A New Civil Rights Exhibit Asks: Honestly, What Would You Have Done?

The contents of the suitcase, more or less, told Emil Hess’s life story.

A report card from the University of Pennsylvania, dated 1939. A photograph of him in his Navy uniform during World War II. An advertisement for the Parisian, the department store that he owned in the center of Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city.

And a recording from his son, describing how his father, in the face of competing protests from Black customers fighting for equality and white patrons opposing it, had moved to desegregate the store.

The suitcase is now part of a new civil rights exhibit at Temple Beth El, the historic synagogue in Birmingham. It was handed to a group visiting the exhibit, along with a challenge: Figure out why he heeded the activists’ call when many others did not.

Did he have a genuine desire for fairness? Did he simply fear a boycott? Or did his intentions even matter?

“Because now you’re in the fight,” said Melvin Herring, one of the visitors, raising the point that whatever the reason, Mr. Hess, who died in 1996, had aligned himself with the civil rights protesters and had become invested in their mission. Eventually, his stores were among the first to hire Black salesmen. “He said, ‘We’re going to stay in the fight.’”

Dr. Herring was part of a group from the Black-Jewish Alliance of Charlotte, an organization created to forge friendships between the two communities. The group had come to Birmingham for what has become an increasingly common pilgrimage in the South, making stops at museums and landmarks associated with the region’s civil rights history.

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