmingham Jewish Federation when the chairman of the community relations committee disclosed that one of the panel’s 15 members was a Republican. “Most people were very nice about it,” says the lone Republican, Hyman “Herc” Levine. “But not everyone.”

A year later, Republican Jews are harder than ever to find, and the reason is Fob James.

“Here’s a man who, with his wife at his side, will stand up and say he’s a friend of the Jews,” says Tuscaloosa attorney Joel Sogol, a member of the regional Anti-Defamation League board. “And, yet, he stands with a group of people who want to make Jews and other non-Christians second-class citizens.”

Sogol points to last year’s Ten Commandments case as typical. A judge in rural Gadsden had hung the tablets of the Law in his courtroom, and he was opening each session with a prayer — Christian only. Sogol, representing the American Civil Liberties Union, sued in federal court to stop the practice. The case was thrown out when the court ruled that nobody with a valid interest had complained.

That didn’t stop Fob James. He filed his own lawsuit, demanding that the federal court specifically endorse the rituals. When the court declined, the governor went on the warpath, claiming that the federal judge was impeding the practice of religion.

James was even more aggressive after another federal court barred recitals of Christian prayers in the public schools of rural DeKalb County.

“The court basically affirmed existing federal law, that children can pray during non-instructional time,” says Birmingham attorney Lenora Pate, who lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Siegelman. “The governor has used it to make the case that 50 million children throughout America can no longer pray in school. He’s even urged students to some extent to disobey the law.”

“I’m a Christian, and I’m deeply troubled by the rhetoric,” says Pate, who is married to a Jew. “Back in the ’60s, we had this same type of states-rights, ‘those-federal-judges-can’t-push-us-around’ rhetoric. Back then, it was wrapped around race. We had Gov. Wallace, who ran all over the state, whipping people into a frenzy, and out of the blue we had church bombings and little girls were killed.”

“Today, the same rhetoric is wrapped around religion. I can certainly understand how my Jewish friends and family can feel a huge concern.”

James does have Jewish defenders, particularly in Mobile, whose 1,200 Jews include some nationally prominent Republican donors. They say the governor is misunderstood.

“Those who know Fob James don’t feel threatened,” says Mobile attorney Irving Silver, a former chairman of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Public Policy. “I think he has an abiding respect for people of faith, and I think he is crying out — perhaps not as articulately as he should — about the shortage of religious values pervading our society. But the world is not caving in. Those forebodings about Alabama becoming a theocracy are just ludicrous.”

But the fears aren’t just theoretical. Last year, in rural Pike County, a Jewish family named Willis was subjected to violent harassment after protesting the prayers imposed on their children in school. Jews throughout the state, particularly in rural areas, followed the case closely.

“Fob James is a very nice guy,” says Rabbi Miller. “And the fact is that our constitutional protections are still in place. So far, it’s mainly atmospherics. But you don’t know where things may lead. That’s what’s frightening.”

“When non-Jews say they’re scared,” says Pate, “they mean they’re concerned about our image nationally. But when Jews say it’s scary, they mean it personally.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.