// William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum
Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                       KARL FRIEDMAN (1924-   )


DATE:                                  JANUARY 28, 2009

LOCATION:                         BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

TRANSCRIPT ID:               10222

NUMBER OF PAGES:         28

Transcript (PDF)


On his mother, Sidney Friedman:

“Mother could not distinguish between black and white, and all the neighbors, Jewish or not, all the white people and all the black people understood the same thing . . . white people were senior, smarter, cleaner, proud.  Black people were nothing . . . Behind us, in a ghetto of black people, poverty like you don’t hear anymore, worse than India or Mexico.  It was really a barren space, people not having much of a life at all. There was a church in, I’ll say, our backyard. We lived on a paved street already. That was big stuff.  The minister of that church came to visit my mother one time, and they became friends.  Now Mother didn’t join his church, but he was invited on a regular basis, every two or three months, for Sunday lunch.  People drove in their cars to see a black man come out of a white woman’s home. The separation was intolerable to her.”  5, 6

“ . . . we had a Ku Klux Klan [that] was a dominant facility of hate. These Kluxers were also members of the Chamber of Commerce. They were the leaders in the courthouse. You couldn’t get elected in the courthouse if you weren’t a member of the Klan. They had little placards in their store windows that said, ‘Trade with the Klan.’”   6, 7

“I hired a black woman fresh out of high school [who] had good grades.  I had a vision that this would be something noticeable to other people . . . she was so good I was proud.  The first day she came to work three or four of our best secretaries or staff people came in and asked me, “Mr. Friedman, is she going to use our bathroom?”  I said, “Yes.”  They got up and walked out.  Never an internal problem after that. There was a certain fear among my lawyers about letting her take something to the courthouse.  She could take deeds up to record them at the courthouse. She could file papers for us. Things like that.  She was so good that she finally became the coordinator of the mail.  She received the mail and distributed the mail, took the money to the finance office, and so forth. Then she outgrew us.”  7

“We had with the Klan a sort of peace. The nominal enemy to the Klan was everybody that was black or Hispanic, any minority, Chinese, or whatever it was . . . Catholics . . . very much anti-Catholic. There was a [Jewish] man by the name of Joe Denaburg who owned a pawn shop and a jewelry shop.  He organized athletic events: boxing and wrestling and that kind of stuff.  He was a member of the American Legion. My father was a member of the American Legion.  He and Joe lived a block apart, and they became friends. Many of the Klan were also in the American Legion . . . If a Jewish person had a problem, they would go to Joe Denaburg, and he’d get it solved some way or another.  If the Klan had a problem with a Jewish person, they knew . . . ‘Cousin Joe’ he was called. They did business together. He was sort of a peacemaker.”  8

On the family’s black housekeeper:

“She lived in this ghetto behind the apartment that we lived in. Her name was ‘Arlene.’  Later we just called her ‘Aggie.’  It was ‘Arlene.’  She came every morning, about six o’clock in the morning, and she prepared the breakfast for my father.  If it was a school day, she got the kids up and saw that they had breakfast. She tended to the house, cleaned the house, ran errands.  She was a feature in the house that made it work . . . She was very much a part of the family.  She was very, very courteous. She would stay until eight o’clock at night, and she did half days on Saturday and Sunday, for $5 a week. She could eat at the house and take home food and things like that.”  9, 10

On his and the country’s response to the Pearl Harbor attack and the beginning of World War II:

“Real anger. [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt set the nation on ‘go’ . . . anger that was [wide]spread, and ‘we’re going to get even.’ We didn’t have a way to measure the horror of how [many] ships went down, how much of the Navy [was] sunk. We didn’t know that. We didn’t know where in the world Pearl Harbor [was]. There was a rally in spirit for everybody.  ‘Let’s go get ‘em.’  It didn’t work out that way.  It was a long time ‘going and getting ‘em.”  10, 11

On enlisting after Pearl Harbor:

“I cheated and lied to get in.  I was not tall enough, and I was not heavy enough, but they were anxious to get people in, too.  I went back to the fraternity house, and I borrowed a guy’s shoes that had lifts.  I ate four bananas and [drank] a quart of milk.  I came back and I cleared just like that.”  11

“I had the opportunity to be . . . a bombardier, or a navigator or a pilot.  I’d never been in an airplane, and I didn’t want the responsibility of getting lost. I wanted to be a bombardier and just pull the handle. Everybody said I was crazy, a prime job was as a pilot, so I became a fighter pilot . . . I got inside of the first plane I ever saw up close.  It was a two-seater.  I dreaded this experience because I have motion sickness among my many other problems.  I was the first one chosen.  We went up and flew around and did ‘S’s’ across the road to see if we could straighten out the plane.  It was exciting.  I was enjoying it. The fear went away.  I came back and everybody was standing around waiting for their turn. They asked me to tell and I turned around and I threw up right in front of my fellow officers-to-be.”  12

On Bull Connor:

“A country yokel.  Not very smart.  Somewhat of a bully, but he was not antisemitic. When we had a problem, we’d go to Bull and he’d reason it through . . . I always like to say, before I curse him, that there were some good points to him. He had a great sense of humor. He first started out in the radio business doing baseball games. He would do the game just like he was sitting there, roaring in the background and things like that, but he was getting it off of a tape, like a ticker tape.  He’d describe a play that never happened and he never saw.  ‘He’s out!’  He was very good at that.  That’s how he got to notoriety, to know who Eugene Bull Connor was.” 17,18

“We were already communicating with Martin Luther King [Jr.] and his associates.  There was no equal, but there were a lot of associates. For the first time, some prominent black people, who already had made some money and had built a house, were coming out of the woods and taking part in things. They were coming here and marching indiscriminately, and there’d be fights and fusses. We made an agreement that we would not have any marches.  I didn’t speak these words. They wouldn’t have any marches and boycotts. They were boycotting downtown stores.  [King] would, for three months, not bring any opposition, not make any public . . . sort of a breathing spell. Martin Luther King was cunning. He was a good gentleman, and he was smart, but he also was clever. He was smart.  He knew how to push the button.  He came into town and shackled himself with six or seven others. There’s a picture showing the leader, the ministers and so forth. That created a big flurry.  Now the department stores were suffering from boycott.  Black people just wouldn’t go downtown.”  18

“King organized . . . a march without getting a permit. They probably would have given him some kind of restricted permit. Black people kept their children out of school. They marched downtown and marched through the department stores. They were all over the place . . . little black children. Headquarters for fighting was at a park between City Hall and Jefferson County Courthouse.  It graduated toward that.  Everything was concentrated there. That’s the time when you had the fire hoses. The same period of time.  Bull Connor arrested these 450 odd school children and put them in jail. There were kids four, five and six years old . . . 15, 16, 17 years old . . . Now you’ve got 450 black kids in a yard in front of the jail out on 6th Avenue, and he didn’t have facilities there for it.  It was an old jail.  It couldn’t accommodate 100 people, much less children. There are picture out there showing the kids behind the wire looking out at their parents, and things like that. Real pathos. He wouldn’t put them on bail. He wouldn’t let them out on their parents’ signature, which would ordinarily be what would happen . . . We [he and Gene Zeidman] went to USF&G [United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company], which was a bonding company . . . insurance company, and we talked to the local chairman.  He knew everybody because he was a big enough shot to be in the upper echelon of discussions. He said, ‘We’ll write the bond if you’ll guarantee it.’  Gene and I neither were of the wealthy level of people in town. We said that.  He said, ‘You give me your two signatures, and I’ll get the bond,’ and he did. They turned the kids loose. Then they had to set a day for trial . . . Bull Connor finally threw in the sponge on that thing and had the cases dismissed without having to pay court costs and things like that.”  19

On Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanu-El:

“I really liked him, and I admired him.  We did lots of things together, and he was a mover and shaker . . . At first he was, “Let’s wait and see. Let’s do this. Let’s do it slowly. Let’s program it out.”  Even his congregation didn’t like that, so he shifted gears and became very affirmative.  He showed up at a lot of these meetings, and he would go to see [Bull] Connor.  He was very active.  He was an ardent Zionist, too . . . When [Rabbi Grafman] came to the congregation, he followed a rabbi who was probably the greatest rabbi ever in Alabama, except my rabbi here now. He was an ardent Zionist, and the rabbi who preceded him, [Rabbi Morris] Newfield, was absolutely opposed to a State [of Israel].  It really shook the congregation when Zionism showed up. Some of his people left the congregation because there was some conflict there.  He was in the leadership all the way. He wrote. He spoke. He invited and had programs at Temple Emanu-El.  They were always more aggressive than Beth-El in reaching out.  I would say everybody . . . some people didn’t like him, but even those that didn’t like him admired him and respected him, because he was a kingpin.”  23, 24

On the arrival and impact of the 19 rabbis who came to Birmingham:

“It was a Wednesday. It was Tuesday night that I got a call from Sylvan Laufman, who was on business in New York. He said, “Call me. There’s a big blast in our newspaper here of 17 rabbis from the assembly are coming to Birmingham to witness.”  New words. You may have that in Christianity, but it wasn’t Jewish orientation.  I gathered what I considered my advisory panel, and we met them at the airport.  . . . Seventeen rabbis showed up at the airport, and we were there to meet them. We had Rabbi Grafman.  I could name several other people there, probably eight or nine of us. We stopped them in the foyer that is attached to the airport. This was a hotel, and we sort of stopped them. Some of them sort of snooted at us and went on by and didn’t want to know anything about us. Some paused and talked a little bit.  Finally, a couple of them said yes, they’d sit and talk with us. I said, “Let’s go back to my office.”  [I had] an office twice of the size of this conference room.  There were about 15 or 20 in all of them and us.  We wanted to prepare them for some things that they obviously didn’t know. But they were ‘witnessing.’  We warned them about the volatility and the danger and things like that, but Richard Rubenstein was on a crusade. That’s the way it was going to be.  I said, “Okay. We’re here. We’ll help you all we can.”  As the two or three days passed, some of them filtered through the information that we had and realized that they didn’t have the facts to cope with what was going on. They stayed in an all-black motel, and that [A.G. Gaston] Motel was bombed. They marched and disrupted traffic, went to City Hall, that kind of stuff . . . that’s called ‘witnessing.’  Some of them got arrested.  They did more harm than good.  It created a Jewish face that hadn’t shown before. We were angry about it . . .” 24, 25

About the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham: 

“I was an observer and a participant. I was not in any leadership role, although I will say many, maybe half, of the black leaders were clients of mine. We had a meeting at my house once that was mixed, and Mountain Brook put a police car out in front of my house . . . When I went to Israel in 1964, someone burned my front yard . . . my front yard is 100 feet wide and about eight or nine feet from top to bottom . . . with women’s hair spray. They wrote in eight-foot high letters ‘Nigger Lover’ . . . all the way across the front of my yard. My brother-in-law, Micky Rubenstein’s husband, had the lawn replaced while I was gone.  Sometime after that someone shot a bullet hole through my front window.  It’s still there.  If I sell the house, I’m going to take that window.”  26


Karl Bernard Friedman was born on May 23, 1924 in Birmingham.  His father was Max Friedman and his mother was Sidney (Sid) Stein Friedman.  He had two sisters: Elaine and Maxine Joy (Micky).  His father’s family came from the area of Hungary when it was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and were very Orthodox.  His mother’s family was from Berlin, Germany and was extremely Reform.  Her father, Zalo Stein, was a Reform rabbi in New York City.  His father served in World War I and afterwards moved south to Birmingham, Alabama.  His parents met and married in 1918.  His father was an engraver/printer and owned his own company.

Karl’s family belonged to two synagogues, Temple Emanu-El (Reform) and Temple Beth-El (Conservative).  His mother, Sid, was well-known in the Jewish and gentile community for her work in socially conscious causes and would not tolerate segregation, treating everyone the same.  The family did have a black housekeeper.  Karl attended public schools, which were all-white at that time, where he encountered antisemitism and prejudice. The family lived comfortably, owning a car, until 1933 and the Great Depression when the family struggled financially.

Karl was president of Temple Beth-El for two years and also served in practically every leadership position in the Jewish community relating to the Levite Jewish Community Center and United Jewish Appeal as well as many leadership positions in the general community including as an advisor for the University of Alabama—Birmingham and for the United Way   His sisters, Elaine and Micky, also followed their mother’s example and worked in many causes and capacities in both the Jewish and wider civic community.

Karl enlisted after Pearl Harbor and was trained to become a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pilot, although he never went overseas.  While in the military he participated in the Judge Advocate General Corps and became interested in the law. After the war, he attended law school at University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa, graduating in 1948.  He joined a small four-person law firm in which he assumed the role of Managing Partner.  In that capacity, Karl hired a young black woman to work in the office and later hired J. Mason Davis, Jr., a black attorney—both firsts in the city’s legal community.

Karl knew his wife, Gladys Cohen from childhood and they ended up in the same Jewish social group.  They got engaged on Valentine’s Day 1948 and were married on September 5, 1948.  They have three children:  Mark, Tracy and Lolly.

Karl was an active participant in the pivotal years of the Sixties relating to the civil rights in Birmingham.  He helped the Jewish community raise money to support the movement, although it was generally decided to stay in the background.  He knew and interacted with Bull Connor and Martin Luther King Jr.  He was instrumental in getting about 450 black children released from jail after they had been arrested by Bull Connor during the Children’s March in 1963 and tried to help mediate when the 19 rabbis from New York descended on the city.  He also supported the black community through his legal practice.  As a result of his activities, his home was shot at and vandalized and he and his family were threatened.

As of 2016, Karl still goes into his office every day, at Sirote & Permutt.


Karl discusses his family and their origins in Hungary and Germany and their arrival in Birmingham, Alabama in 1918.  He reflects on the respect and admiration his mother, Sidney (Sid) Stein Friedman, held in the Jewish and general community and how she transmitted her egalitarian and activism values to her children—himself, Maxine (Micky) Rubenstein and Elaine Royal—who all carried them out into the community as well.

Karl remembers his neighborhood and the black neighborhood that was right behind his house, which was a very poor area.  He recalls segregation and being raised by a black woman named ‘Aggie,’ who the whole family loved.  He also talks about experiencing antisemitism in his youth, education and later in his adult life.  He remembers the Ku Klux Klan and their role and activities in the community and the interaction of Jews with the Klan as well as the impact of the White Citizens’ Council and the National States’ Rights Party.

Karl describes where he was and how he learned that Pearl Harbor had happened and how he and, by extension, much of the country felt angry and wanted to “go get” the Japanese.  He speaks about joining the armed forces and becoming a fighter pilot, flying P-47 Thunderbolts.  He recalls his training and war time travels in the United States, during which time he was assigned to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), and consequently became interested in the law.  He discusses enrolling in law school at University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa after the war, graduating in 1948.  He recalls the early years of his law firm, remembering how he caused a stir in the firm by hiring a young black woman to work in the office and later hiring a black attorney, J. Mason Davis, Jr., a first in the Birmingham legal community. 

Karl recalls how the Jewish community organized behind the scenes to help during the Civil Rights Movement, the important rabbis including Rabbi Milton Grafman, and some of the other major players in those turbulent times, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bull Connor, who he described as “a bully” and “not very smart,” but who was not antisemitic.

Karl remembers his courtship of his wife, Gladys Cohen, and their marriage in 1948. He details his community service in the Jewish community—including the Levite Jewish Community Center, Temple Beth-El, the Anti-Defamation League—and other civic organizations in the general community.

Karl also recalls in detail his role in the Civil Rights movement including his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., the attempts by the Jewish community and others to integrate peacefully, the Children’s March in which he was instrumental in getting the children out of jail and the incident of the 19 Northern rabbis who came to Birmingham to “witness” and the return of Rabbi Richard Rubenstein a decade later, when he apologized to the Birmingham Jewish community for his behavior.


19 rabbis, visit to Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

A.G. Gaston Motel—Birmingham, Alabama

A.G. Gaston Motel, bombing, 1963—Birmingham, Alabama


Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith

Attorneys, black

Bank holiday, 1933

Banks and banking

Beddow, Roderick Jr.

Berkowitz, Abe

Berlin, Germany

Biloxi, Mississippi

Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham Engraving Company—Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham Jewish Community Center—Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham Jewish Federation—Birmingham, Alabama



Budapest, Hungary

Burg, Harvey

Chambers, Frank

Children’s March, 1963—Birmingham, Alabama

Cincinnati, Ohio

Civil Rights Movement

Connor, Eugene “Bull”

Davis, J. Mason Jr.

Denaburg, Joe

Durant (automobile)

Eternal light

Fairmont Club—Birmingham, Alabama

Friedman, Gladys Cohen

Friedman, Karl Bernard

Friedman, Mark

Friedman, Max M.

Freidman, Sarah Neumann

Friedman, Sidney Stein


Grafman, Milton (Rabbi)

Great Depression

Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)





Jewish-Black relations

Jewish-Jewish relations

Jewish Community Centers Association of North America

Judaism, Conservative

Judaism, Orthodox

Judaism, Reform

Judge Advocate General’s Corp

Kimerling, Sol

King, Martin Luther Jr.

Knights of the Ku Klux Klan


Lakeview School—Birmingham, Alabama

Laufman, Sylvan

Louisville, Kentucky

Maxwell Air Force Base—Montgomery, Alabama

Meadows, Roderick Jr.


NAACP v. Alabama

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

National States’ Rights Party (NSRP)

Newfield, Morris Rabbi

New York City, New York

P-47 Thunderbolt (airplane, military)

Parent Teacher Association

Pawn shops

Peabody State Teachers College—Nashville, Tennessee

Pearl Harbor, attack on, 1941

Pilots, fighter

Printing industry and trade



Ramsey High School—Birmingham, Alabama

Reserve Offices’ Training Corps (ROTC)

Roberts & Sons Printing and Binding Company—Birmingham, Alabama

Roth, Ben

Roth, Dora

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (President)

Royal, Arnold (Dr.)

Royal, Elaine Friedman

Rubenstein, Maxine Joy (Micky) Friedman

Rubenstein, Richard (Rabbi)


Shores, Arthur

Sirote & Permutt (attorneys)

Soldiers, Jewish

Spartanburg, South Carolina

Stein, Zalo (Rabbi)

Supreme Court of the United States

Temple Beth-El—Birmingham, Alabama

Temple Emanu-El—Birmingham, Alabama

United States Air Force

United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company (USF&G)

University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Welfare Island (Roosevelt Island)—New York City, New York

White Citizens’ Council

White supremacy groups

Windsor Locks, Connecticut

World War, 1914-1919

World War, 1939-1945

Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA)

Young Judaea

Young Leadership

Zeidman, Eugene



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