Kaddish for Four Little Girls: Rabbi Grafman's 1963 Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Editor's note:  This is part of our series , Not Just Black and White: Civil Rights and the Jewish Community. The entire 39-minute ser...

Editor's note: This is part of our series, Not Just Black and White: Civil Rights and the Jewish Community. The entire 39-minute sermon referenced in the article can be heard here.

On Sept. 19, 1963, Rabbi Milton Grafman warned his congregants at Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El that on this Rosh Hashanah morning he was unsure what he would wind up saying.

“For the first time in all my years as a student and rabbi, I stand before a High Holiday congregation unprepared,” he said. Then he explained why, in a blistering message that was twice as long as what he referred to as the “respectable 20 minutes” for a sermon.

Grafman had already been in the middle of Birmingham’s contentious civil rights battles all year. It started with an appeal by him and other moderate clergy to governmental leaders to respect court decisions mere hours after Governor George Wallace gave his “Segregation Forever” inaugural address. Birmingham then changed its form of government to what was hoped to be a more moderate leadership. Immediately, Rev. Martin Luther King decided to make Birmingham the cornerstone of a strategy to confront segregation head-on with non-violence and force change, and the ministers again spoke out, urging King to give the new government time to change.

He then had the headache of a delegation of 19 Conservative rabbis showing up in Birmingham unannounced to demonstrate, followed soon thereafter by the publication of King’s April Letter from Birmingham Jail. Jews from across the nation, not knowing the details of what was really happening in Birmingham, castigated Grafman for his presumed inaction.

Then on Sept. 15, 1963, came the blast that shook Birmingham to its core and rocked the world. A Klan bomb went off outside 16th Street Baptist Church, one of the main meeting places for the civil rights movement, just before Sunday morning services. Inside a downstairs dressing room, four girls were killed.

“Anybody with a shred of humanity in him could not have been but horrified by what happened,” Grafman said. Though dozens of churches and homes had been bombed over the years, this was seen as an unprecedented act of savagery at a sacred time of the week, and the result was unconscionable.

The funeral for three of the girls was on the afternoon of Sept. 18, just before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. A crowd of about 8,000 attended as King gave the eulogy. Grafman was among an estimated 800 members of the clergy who attended, and the service was called the largest interracial clergy gathering in the city’s history many times over. The next week, Grafman would be at the White House, discussing the situation in Birmingham with President John F. Kennedy.

It was with that chaotic backdrop that Grafman began his remarks.

He was sick about what had happened at the church, “not of the people who either by direction or indirection were responsible for the death of those children,” but of those “so-called nice people” who sit back and point fingers but don’t do anything to resolve issues.

With an apology for using such a phrase from the pulpit, Grafman told his congregants it was time for them to “put up or shut up.”

“Let’s stop being liberals in your parlors and your offices. I know of only two men in our (Jewish) community… who have had the guts to challenge Connor and Wallace and segregation and the whole problem of integration and everything else,” he said. “Those of you who keep talking about what ought to be done. What have you done?”

He implored, “I’m not asking you to go out and lead a crusade. But in heaven’s sake, can’t you do at least what I have done and join with other Christians.” Then he reminded the congregation that the bombers were also rabidly anti-Semitic. “If they get away with this, nobody’s going to be safe, and the first ones that will not be safe will be the members of the Jewish community.”

He was also critical of national organizations, including Jewish ones, looking to get the credit for change based on who shouts the loudest. “I want this problem to be worked out not on the basis of politics” or who gets the credit.

Stinging from the criticism of those across the country who had assumptions of him based on King’s letter, he also criticized those who are “for the Negro” but were “whipping up hate against white people and those of us who are trying to do something.”

He said law enforcement officials had warned him not to go to the funeral the day before, but he and his colleagues went anyway. “We didn’t want to make heroes of ourselves. Four children had been brutally killed. All we wanted to do was go there and express our grief and our sorrow, to show these Negro families that we felt the depth of their sorrow; that we shared it. All we wanted to do was to say to the Negro community that you are not alone. There are white people who care.”

In the interracial ministers’ meeting before the funeral, Grafman implored “let it be the white community of Birmingham that makes the atonement” by rebuilding the church, instead of launching a national appeal. He challenged his congregants to all participate in the fundraising. “We want the white people to rebuild this church.”

When it came time for the Mourner’s Kaddish, Grafman invoked the memory of the four girls and two young men who were killed later the same day, and the need for the city to repent for allowing such hatred to fester unchecked.

In a slow, measured tone, he said “Let us bow our heads in silence. In memory of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, James Robinson, Virgil Ware. Wantonly killed, insanely slain, brutally murdered, whose deaths we mourn, whose families we would comfort and the shame of whose murders we would and we must have our city atone.”

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Southern Jewish Life: Kaddish for Four Little Girls: Rabbi Grafman's 1963 Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Kaddish for Four Little Girls: Rabbi Grafman's 1963 Rosh Hashanah Sermon
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