During my five-and-a-half years of employment in higher education, I befriended an individual with a strong passion for history and for helping students of color. Her Jewish heritage, in my opinion, qualifies her to understand those who have been oppressed by vicious dictatorship.
Some argue the Holocaust didn’t last as long as slavery. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a foolish statement. Any attempt at genocide, overt discrimination, and/or violent practices against any group should not be measured in time.
After reviewing excerpts of my project, she suggested I speak with Attorney Karl “Bubba” Friedman, a resident of Birmingham, AL. Bubba is well known in the Jewish community, particularly for his activism in the “Heart of Dixie” during the Civil Rights Movement.
Fascinated by the information my friend shared, I decided he should be my first non-African American interviewee. It is the middle of September, and I’m traveling to Mound Bayou, MS. My cell phone rings, and I hear the excited voice of my friend on the other end of the phone: “Bubba is on board, and you don’t have to worry about anything. You can stay at my Aunt and Uncle’s.”
Staying at her kinfolk’s house for the weekend was a huge bonus, especially due to my increasing debt from self-funding this project. The trip had to be a quick one because I had obligations prior to and after the weekend, but I’m not one to pass up an opportunity.
After traveling through the all-to-familiar and gruesome Atlanta traffic (which I endured for seven years while working there), I finally arrived at the Shelsky home and was greeted with open arms.
Dinner provided my first intimate glimpse of a Jewish family. Several times I thought I was in a scene on the sitcom Seinfield, a show I love, because they are such a funny family.
The next day I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Walking in the footsteps of those who experienced the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is both humbling and sad. My favorite civil rights activist, Fred Shuttlesworth, made his mark in Birmingham, and the city does not let anyone forget him.
On the day of the interview, Bubba’s sister, Micky, guided me to his home. Bubba lives in a well-established, significantly Jewish community (when you consider the insignificant size of the Birmingham Jewish community). Each home was unique and beautifully landscaped.
After arriving at the home, in true southern fashion, I was invited to enjoy food and drink. Having just eaten, I passed on the invitation. Seconds later, Bubba walks into the kitchen and greets me with a handshake and hello. I first noticed how raspy his voice sounded, which I silently attributed to his occupation and the extra “mileage” the legal profession must add to one’s vocal chords.
Micky led us into the living room, and I was immediately drawn to the big windows. I recognized the bullet hole left many years ago by the KKK, when he first bought the home, as a message to Bubba to stop helping African Americans. I knew about the bullet hole from my friend, who also told me he and his late wife never repaired the window.
Being Jewish didn’t help Bubba in his battles, which makes his experiences even more fascinating. I imagined it had to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” during that time period, but I soon learned Bubba had to “do.” The values his mother instilled her children would not allow him to sit on the sidelines while anyone experienced injustice.
I felt at home with the Friedmans. I was ready to hear the challenges of Ole’ Dixie and how the Jewish and African Americans in the city worked together to empower its people and change the narrative of Birmingham’s history.
Every city has a “Bubba,” and Karl “Bubba” Freidman is Birmingham’s. Lights, Camera, Action!