Bethel and Beth-El, And Beth Israel

Continuing with this week’s theme, this is the historic Bethel Baptist Church in the Collegeville neighborhood of Birmingham. SCLC co-founder Rev Fred Shuttlesworth led this congregation from 1953 to 1961. As the church’s website states, ‘It All Began Here’. The church was bombed three times from 1956-1962.
Bethel Baptist Church, Birmingham AL

This image shows the outline of Shuttlesworth’s home next to the church. It was heavily damaged after the bombing (16 sticks of dynamite) of Christmas evening 1956:
Bethel Baptist Church, Birmingham AL
The historic marker reads:
Rev. Fred Shuttleworth’s tenure as pastor of Bethel Baptist Church (1953-1961) was marked by demonstrations, bombings and passionate sermons critical of segregation laws. His activism earned him a house bombing, frequent beatings, arrests, and threats to his family. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Shuttleworth “one of the nation’s most courageous freedom fighters.” Shuttleworth organized lunch counter sit-ins and encouraged Blacks to apply for civil service jobs. The church was built in 1926 was bombed three times: Dec. 25,1956: June 29, 1958: and Dec.14, 1962. When a dynamite blast blew the roof off his parsonage, he emerged and told a policeman. “Tell your Klan brothers that if God could save me through this, they’ll have to come up with something better, so the fight’s on.” Although he left Birmingham in 1961 to pastor a church in Cincinnati he returned often to help organize civil rights demonstration, most notably in 1963.

In May of 1963, Shuttlesworth invited King and others to lead adults and children on nonviolent marches from Kelly Ingram Park to city hall. They wanted city leaders to integrate water fountains and restrooms. The force of high-pressure fire hoses pointed at marchers under orders of Police Commander Eugene (Bull) Conner injured Shuttlesworth and others.

King was arrested and wrote his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” essay. National media coverage and the bombing deaths of four Sunday School girls in September at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church horrified the nation. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the following year. The Church, parsonage and guardhouse across the street were jointly granted National Historic Landmark status in 2005. The Bethel congregation completed a new sanctuary a block away in 2006. The historic complex was nominated as a UNESCO World heritage Site in 2007. Following his retirement from the ministry in 2008, Rev. Shuttlesworth returned to Birmingham. In his honor, the local airport was renamed the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

This is the church’s current building. They are in the midst of a fundraiser to repair and renovate the original building.
Bethel Baptist Church, Birmingham AL

Now on to the other Beth-El, Temple Beth-El, which is my home congregation in Birmingham. It’s the city’s Conservative synagogue, and in April 1958, a bomb was discovered in a window well outside the sanctuary (this room) on what would be the left side of this image:
Temple Beth-El, Birmingham AL
The bomb had enough dynamite to level a city block, but the fuse burned out, or got wet, just short of detonation. It was discovered the next morning.  No one has ever been prosecuted for the bomb.

BTW, if you’ve ever been curious about what Jewish services are like, I did all the graphic design/layout and photography (all but the historic images) for our services guide, viewable here.

One synagogue bombing went off in Gadsden, an hour from here, and the city where I was born. It happened in 1960, during the dedication of a new education wing at Beth Israel, and many local ministers were in attendance.

Someone threw a firebomb at one of the stained glass windows. The window coverings prevented much damage, but when two congregants went outside to investigate, they were shot by the bomber. Both of them survived, in fact one of them just passed away last month.
Beth Israel, Gadsden AL

The bomber turned out to be a 17-year-old who had attended a speech by Admiral John Crommelin, who was a WWII war hero. He ran for office several times and was rabidly segregationist and anti-Semitic. The teenager was motivated to act against Jewish people, and did so this way. A few weeks after the bombing, he was killed when his car ran off the road.

One of the State Troopers investigating the bombing was my PawPaw’s cousin and best friend. He told us about working this case and many others back then. By virtue of being a State Trooper during this era, especially the time during segregation and Wallace’s most famous stands (doorway speech at the UA campus, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and countless other events) I think of him and am amazed at the history he must have seen and no doubt been a part of, sometimes wonderful and sometimes shameful.

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