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Temple Beth-El to Dedicate Historical Civil Rights Marker on Sunday

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By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

The members of Temple Beth-El, a synagogue in Birmingham’s Southside community, on Sunday, July 17 will dedicate a historical marker outside the building, on the spot where a bombing was attempted in 1958.

The dedication will be held on the steps of the synagogue at 2179 Highland Avenue at 12:15 p.m. RSVP by emailing mnorman@templebeth-el.net.

The marker is part of a larger effort from leadership and members of the synagogue, called the Beth-El Civil Rights Experience, to research the Civil Rights Movement.

Margaret Norman, director of programming and engagement for Beth-El

Margaret Norman, director of programming and engagement for Beth-El, said understanding the history contained within the project “better affects how we show up in the present.”

“I think in Birmingham, we all know that this history is still present for us. It was a long time ago, but it wasn’t that long ago, and really understanding fully who we were helps us know who we are and who we’re going to be,” Norman said.

Through the project, Norman said researchers are exploring the full “spectrum of action to inaction,” including the stories of people who were the most involved in the Movement, as well as those who were not involved.

The attempted bombing of the synagogue, which happened the same year that the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth-led Bethel Baptist Church was bombed, is a useful story to show the differences in how people responded to the Movement, Norman said.

“It’s a way to look at how does one event influence people in different ways, and it was this really important formative event for the community and for how different people reacted to the Civil Rights Movement,” Norman said.

While numerous bombings of Black homes and institutions were happening in Birmingham and across the South, Norman said similar bombings were also happening at Jewish institutions in the region.

“[The bombing] was actually part of a pattern of attacks against Southern Jewish communities and understanding that and situating that [can help] understand, I think, the complexity of the Jewish position in that moment,” she said.

Research for the Beth-El Civil Rights Experience started in August 2020 done by a group including Norman, Dr. Melissa Young, a historian from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), about 15 members of the synagogue, as well as interns from UAB.

Materials in the research include archived primary sources and oral histories from members of the synagogue and others throughout Birmingham.

Through the project, Norman also said viewers will get a picture of the diversity of thought that existed within the Black and Jewish communities during time around the Movement.

“What I think becomes really clear in this research is that neither community was monolithic in any way… what we really see in our research is just how diverse both of those communities were, and how complicated that moment was, and even people who maybe wanted the same thing often disagreed about exactly what change was, or how to achieve it,” Norman said.

“The harder we look, the more complicated it is, but there’s a lot to learn from that,” she added.

Showing that complexity, Norman said, could help people understand their own ability to make change in the world.

“We hope that really highlighting that sort of complexity of change and complexity of human beings and moments of big change, that people who engage with our projects feel like they themselves are also historic actors who have the ability to make change, even if they’re not always perfect,” Norman said.