A New Civil Rights Exhibit Asks: Honestly, What Would You Have Done?


The contents of the suitcase, more or less, told Emil Hess’s life story.

A report card from the University of Pennsylvania, dated 1939. A photograph of him in his Navy uniform during World War II. An advertisement for Parisian, the department store that he owned in the center of Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city.

And a recording from his son, describing how his father, in the face of competing protests from Black customers fighting for equality and white patrons opposing it, had moved to desegregate the store.

The suitcase is now part of a new civil rights exhibit at Temple Beth El, the historic synagogue in Birmingham. It was handed to a group visiting the exhibit, along with a challenge: Figure out why he heeded the activists’ call when many others did not.

Did he have a genuine desire for fairness? Did he simply fear a boycott? Or did his intentions even matter?

“Because now you’re in the fight,” said Melvin Herring, one of the visitors, raising the point that whatever the reason, Mr. Hess, who died in 1996, had aligned himself with the civil rights protesters and had become invested in their mission. Eventually, his stores were among the first to hire Black salesmen. “He said, ‘We’re going to stay in the fight.’”

Dr. Herring was part of a group from the Black-Jewish Alliance of Charlotte, an organization created to forge friendships between the two communities. The group had come to Birmingham for what has become an increasingly common pilgrimage in the South, making stops at museums and landmarks associated with the region’s civil rights history.

Many of those places expose the horrors of the past or celebrate the activism that rose up in defiance of it. The exhibit at Temple Beth El is concerned less with villains or heroes than with the great many who fell somewhere in between. It is built on the premise that history is the sum of infinite numbers of small decisions that gradually coalesce into profound change — decisions like the one Mr. Hess made to integrate the Parisian.

“What we’re doing is trying to show the messiness,” said Melissa Young, a historian who helped organize the exhibit. “We’re trying to show how complicated history is.”

Listening to the rationales and the regrets of those on the periphery of the fight has value, organizers argued. Participants might be forced to confront their own ambivalence or the worries that keep them from speaking up about injustices unfolding in front of them now.

“Rather than judging history between the good and the bad, or assuming we would have been on the right side,” said Margaret Norman, the synagogue’s director of programming, “what can we learn by taking a more nuanced look at understanding how people responded with the resources they had?”

The exhibit, the Beth El Civil Rights Experience, started giving tours in January to students from Jewish schools and groups from other faith-related and civic organizations. Although it examines this history through a Jewish lens, organizers see it as just as applicable to a broader audience. A sorority in Nebraska recently called to ask for a tour.

The Beth El project was conceived in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd provoked a sprawling reappraisal of the reach of systemic racism and the endurance of inequality. The congregation, for its part, wanted to explore how Jews figured into the tandem legacies of racism and activism that have shaped Birmingham.

“This is such an active piece of memory here,” Ms. Norman said of the civil rights movement. “It’s not something at arm’s length.”

But by the time the exhibit opened, the dynamics of race and identity had shifted.

A backlash to the racial reckoning of 2020 has led Alabama lawmakers to pass legislation to strip public funding for diversity, equality and inclusion programs and limit what can be taught about “divisive concepts” in schools. Acts of antisemitism have surged in recent years, including bomb threats at synagogues in Alabama. Deep divisions have emerged over the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, the ferocity of Israel’s response in Gaza and demands for a cease-fire.

The change in climate, organizers said, has made the exhibit — and the discussions it might stir — all the more urgent.

The exhibit was designed and organized by Tyler Jones, a Birmingham filmmaker, along with Ms. Young, Ms. Norman and others in the congregation. The tour is guided by congregants who studied this history for months.

It was planned with the understanding that many, if not most, of its visitors were not coming to Alabama just to visit the synagogue. (The state’s Tourism Department even offers a civil rights trail itinerary.)

The organizers saw the exhibit as a complement to the other far more well-known destinations: the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, for instance, where law enforcement officers violently confronted peaceful protesters in 1965, and more recent creations in Montgomery, like the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to victims of lynching.

In fact, the group visiting from Charlotte had stopped in Atlanta that morning to tour sites connected to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In Birmingham, the program began with a film that explains the congregation’s own brush with the racial terror that gripped the city for years as segregationists detonated explosives at houses of worship and the homes of activists.

In 1958, an 18-year-old custodian named James Pruitt found 54 sticks of dynamite at the synagogue that had failed to detonate. (Mr. Pruitt visited the exhibit last month.)

“It’s an event that didn’t happen — it’s a bomb that didn’t go off,” Ms. Norman said. “But still, at the same time, it’s something that clearly had this ripple effect.”

Many Jews had been consistent allies to Black civil rights activists. Dr. King commended Jewish people who had “demonstrated their commitment” to the cause, “often at great personal sacrifices.”

The kinship was based on shared histories of discrimination, suffering and perseverance. But the exhibit examines the limitations of that association.

The program includes footage of Suzanne Bearman, a longtime congregant, at a public forum as a young woman, describing the need for laws to enforce desegregation because good intentions were not enough.

“I grew up in a white world and didn’t really know what it took to be an advocate,” Ms. Bearman said decades later, in the film shown in the exhibit.

“If you want the honest truth, I got involved with this committee,” she went on, referring to her involvement in the exhibit, “to make sure it was telling the truth about what we did in the ’60s, because I don’t think we did enough.”

As the participants broke up into smaller groups, Dr. Herring and two others were given the suitcase filled with newspaper clippings and mementos from Mr. Hess’s life.

They debated whether he would have gotten involved if the threat of a boycott had not loomed over his business.

“It’s kind of unspoken,” said Dr. Herring, a professor of social work at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. “But I wonder if prior to the boycott, Emil recognized that this was wrong, but he didn’t know how to get engaged or whether or not he should get engaged.”

Ultimately, they decided Mr. Hess had been in a tough spot. But as a prominent businessman, he also had power. And, at last, he used it.

The takeaway: “How am I the Emil Hess to someone else’s oppression?” Dr. Herring said.

“Now, it’s immigrants,” said Andy Harkavy, another member of the group. “Now, it’s L.G.B.T.Q.-plus. It’s still Jews and Black people and Muslims — and, and, and.”

“It’s not like it’s that far off,” he said of the discrimination and bigotry documented in the exhibit, “and it’s also not disappearing. So, yeah, what do we do?”

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