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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                       KARL FRIEDMAN (1924-  )

                                          SOL KIMERLING


LOCATION:                          BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

DATE:                                  JANUARY 18, 2012

TRANSCRIPT ID:               10821

NUMBER OF PAGES:          31

 Transcript (PDF)


“We lived in a little house on Cotton Avenue, which is on the north side of Elmwood Cemetery. We didn’t have lights in the house . . . [we] had oil lamps. We didn’t have electricity.  We did have inside plumbing.  Myself and my older sister [Elaine Royal] were born on the kitchen table in that little house by a midwife, who was a friend of my mother’s.  I have another sister, Micky [Maxine Joy Rubenstein], who is younger and she was born in a hospital.”   2, 3

On his mother, Sidney Friedman:

“She took up so many controversial points that she was conspicuous to Jews and non-Jews alike.  She coordinated with the bishop of this diocese in interfaith work. She treated black people just as they were equal to everybody else.  If I had a birthday party, she invited black children.  Some of the neighbors wouldn’t have their children to come to my birthday party because it had black children. Our family life was open to a myriad of different people. There was an Indian chief.  He was a dentist.  He would come to our house and bring paraphernalia and things and talk to the children sitting around in the street. We had a gentleman who was gay. We knew it and we didn’t care.  My mother didn’t care. We had a black priest that came for Sunday dinner. We had people from the arts.  Mother had friends who were in New York [and who] were on radio and in movies. So we had substantial exposure to real life instead of life that was trained by parents alone. That created the style of life that my sisters and I have done . . .”  3

On his mother’s work during World War II working with the rationing system:

“She . . .  had a desk and a chair at Lakeview School where we went to school. When you wanted to get a restricted item, you had to go there and make an application. My mother would approve it or disapprove it. You couldn’t get meat. This was the war years. You couldn’t get tires, you couldn’t get an automobile. You could only get a limited amount of sugar and butter.  She had the respect of everybody in the neighborhood.  She was a mover and shaker . . . She was very gregarious and that was infectious. If you ever ask anybody who is older than I am, they will know ‘Aunt Sid.’”   5

“We lived in a neighborhood on a paved street. Behind it [there] was a ghetto, worse than anything you ever saw in India or Mexico.  [It was] just horrible. It was full of problems. Wives and husbands mixed around with each other and had children out of wedlock. They lived in little huts, no electricity, no internal plumbing. They had outhouses. That really rankled my mother.  She wanted to do things about it. We never had a direct attack from the Ku Klux Klan, but everything she stood for, the Klan hated.  The Klan was very active here then . . . Back then, they were aristocrats.  If you were going to run for public offices and you didn’t have the backing of the Klan, you didn’t have a chance. In fact, more than once, I saw the Klan come on horses into this neighborhood to get into that black ghetto to punish someone or kidnap somebody. They bombed a dairy on the south side on the Seventh Avenue . . . because they had black employees.  That shaped my mother, who in turn shaped us.  We are a family of equals.  We don’t think we are better than anybody else.”  5

On those in the Jewish community who were active supporters of the Civil Rights Movement:

“There was Emil Hess, who was the president of a very successful retail clothing store, named ‘Parisian.’  There was Dora Roth, who was the head of our Birmingham Jewish Federation, then the United Jewish Appeal.  Max Kimerling . . . [Sol’s] father . . . Alex Rittenbaum, who co-owned an installment selling company that had people out on the road selling stuff.  Rabbi [Milton] Grafman of course . . . Eugene Zeidman, who was a successful lawyer, who had a speech impediment.  But he prevailed in everything he did.  Everything that I was mixed up in he was there, too.  People didn’t give him the full appreciation that they gave me and others.  I liked him, some people didn’t . . . that’s probably the core.”  7

“. . . There were a few white people who were very visible . . . pro and con. I represented a gentleman by the name of James Itead. He was 105 when he died last year.  I represented him for 55 years. He stood up to be counted.  He had a business that sold furniture to libraries.  He went all over the state taking similar-minded people, going to libraries, to mayors, persuading them to come out and deal with this thing before we had war.  Jim invited me to all of the meetings that he went to . . . some in people’s homes.  We had one or two meetings in my home.  I had a nice play room down in the basement of the house. Ten or 15 people could be comfortable there. Whenever we met, there was a police car parked in my front yard to protect the people who were there.”   7, 8

“I went to three or four meetings with Martin Luther King [Jr].  He was a gentleman in every respect.  He was firm and decisive, and sometimes unreasonable.  But he is entitled to be the number one person recognized in dealing with the war . . . not the law, but with the war that we had.”  8, 9

“. . . the Jewish group had decided not to be visible, but we raised money.  An attorney by the name of Abe Berkowitz, who has left his mark on our community for sure, at a meeting of the Jewish country club . . . at the end of the annual meeting he made a talk about how we were going to attack the situation.  He put his hat on the table and he said, “Take the money out of your pockets and put it in here and we’ll start.”  We raised $600. That’s nothing today. But $600 was a lot of money from a few people.”  9

“. . . Martin Luther King, he wasn’t good for his promise. He had his own agenda, and most black people didn’t know what his agenda was until something happened.  He made an attack on the department stores, which I think was justified.  In none of the department stores, all of which were all Jewish-owned, were there black salespeople, black executives . . . none in the banks, none in the insurance companies. That was the focal point. They decided to boycott the stores. They did, and there was a battle . . . The department stores were in a quandary, because all of their business came from Birmingham. If they hired black people, white people wouldn’t trade with them. That was the mood of the time . . . On the next occasion, we met with Martin Luther King and several of his people . . . We made a deal with [King].  If he would stay out of Birmingham for 30 days, we would get solved with the department stores.  We would present something to him. He said he’d wait. We began to do things, meet . . . and began to hire people.  It was very difficult for the department stores.  He didn’t wait, however.” 9, 10 

“The local people, at his insistence, gathered all the children from the public schools and had a parade in downtown Birmingham. Bull Connor, then one of three commissioners, he was in charge of law enforcement.  He arrested 450 or 500 children for truancy, which is a violation of our law, probably is in every state. They had those 400 or 500 children in a big yard on 6th Avenue South where the city jail was. They were outside. They had on the clothes they had.  They didn’t have food, they didn’t have anything.  It was a terrible strife at that time. Parents would go to the fence and hand them something and the police would run them away.  They were prisoners, and docketed cases, each case filed against each child in a police court. Gene Zeidman and I went to a gentleman, who was local president of a major bonding . . . insurance company . . . He agreed with us to sign bonds to get all those children out. Mr. Zeidman and I together and many others, our net worth was not sufficient to make those bonds. So when Bull Connor learned what we were doing, making the bonds, he ordered the children released to their parents or guardians. That was [the] end temporarily of that issue, but it damaged the confidence we had in dealing with King because he just didn’t do what he said he was going to do.  He did the right things, but it was not part of a coordinated effort.”  11

“Bull Conner was a dumbbell. He was a member of the Klan. He wasn’t even smart. His job . . . before television, he was a radio announcer that reported the goings on of professional baseball teams . . . he ran for office and he became police commissioner. He was a focal point. Everything that was adversarial he created, like stopping the buses and arresting the people who were sitting in and things like that.  But the truth is, he didn’t have any problem with Jewish people. It was all a racial issue . . . The next thing that happened to him was noteworthy. He had a girlfriend in a hotel in downtown Birmingham and got caught. Some people were disappointed in that. He fell from grace.  Nobody cared about him. He didn’t live that much longer after that either. He did certainly leave his mark.  He was the focus point.” 11, 12

“There was a lot of violence. Some of the violence consisted of driving through black neighborhoods, where there were prominent black people, and bombing their houses or setting them on fire . . . obviously, the White Citizens’ Council or Klansmen. We formed, what we called the ‘Vigilantes’ . . . all black people, about 12 or 15 men. They began to patrol these neighborhoods with bats and guns. They quit raiding those neighborhoods.”   14

“Jewish people, like other white people, were not uncomfortable about the separation of the races.  They had black employees, maids and servants and chauffeurs, things like that, but they just didn’t accept black people.  Part of that was justified.  Black people for the most part were not physically clean.  They were lazy.  If you got a black worker, you had to be lucky to get a good one.  But the superiority existed in all of us . . . We did not take the initiative to make things better, [we were] comfortable.  They didn’t realize the exposure that they had . . . It was quite some time before there was a sufficient awareness.  The rabbis were speaking about it, some great community citizens were speaking about it. But everything that was violent was either downtown or in black neighborhoods. There was not much going on in Mountain Brook where I lived. It could have been neighbors that were not in sympathy with what I was doing.  I guess a lot of people wanted to give money, but didn’t want to get involved. I think it was wise that we didn’t have a broad statement from the Jewish community.”  16

“One time I hired an employee.  I used to go in the firm early in the morning and make 50 cups . . . a pot [of coffee] for the ladies to have. The ladies who would go every hour or so and get some coffee and schmooze [Yiddish: gossip] around a little bit, which was inefficient from my standpoint.  I hired a young black girl.  She was a very good student.  She didn’t have a job before this. She just graduated from high school.  I hired her to come to work and I gave her several menial tasks, one of which was to do the coffee in the morning.  [People] who wanted coffee at their desk could call her and she would bring it. She delivered . . . once the receptionist had divided the mail she delivered the mail to the lawyer’s offices.  I didn’t say anything to any employee except my three partners. When she came to work, she hadn’t been there an hour before a delegation of white secretaries came in to see me.  They asked me about it.  I said, “She’s smart, well-educated and a nice-looking lady. I think she’ll make a good employee.” Their concern was . . . one of them said, ‘Is she going to use our bathroom?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ They left and never did anything about it.”   16, 17

“Sylvan Laufman was a merchant in Bessemer, Alabama . . . He was in New York on a buying trip and he called me in the evening.  He said, ‘There has just been a news release about some rabbis coming to Birmingham’ . . . I put the committee together and we went out to the airport.  Sure enough there were the rabbis.   Some looked like rabbis; some looked like bums, very arrogant . . . We were standing right there in the middle of the street as they came out. We tried to intercept them.  Some of them were courteous; some of them pushed us aside. We said, “Just sit with us and let us tell you what the situation is. You may be able to do a valuable service.”  Then we had some nasty remarks: ‘We were just Southerners . . . we weren’t your kind of Jews’ and stuff like that.  It was really angry.  But we did persuade two or three of them to come back to my office where we had a conference room where we could all sit down and talk. There was one infamous rabbi . . . Richard Rubenstein . . . he was the biggest agitator . . . They determined that we were nincompoops and they were scholars. They were going to do it their way. They did. They had a march without a permit, and got arrested and put in jail. We got them out. The next night was Shabbos [Yiddish: Sabbath] so that’s when they spoke to us. But they also checked into the hotel . . . A.G. Gaston Motel, the only black hotel/motel in town. That’s where some of our meetings with Martin Luther King were. They stayed in the community, and their hotel was bombed . . . None of them were injured because they just weren’t there.”  20, 21

There was not complete harmony among the black leaders either. They had different views.  [Reverend Fred] Shuttlesworth, who has been honored . . . but he was the most cantankerous individual I’ve ever dealt with.  We sat around the table and we agreed on a thing: we’re going to do this Friday night, and we’re going to do this Sunday morning. He went and did his thing.  He was part of the group . . . but he did something different out of it.  Of course, he got his home fired up twice, but he was a non-conformist. Sometimes he was more of an obstructionist than he was a helper.” 22, 23

On hearing about Pearl Harbor and the atmosphere after the attack:

“I never knew where Pearl Harbor was.  It didn’t have a resonance with us . . . with anybody else either.  Then it came out in and [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt made his presentation and declaration of war. The papers were full of it and pictures, and all that kind of stuff.  I am probably more patriotic than most people you know. I think my government is right, even when they’re wrong. I’m blind about that, and people laugh at me about it. But it had a personal sense of urgency to me to get even. Of course, I was young and not mature.  I didn’t know anything about war except what my father told me about World War I.  I would say that there was a high level of enthusiasm by Jewish people and by everybody to get in the service.” 26, 27

“I’m the luckiest guy you’ve ever interviewed.  I had all my troubles when I was too young to realize it was troubles.  I really love being Jewish.  I’m not very observant, but I believe in who we are and what we do.  I’m proud when I see statements from others about the goodness of Jewish people.  I’m happy to be lucky, and I’m thrilled to be Jewish.  All my friends know that I’m not a practicing Jewish person like all of us would like to be.  I don’t care about ‘Southern.’ I don’t like the designation.  I’m proud to be American.”  28


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’s 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.  He remembers his family’s struggle during the Great Depression.

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 to 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 other members of the community such as Eugene Zeidman, Max Kimerling, Alex Rittenbaum, Dora Roth, Abe Berkowitz, and some of the other major players in those turbulent times, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, George Wallace and Bull Connor, who he described as “a dumbbell,” 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 United Jewish Appeal—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.  He also recalls his legal work on behalf of the black community including the difficulties and obstacles involved setting up a national bank together with black business and professional men, which ultimately came to involve the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy.


19 rabbis, visit to Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

A.G. Gaston Motel—Birmingham, Alabama

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

Aland family

Aland, Leon


Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith


Attorneys, black

Banks and banking

Baseball teams

Bat mitzvah

Berkowitz, Abe

Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham Jewish Community Center—Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham Jewish Federation—Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham Barons (baseball team)

Birmingham Black Barons (baseball team)




Children’s March, 1963—Birmingham, Alabama

Civil Rights Movement

Connor, Eugene “Bull”

Davis, J. Mason Jr.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

First Amendment

Friedman, Gladys Cohen

Friedman, Karl Bernard

Friedman, Max M.

Freidman, Sarah Neumann

Friedman, Sidney Stein

Grafman, Milton (Rabbi)

Great Depression


Head, James

Hess, Emil

Huddleston, George Jr.

Huddleston, John





Jewish-Black relations

Jewish-Jewish relations

Jewish Community Relations Committee

Jewish Community Centers Assocation of North America

Judaism, Conservative

Judaism, Orthodox

Judaism, Reform

Judaism—Customs and practices


Kennedy, Robert F. (RFK)

Kimerling, Max

Kimlering, Sol

King, Martin Luther Jr.

Knights of the Ku Klux Klan


Laufman, Sylvan

Lee, Helen Shores (Judge)

Louis, Bernard

Lucy, Autherine

Mesch, Abraham J. (Rabbi)



National States’ Rights Party (NSRP)

New York City, New York

New Ideal (department store)—Birmingham, Alabama

Newfield, Morris (Rabbi)

Oswald, Lee Harvey

Parent Teachers Association

Parisian (clothing store)

Pearl Harbor, attack on, 1941

Pilots, fighter

Printing industry and trade

Pritchard, William S. (Colonel)




Rittenbaum, Alex

Roberts & Sons Printing and Binding Company—Birmingham, Alabama

Roth, Ben

Roth, Dora

Royal, Elaine Friedman

Rubenstein, Maxine Joy (Micky) Friedman

Rubenstein, Richard (Rabbi)

Ruby, Jack


Shores, Arthur

Shuttlesworth, Fred (Reverend)

Silverman, Hillel (Rabbi)

Sirote & Permutt (attorneys)

Soldiers, Jewish

Stein, Zalo (Rabbi)

Steiner Brothers Bank—Birmingham, Alabama

Temple Beth-El—Birmingham, Alabama

Temple Emanu-El—Birmingham, Alabama

Tuskegee Airmen

Truman, Harry (President)

United Jewish Appeal (UJA)

United Service Organization (USO)

United States Air Forces

University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Wallace, George (Governor)

Wallace, George—attempted assassination

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

White Citizens’ Council

White supremacy groups

World War, 1939-1945

Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA)

Zeidman, Eugene


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