Behind the Magic Curtain

Book tells the story of the civil rights movement’s white allies

Gail Short

Author T.K. Thorne takes a behind-the-scenes look at the white men and women who cheered on and aided the civil rights movement in Birmingham.

Myra Horne was a senior at Shades Valley High School the day she walked into her homeroom and came upon a disturbing scene.  

Nearly all of her classmates were standing with their backs against a classroom wall. The only student seated was the new girl, Cynthia Ann Jackson, who was Black. 

Jackson’s admission to the all-white high school came about because of, but years after, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that struck down state laws permitting racially segregated public schools. 

Despite the ruling, many white southerners, like Horne’s classmates, resented and resisted school integration. 

But rather than joining her fellow white classmates, Horne walked over, sat down next to Jackson and introduced herself. The two remained friends through their adulthood. 

T K Throne

T.K. Thorne Birmingham author T.K. Thorne’s book Behind the Magic Curtain focuses on Jewish activists during the local civil rights movement, as well as Unitarians and other white allies.

Horne and those like her were allies of the civil rights movement in Birmingham—the few whites who stood up against racial discrimination and segregation, sometimes at a great cost. 

Now they are the focus of a new nonfiction book by Birmingham-based novelist T.K. Thorne called Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days.

Tom Lankford: Getting the Inside Story

Behind the Magic Curtain recounts the many behind-the-scenes collaborations and partnerships between Blacks and progressive white men and women who helped bring racial equality to Birmingham, a city nicknamed “The Magic City” because of its early, rapid growth.

“What happens ‘on stage’ are the things most people know about. But there was a lot happening behind the stage, and that’s what I wanted to illuminate,” Thorne says. 

“I was asked to write the book by four gentleman who lived through that time period. They felt there were many gaps and some misrepresentations as a whole about Birmingham in that there were progressive people who worked toward equity across a broad spectrum,” she says. 

Those men who approached Thorne with the book idea were attorneys Karl Friedman, Bill Thomason, the Rev. Doug Carpenter, and former Birmingham News reporter and photographer Tom Lankford. 

Tom Lankford – Through his camera, Birmingham News photographer Tom Lankford captured key moments in the city during the civil rights movement, from street protests to racial violence. (Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group.)

Lankford, who was a young reporter for the News in the 1960s, used his camera to capture some of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement, including events such as the aftermath of Klansmen’s brutal beating of a group of Freedom Rides activists who tried to desegregate buses at a Trailways bus station. He also photographed the riot that broke out after Black attorney Arthur Shores’s Birmingham home was bombed, as well as the many protest demonstrations that took place downtown. 

“I was very intimidated by the project at first until Lankford sent me some of his notes,” Thorne says, “and then I was just hooked.”

Thorne learned that Lankford ingratiated and embedded himself with Birmingham Police and with the Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, an ardent segregationist and opponent of the civil rights movement. In fact, officers often referred to Lankford as, “Bull’s boy.”  

However, Thorne argues that Lankford was actually Birmingham News General Manager Vincent Townsend’s man and maintained friendly relations with the police commissioner in order to get the tips and scoops that Townsend – a close friend and mentor – wanted. 

Tom LankfordLankford embedded himself behind the scenes to learn about Bull Connor’s plots against Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists. (Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group.)

Townsend held a vision for a more progressive Birmingham and believed that segregationists such as Connor, and the mining and steel industries that clung to segregation to hamstring the unions, were holding the city back. 

Through Lankford’s relationship with Connor, the young reporter was perfectly placed behind the scenes as Connor plotted against Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists and allies. 

“Lankford’s story hadn’t been told because he hadn’t told it before,” Thorne says. “I believe he was concerned to a large degree about Vincent Townsend’s reputation. He knew things that had taken place behind the magic curtain, behind the scenes, that had never been made public. That was his primary driver, but he also had a lot of insight into what was going on, particularly in the police department.”

Chuck Morgan and David Vann: Legal Pioneers

Several white attorneys fought for change in Birmingham. They included attorneys and members of the Young Men’s Business Club (YMBC) Charles “Chuck” Morgan Jr., and David Vann, the future mayor of Birmingham. 

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Charles Morgan, Jr. Attorney Charles Morgan Jr., faced death threats after publicly criticizing the racial hatred that led to the deadly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

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David Vann – Future Birmingham Mayor David Vann led efforts in 1963 to change Birmingham’s commission government to a mayor-council format, thereby helping remove Bull Connor from office.

Following the tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, Morgan delivered a passionate speech to the YMBC, telling the all-white audience that everyone who contributed in any way to the spirit of hatred in the city—including those who remained silent in the face of racial hatred—was just as guilty as the individuals who bombed the church. 

Death threats hurled at Morgan and his family after the speech led Morgan to move his family to Atlanta, where he launched a new career in 1964 directing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) southern regional office. He later became the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Director.

Vann, meanwhile, was a leader in the effort to sell the public on the idea of changing the form of city government from a three-member commission to a mayor-council form of government that would put Bull Connor out of office. Vann even came up with the idea of how to get signatures for the referendum. 

Sidney Smyer: The Unlikely Ally

Sidney Smyer – Birmingham businessman Sidney Smyer, fearing that continued segregation would stagnate Birmingham’s growth, brokered secret talks between Black and white civic leaders.

Some individuals became allies after seeing how racial segregation was hindering the city’s economic growth. 

Sidney Smyer of Birmingham Realty Co., for example, was a self-declared segregationist. He changed his mind, however, after examining data showing how ongoing racial oppression hurt sales at a rock quarry his company owned. 

Smyer later became a key negotiator between business leaders and civil rights activists to end the protest marches in 1963. He also spearheaded the effort to end the three-member commission form of city government by getting Abe Berkowitz to lead the Birmingham Bar Association into investigating and recommending the best form of government. 

Jewish Allies: Partners in Progress

Abe Berkowitz Attorney Abe Berkowitz was one of many progressive members of the Jewish community who spoke out publicly against racism and Jim Crow segregation. (Photo courtesy of Richard Berkowitz.)

One of Connor’s harshest critics in the Jewish community was progressive Jewish attorney Abe Berkowitz. Berkowitz gained a reputation for speaking up in favor of civil rights and donating monies for jail bonds for civil rights activists. He also represented Black clients against the city and the state and led an effort to get Black attorneys admitted to the Birmingham Bar Association. 

Another Jewish ally was businessman Mervyn Sterne, a member of an interracial committee that was an offshoot of a consortium examining community issues. In 1955, a year after Brown v. Board, the racially mixed committee organized an “Educational Institute on Race Relations” hosted by Birmingham-Southern College.

Allies Abraham and Florence Siegel attended demonstrations calling for the desegregation of the University of Alabama School of Medicine, while attorney Karl Friedman, a close friend of prominent African American, civil rights attorney J. Mason Davis, partnered with attorney Eugene Zeidman to negotiate with Bull Connor over the release of Black youths arrested for participating in protest marches. 

Pioneers in Faith: Churches Open Doors

Joseph Ellwanger Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, a white pastor of a Black congregation in Birmingham, led the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama march for Black voting rights on March 6, 1965, in Selma.

Of the few white Christian pastors who supported Black civil rights leaders, one of boldest was the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, who pastored St. Paul Lutheran Church, a Black congregation in Birmingham. 

Ellwanger was among a minority of whites who attended mass meetings that civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., and Fred Shuttlesworth held, and he participated in protest marches. He also led the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama voting-rights march in Selma on March 6, 1965, the day before Bloody Sunday.

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Norman Jimerson – Rev. Norman Jimerson brought Black civil rights leaders and progressive whites together during his tenure as president of the Alabama Council on Human Relations. (Photo courtesy of Ann Jimerson.)

Another progressive white Christian was the Rev. Norman Jimerson, director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, an organization that facilitated dialogue between local white leaders and Black civil rights leaders. 

The Rev. Edward Ramage of First Presbyterian Church and the Rev. Earl Stallings of First Baptist Church also made efforts to open the doors of their churches to Black visitors. When they did, Stallings watched as nearly 70 of his congregants walked out of the church doors in protest. Ramage’s family was met with bullying, threatening phone calls, and slashed tires; the family eventually left town. 

Bishop Paul Hardin of First Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham launched a youth meeting at the church’s Camp Sumatanga where he taught some 50 teens, including Bill Thomason, “to recognize the human rights of Black people.” 

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham was in the forefront of white activism in the fight for racial equality in the city, opening its doors to people of all races from its founding in the 1950s.

Ed Harris – Rev. Ed Harris, a Unitarian minister who was an activist in Birmingham in the 1960s, created an interracial youth camp and participated in efforts to desegregate hotels and restaurants. 

One Unitarian activist was the Rev. Ed Harris, who, as a church youth leader, organized an interracial summer youth camp in 1963 at Sandridge Country Club. In addition, he and his wife, Sandra, were part of a team that helped desegregated restaurants, hotels, and other facilities by sitting down at lunch counters and in dining rooms next to Black team members.

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Joseph Volker – Progressive Joseph Volker, the first president of the University of Alabama in Birmingham and a founder of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, led the effort to desegregate the UAB School of Medicine.

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Alfred Hobart – Rev. Alfred Hobart, the first minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham and one-time president of the Birmingham Council on Human Relations, opened his church to Black members and presented interracial forums. 

Fellow Unitarian Dr. Joseph Volker led the integration of the University of Alabama School of Medicine and its facilities, while Unitarian minister the Rev. Alfred Hobart, former president of the Birmingham Council on Human Relations, spoke publicly about his support for the Brown v. Board decision and the “equal and just treatment of Negroes.”

Music, Youth, and Women: Vital Forces

One factor that helped bridge the gap between some white and Black teens was music. When white teens learned on July 14, 1960, that nearly 80 Klansmen had surrounded the building where Black disc jockey Shelley “The Playboy” Stewart was spinning records for the Teen Town hop, they ran out of the building and confronted the Klansmen, which allowed Stewart and two others to escape. 

“When I started finding those facts, it was heartening to me,” says Thorne. “We always look to the next generation as being better than we were, and I think they definitely were. And those young people are alive today and helping to make things better.” 

But Thorne says one group often overlooked in the fight against racism is women. 

“They weren’t businessmen. They weren’t the movers and shakers of the community, but they decided to get to know one another, and started meeting in each other’s homes, first in the Black women’s homes, as it was far safer. They came out of their comfort zones and got to know one another.”

Peggy Fuller – Peggy Fuller organized a group of Unitarian women to sit with Black activists to test lunch counter segregation rules. 

Unitarian Peggy Fuller, for example, founded Friendship and Action, a women’s group that brought white and Black women together socially and took on projects such as studying inequities in Black schools, creating an integrated play school, and sending integrated groups of children to camp. 

Sheila Blair in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, along with two other white women and a Black staff member, developed a Girl Scout leadership training program in the underserved, predominately Black Collegeville community in Birmingham.

The Arc of History: A Complex Journey

Thorne says it took her nearly a decade to complete the book and that trying to fit the volumes of information she collected into a timeline proved challenging. 

“The most difficult thing was figuring out a timeline on which to lay Tom Lankford’s stories, because he wrote notes, but he didn’t say when things happened,” she says. 

 “I tried to shape the whole arc of the book over a period of time and have it somewhat sequential; there were so many different paths that the book went down, and I felt that an arc of time was important to understanding what was happening, who was doing what, and why it was important,” she says. 

She says her own background as a 20-year veteran of the Birmingham Police force as an officer and captain helped her understand Lankford’s world. 

“It helped tremendously in understanding a lot of Tom Lankford’s perspective about law enforcement. And, I came on the force in the late 70s—not far from that time period. I heard stories, too, about some of the characters that were mentioned, and I was able to intertwine all of those stories with the narrative of the book.”

The main message she hopes readers will take from the book is that history is often complex, she says. 

“It’s complicated, but it’s worth understanding because it informs who we are—and what our future will be.”

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