Editor’s note: The author of this story, a lawyer from Melbourne, Australia, visited Birmingham a little more than a year ago, and while here read “Sins of the Fathers,” an entry in Weld’s then-ongoing series No More Bull. It inspired this reflection of his own relationship to civil rights history and growing up Jewish. Like the story of Chervis Isom, Bartak’s account tells how his attitudes toward race changed.
I, Adrian Bartak, of Melbourne, Australia, was born in 1948, the year Harry Truman was elected president of the U.S.A., the year Strom Thurmond conducted his third party campaign against civil rights. I grew up in a traditional, moderately Orthodox Jewish family. I attended a wealthy private Presbyterian school at which I excelled in music theory and recorder playing. Throughout my primary education, there was the general hint that it was not good to be of short stature and to be an observant Jew.
During the 1950s there was general political stability — a stable, center-right government ruled Australia, and that icon of conservative decency, President Dwight Eisenhower, ruled in the U.S.A. In 1957, I became vaguely aware of a tension in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was impressed that the conservative president, Eisenhower, sent federal troops to enforce the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. The name of Governor Orval Faubus stuck in my mind, and to a child like me, it seemed that Americans had names that sounded like classical Latin.
In my early years, segregation in the U.S. and South Africa was taken for granted. Those different from me were regarded with suspicion and as inherently inferior. Australian Aborigines were regarded as wild and dangerous outsiders and the term “natives” was used to refer to colored people.
When I was very young, my mother sang me a beautiful lullaby, “O Ma Baby, ma Curly Headed Baby.” I developed very tender feelings towards colored babies. She sang this so beautifully. In later years she did not want to sing the second verse: “O ma baby, ma little nigger baby.” She thought that the word: “nigger” was derogatory. I did not agree. I just thought it fitted into the sociological context of the song.
In 1961, a sea of change enveloped me. I left and/or was virtually expelled from my school. I decided I should not sing the Christian hymns. I had to leave. I developed a sarcastic, nationalistic dislike of all matters Christian.
I learned about a different political party, the apparently progressive Democratic Party, led by the new, handsome president, J.F.K., and his beautiful wife, Jacqueline Kennedy. But over the next two years, there was increasing disturbance in the U.S. as civil rights increasingly came to the fore. I became aware of a different type of Democratic Party, a party that ruled Southern states — a party ruled by George Wallace and Ross Barnett.
As a 15-year-old, I was shocked that rulers of my parents’ age could behave as if the world would end if segregation was abolished. I was shocked by the sight of George Wallace resisting integration. I was gripped by the crisis in Oxford, Mississippi, as federal marshals forcibly facilitated the enrollment of James Meredith at Ole Miss. I was disgusted by the utter rubbish spoken by Governor Ross Barnett to Robert Kennedy.
Above all, I was shocked by the murder of the little girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I vividly remember the Saturday morning in Melbourne, Australia, when I heard the news of the Kennedy assassination. I was gripped by the subsequent determination of LBJ to entrench civil rights legislation. In subsequent years I was shocked by the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
When I commenced university, I studied Southern politics and society and became concerned about human rights. As I matured, I became more tolerant. I gained a love of Christian liturgical music and a great love for gospel music and the civil rights repertoire of Peter, Paul and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel.
The year 1963 was a powerful, amazing year in my life. The most powerful influence in my life was Dr. Martin Luther King. He taught me that love, forgiveness and human decency could overcome hatred. He had every reason to hate. Yet his “I Have A Dream” speech taught me reconciliation and the overriding power of ethics, morality and non-violence. He taught me that you could be yourself and that you were inherently entitled to be respected.
When I need comfort, I replay his speech; I read his literature; I play recordings of Barbra Streisand singing “Somewhere,” and I play Simon and Garfunkel’s recordings of “He Was My Brother” and “A Church Is Burning.”
In January 2013, I fulfilled a lifetime ambition. I traveled to the U.S.A. for the first time. I attended a service at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I walked around the Civil Rights Trail near Kelly Ingram Park. In life, there are some holy shrines you just have to visit. I spent hours at the Civil Rights Museum. I traveled on “The Dart” bus.
I also visited Jackson, Mississippi, and I toured the Capitol Building there. It was a privilege to meet and to be accepted by so many wonderful African-Americans whom I met in the streets. Indeed, everyone I met, white or African-American, was so kind and beautiful to talk to. The Alabama and Mississippi that I visited in 2013 was vastly different to that which I read about in the early 1960s. I cannot wait for my next odyssey to the beautiful U.S.A. and the culturally enriching South.
Besides being a legal practitioner, Bartak also directs a religious choir at the St. Kilda Hebrew Congregation (an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue) and works as a substitute teacher at Mount Scopus College.