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An Attack in Atlanta

The Temple Bombing

by Melissa Fay Greene
Addison-Wesley, 502 pp., $25.00

1.

One Saturday night in October 1958, a large homemade bomb went off in the most prominent synagogue in Atlanta. It blew a hole in the wall, but nobody was inside, and there were no injuries. Though barely remembered today, the bombing created a national sensation; unlike the church burnings of the past few months, it looked like the work of organized conspirators.1 Within just a few days, the Atlanta police had arrested six right-wing terrorists of a type familiar in the South then, and today familiar throughout the country. Two trials were held in quick succession, but in both cases the juries, all-white, all-male, and all-Christian, could not arrive at a guilty verdict. The bombing went unpunished.

Melissa Fay Greene, in reviving the case, isn’t primarily concerned with finding out who planted the bomb, though she does hazard a convincing guess at the end of her book. Her aim is to use the bombing as a way of recreating the feeling of a long-ago time and place, and of constructing a moral parable about ethnic pride and racial brotherhood. The temple that was bombed was the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation on Peachtree Road, the thoroughfare that leads from downtown Atlanta north through the fanciest residential neighborhoods. It was a grand neoclassical pile on a hill, symbolizing the serene and successful lives of Atlanta’s assimilated, German-American Reform Jews.

In 1946 the Temple hired a new rabbi from the North named Jacob Roth-schild, an ardent anti-segregationist who preached with increasing fervor to his skeptical flock the twin causes of a more observant Jewishness and support for Negro rights. The congregation seems to have reacted to his message either not at all or with mild annoyance, until the bombing. The bombing, Greene believes, changed all this, and brought out into the open the complicated web of relations among five distinct groups in Atlanta: the Temple Jews, the less assimilated Russian and Polish Jews in Atlanta’s Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, the black leadership (including, notably, the King family), the Protestant Atlanta business and political establishment, and the terrorists of the racist far right. Of these the Temple Jews are, by contemporary standards, the least familiar: Jews who held religious services on Sunday mornings, who consecrated their Temple with a concert of Christian music, who celebrated Christmas, who had never attended a seder or a bar mitzvah, who would not even allow themselves to say the word “Jew.”

I grew up in a doppelgänger world in New Orleans. Where Atlanta had the Temple on Peachtree, we had Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue, equally staid and impressive monuments to the success of the Reform German Jews. The New Orleans equivalent of Jacob Rothschild in the civil rights movement, Rabbi Julian Feibelman of Temple Sinai, who is mentioned in passing by Greene, was my cousin by marriage. A quarter-century of living away from New Orleans has taught me how strange the subculture I grew up in seems to outsiders, and how difficult to explain. Greene, whom I know slightly (I am also quoted on the dustjacket of her book), is essentially unsympathetic to it, but she has, I think, described it fairly.

Jews in the South have always been an infinitesimal minority group, among Jews and among Southerners: at the time of the Temple bombing they represented 4 percent of American Jews and one half percent of Southerners. Virtually every Southern Jewish family’s official legend begins with a single backpack-toting immigrant ancestor taking off alone from the docks of Charleston or New Orleans or Galveston to become an itinerant peddler. Most of these men wound up establishing dry-goods stores, and perhaps also moneylending operations, in small towns during the middle and late nineteenth century. (My family’s store was in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and it was in business for more than 150 years until Wal-Mart killed it off.)

This meant that they were an even smaller minority than the statistics would indicate: many a Southern town had just one Jewish family, the owner of Hirsch’s or Levy’s, the store on the courthouse square. There was an unstated agreement among these Jews that unobtrusiveness was a prerequisite of living the good life.

At the same time these Southern Jews never denied their Jewishness, they married among themselves, and they ceaselessly engaged in good works by way of various Jewish and secular charities. As they did better, congregating more in the cities and raising their business aspirations above dry goods, they began to concentrate on closing the small but distinct gap standing in the way of full acceptance—on, as Greene puts it, trying to “locate a ramp to the upper tiers that would be open to Jews.” Being admitted to exclusive country clubs and other social organizations, getting the still off-limits jobs in prominent companies and places in the best schools, were the goals discussed in intimate conversation.

The German Jews were very much aware that these projects had been going well up until the time, at the end of the nineteenth century, when Eastern European Jews began arriving in America in great numbers. It was now the greenhorns, not the Deutschjuden, who were shaping the public’s image of Jews, to the intense frustration of many assimilated Jews, North and South. The last few doors that had seemed to be opening to them were now shut.

The response of the German Jews was to encourage these immigrants to be as inconspicuous as possible, while they themselves tried even more fervently to melt into the all-American pot. The Reform movement’s Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which, Greene says, “swept the southern congregations,” banned all religious garb and most of the traditional ceremonies from synagogues, and even backed away from the idea of there being a God at all. Greene describes the Temple Jews in Atlanta calling on their newly arrived Orthodox brethren in the poor sections of the city, to whom “they laid out a few civilized proposals and shared a few tactful suggestions,” such as that the Orthodox school bus erase the Hebrew lettering on its side. During the 1930s, when a group of Eastern European Jews bought a building where the Ku Klux Klan had its offices, Atlanta’s most prominent German-Jewish lawyer personally intervened to keep the Klan from being evicted, because “we don’t want picketing in front of the synagogues.”

The Temple Jews’ worst memory was of the Leo Frank case of 1913, in which the Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory was accused of murdering a fourteen-year-old girl, the child of poor tenant farmers, who had come in to pick up her paycheck. Frank, a member of the Temple, was tried and convicted in an atmosphere of wild public anti-Semitism, whose main spokesman was the populist politician and pamphleteer Tom Watson. The case against Frank was so weak that on the day he was scheduled to be executed his sentence was commuted by the governor of Georgia from death to life imprisonment. But a few weeks later a mob abducted him from the state prison farm where he was being held, and lynched him. To the Temple membership the Frank case was a dramatic refutation of their belief that their probity and refinement would succeed in eradicating prejudice. They realized “they were marginal, they were dispensable, they were still ‘the other’ in the mind of white Christian Atlanta.”

The Temple’s rabbi, David Marx, paid well-publicized visits to Frank in prison, but over the years, “Marx, convinced more than ever that safety lay in invisibility, focused even more intently on assimilation.” Several Temple members interviewed by Greene for her book remember a tacit understanding when they were growing up that Leo Frank’s name was never to be mentioned, even at home, among themselves. As the years passed, the Temple Jews continued to prosper: “A delightful and fulfilling and busy life was lived on the narrow neck of land between Protestant exclusivity and Jewish orthodoxy.” The hope of full acceptance gradually reawakened, along with the conviction that prudence and unobtrusiveness were the means to that end.

After the Second World War Jacob Rothschild, a rabbi from Pittsburgh who was completely unfamiliar with the South and the culture of the Temple, was brought in to replace the aging David Marx. A man of strong principle who believed passionately in both Jewish identity and racial equality, he immediately began to chafe against the congregation’s assimilationism, which Marx had so strongly encouraged; Greene quotes one sermon from 1948 which seems absurd in retrospect but probably was not thought so at the time, where Rothschild urges the Temple’s members to tell their children that there is no Santa Claus. “Ethnicity was not…in vogue in the 1950s,” Greene says, and it was especially unfashionable at the Temple. As Rothschild tried to “staunch the flow of emulating love, admiration, and yearning toward the gentile world,” the Temple resisted. Greene quotes a passage from one of the many angry letters from Temple members found among Rothschild’s papers: “We shall continue to shout from the housetops, ‘THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A JEWISH PEOPLE.”’

Before the Brown decision in 1954, the Temple Jews had approved of the civil rights cause, and some had been activists, but they felt it didn’t have much to do with them. They prided themselves on their benign relations with Negroes, but these relations were highly limited:

…The only black people they knew—and then, by first name only—were white-jacketed waiters and cooks, blue-uniformed janitors and yardmen, and black-and-white-uniformed maids, who commuted long distances by bus or jalopy to work and who occasionally asked for loans or for help with the law.

But Brown released a furious, lawless resistance in the South that had a distinctly anti-Semitic as well as racist tone. The members of the Temple began to see the justification for Rothschild’s eagerness to make common cause with blacks.

Greene’s book reminds us of the now-unimaginable level of anti-Semitism that was pretty much the norm in the mid-century South. In his closing remarks the prosecutor in the Scottsboro Boys trial had told the jury, “Show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” He won a quick conviction. Greene quotes a Look magazine story on Jews from the 1950s reporting as news that the chosen people did such ordinary things as join the Cub Scouts and the Chamber of Commerce.

After the Brown decision but before the Atlanta Temple was bombed, other Jewish temples were bombed in Miami, Nashville, and Jacksonville, and undetonated bombs were found at temples in Birmingham, and Charlotte and Gastonia, North Carolina. The number of temples that were bombed was, of course, a tiny fraction of the number of black churches. In Atlanta, the center of organized anti-Semitic activity was the local chapter of an organization called the National States Rights Party. The NSRP was part of a loose network of right-wing fringe organizations that came into being after the Brown decision, and that had connections with the Ku Klux Klan, which was then undergoing one of its periodic resurgences. Among the other organizations were the White Citizens Councils, groups of Southern businessmen supposedly committed to peaceful resistance to integration but sometimes secretly engaged in violence and terrorism; the Columbians, an Atlanta-based neo-Nazi group; and George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party in Virginia.2 Aside from the White Citizens Councils, these organizations together may have had in all an active membership somewhere around a thousand people—all-white, all-Christian, almost all-male. These were usually people on the fringes of society, many of whom didn’t have steady jobs. The leading members of the Atlanta chapter of the NSRP, which was organized in May 1958, for example, were:

George Bright, a cotton-mill engineer; Wallace Allen, a telephone salesman, handicapped from childhood polio; Chester Griffin, a perplexed-looking fellow who worked as an income-tax examiner for the state revenue office; L.E. Rogers, a slipshod janitorial services man; Richard Bowling, a foul-talking, red-faced young drunkard known to rough up his mother for pocket change; and his brother, Robert Bowling, a sharp-dressing, Hollywood-handsome, dark-haired homosexual—the two of them, the Bowling brothers, known for having been fond of playing with dynamite as kids in Atlanta’s public housing projects.

George Rockwell supplied the Atlanta group with printed brochures attributed to “The National Committee to Free America from Jewish Domination” and signs, which they held while they picketed the headquarters of the “nigger loving” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The National States Rights Party believed it had caught on to the hidden forces behind racial integration, and these included Jews. In its view, it was clear what the Jews were up to: “They took cross-continental phone calls late at night, speaking in weird syllables, not English, and they riled up the blacks, filling their fuzzy heads with radical desires, and it all worked toward the Jews’ own sly, international purposes.” The last name of the Temple’s rabbi said it all.

The National States Rights Party’s activities, which largely involved holding meetings nobody came to, hanging out at the all-night Plaza Drugstore, and a great deal of aimless driving around Atlanta, would have been harmless except that its members talked of bombing and murder in a way that wasn’t entirely idle. In a bizarre incident in the summer of 1958, several weeks before the Temple bombing in Atlanta, Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor of Birmingham, Alabama, having found unexploded dynamite at a synagogue there, decided to try to catch the men who had planted it in a sting operation. He directed undercover detectives to put the word out among the right-wing underground that they were looking to hire someone to bomb a black church in Birmingham, whose pastor was a well-known civil rights leader, Fred Shuttlesworth. J.B. Stoner, a neo-Nazi from Atlanta, undertook to do the job, and enlisted a fellow Atlantan, Robert Bowling (Greene thinks one of the Bowling brothers, probably Richard, was the actual bomber of the Atlanta Temple). It is clear, therefore, that one member of the Atlanta chapter of the NSRP knew how to obtain and handle explosives.

The bomb at the Temple, fifty sticks of dynamite, exploded at 3:30 in the morning of October 12. Immediately after the bombing Atlanta’s Christian business and political leaders rallied to the side of the Jews, as they had not done forty-five years before, when Leo Frank was lynched.

Perhaps because Atlanta had to rebuild completely after Sherman’s troops had burned it down, the local upper class had fewer ties to antebellum tradition, and fewer aristocratic pretensions, than its counterparts in other Southern cities. A new book about the family dynasties from which two of Atlanta’s recent mayors emerged, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: The Saga of Two Families and the Making of Atlanta,3 by Gary M. Pomerantz, a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gives a detailed account of life inside the local elite. The real leader of Atlanta during the period of the Temple bombing and for many years before and after, Pomerantz makes clear, was Robert Woodruff, the head of Coca-Cola. Even Mayor (from 1962 to 1970) Ivan Allen Jr., who was himself a rich businessman and who is one of Pomerantz’s main subjects, always addressed Woodruff as “Boss,” without any self-consciousness. Surrounding Woodruff was a cadre of bankers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, who appeared to be more liberal and anti-segregationist than their equivalents in Birmingham or New Orleans. In fact they were largely boosters who regarded prejudice as bad for the business development of Atlanta. Ivan Allen was the only liberal big-city mayor during the 1960s who had previously been president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

The Temple bombing immediately registered with the local establishment as something that might embarrass Atlanta and impede its economic growth. On hearing the news of the bombing, the mayor, William Hartsfield, appeared at the Temple to be photographed for the newspapers showing concern. The next day, the Atlanta police extracted a confession from Chester Griffin, one of the members of the National States Rights Party, by convincing him he was buying himself lenient treatment, and then arrested the other five regular members of the NSRP, who were fingered by Griffin. (President Eisenhower reacted by accusing the six of soiling “the good name of the Confederacy.”)

Atlanta’s gleaming prosperity today is a direct result of the distance it maintained from the Massive Resistance of the 1950s, not (to Jacob Rothschild’s frustration) for moral reasons but for practical ones. In 1964, for example, fundraising for a civic banquet in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., after he won the Nobel Peace Prize began in earnest only after “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who was then negotiating with an Atlanta bank for a loan to the Haitian government and was an influential figure in a region that Coca-Cola saw as promising new sales territory, let it be known that he was displeased with the slow pace of ticket sales to the banquet. Every seat was quickly sold. Atlanta’s buses were integrated without fuss, after the chief of police, at the behest of downtown business leaders, invited a prominent black minister to follow Rosa Parks’s precedent and create a test case in order to strike down segregation on city transportation. The Atlanta police, in their efforts to get quick indictments in the bombing case so as to prove that Atlanta was not a lawless city, got Robert Bowling’s homosexual lover fired from his job in the hope that this would force a confession from Bowling.

In December 1958, only two months after the bombing, the first trial was held. The sole defendant was George Bright. His lawyer was James Venable, who also happened to be the imperial wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the trial ended in a hung jury. Bright was retried the following month; the state still felt it could convict him quickly, and then persuade him to finger the others. Bright’s lawyer this time was Reuben Garland, a flamboyant and aggressive local celebrity who played shamelessly to the jury throughout the trial. Garland rejected all Jews from the jury, and referred to Rabbi Rothschild as “Baron Rothschild.”

At this trial Bright claimed an alibi: on the night of the bombing, he and a married woman named Marilyn Craig, soon after to be committed to a state mental institution by her husband, had met at the Plaza Drugstore and then driven around Atlanta for hours hoping to see the just-launched Pioneer satellite streak across the sky. Craig said they had given up and gone home (at the very moment that the Temple bomb went off) when they learned that the satellite had burned up shortly after takeoff. The prosecution pointed out that the news of the satellite’s destruction hadn’t been reported to the public until the following day; nonetheless, the jury accepted the story. After thirty-five minutes of deliberation, it voted unanimously to acquit.

None of the others was ever tried. In that relatively primitive era of forensic science, the police could not link any of the suspects to the bombing rubble. After Chester Griffin recanted his confession, only circumstantial evidence was left. Incongruously, Reuben Garland soon ran for state solicitor on the promise to convict the Temple bombers, and lost.

2.

So, this is what it takes to get you to Temple!” Rabbi Rothschild remarked to a packed congregation on the Friday night following the bombing. Certainly the bombing had shattered the Temple Jews’ complacency, and to many of them it demonstrated that the notion of their distinctiveness from other Jews would never be honored. The bombing seemed to confirm Rothschild’s view that the civil rights movement, far from having nothing to do with them, did concern them intimately. Initially the acquittal of George Bright doesn’t seem to have bothered Rothschild, because to him there was a greater triumph. For now:

The Temple members…had to address themselves to the general righting of wrongs, to the restoring of the landscape, to the improvement of southern civilization. They rebuilt, and they did so on firmer ethical and religious foundations.

After the bombing, in Greene’s hopeful view, the Temple Jews began to moderate their zeal for assimilationism and their passivity on racial issues. They began to see that the two positions were linked: “If they were going to stand forth as Jews, they needed first to accept the principle that all humans were equal in God’s sight.” It was fine for them to want full acceptance, but “the path to that door…lay through the realm of justice.”

Rothschild is the hero of Greene’s book. He had been a civil rights activist long before there was a well-known civil rights movement. He constantly, eloquently, tried to shape his congregation in moral ways, and throughout his tenure as rabbi he involved himself in virtually every anti-segregation activity in Atlanta. He was a strong supporter of Martin Luther King. But by the late Sixties his moment had passed; at a black businessmen’s luncheon in 1968 Rothschild was shocked to find himself booed for criticizing the black power movement.

Greene plainly believes, with Rothschild, that a full embrace of one’s own Jewishness leads almost inevitably to support of the black struggle. This is the view expressed in Driving Miss Daisy, which was written by a child of the Temple, Alfred Uhry (whose mother, Aline Uhry, Greene quotes from extensively). In the play and movie the message is delivered in the customary muted tones of the Deutschjuden. After the bombing Miss Daisy becomes a little bit more openly Jewish, and a little bit more racially enlightened. Greene’s sights are a lot higher. She includes in her book an admiring portrait of a tough Polish-Jewish labor lawyer and skeptic named Joe Jacobs:

There are many types of human beings on earth, a divine variety, just as there are goats and fish and chicken among the animals. And the type of human being that he is, simply put, is a Jew.

Over this fact he never gnashed his teeth nor looked over his shoulder nor tried to smooth out the wrinkles, no more than a goat would try to resemble a fish.

Rabbi Rothschild died of a heart attack in 1973 at sixty-two, as the particular culture of the Temple Jews was fading. None of the main Jewish organizations, in the South or nationally, has a distinctly German-Jewish cast anymore. The Southern Reform synagogues now perform bar and bat mitzvahs, as they used not to do. Southern Jews under fifty never use the euphemisms “Hebrew” and “Israelite,” which used to mean “one of us.” Active anti-Zionism, once a standard feature of German-Jewish culture in the South, has died out.

On the other hand, I wonder how many members of the Temple today would support Joe Jacobs’s position. Even Rabbi Rothschild, when he invited the Kings to dinner for the first time, in 1960, planned to served trayf (coquilles St.-Jacques) until his black housekeeper objected on the grounds that it was pretentious. To judge from what I see on my visits back home to New Orleans, I’d say the Southern Jews have left their previously untenable and tortured ethnic position and journeyed to a place still far from where Greene thinks they ought to be. As recently as 1994, when the rabbi at Temple Sinai put an Israeli flag in the temple sanctuary, there were protests from older members of the congregation who felt that being Jewish ought not to imply any commitment to Israel, and the flag was moved to the auditorium. (After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin the rabbi succeeded in moving the flag back into the sanctuary, where it has remained.)

It also seems unlikely that a rejection of assimilationism brings with it a greater degree of interracial understanding. Today Jews are probably still identifiable as the Southern whites most sympathetic to black causes, but the two groups have hardly formed a coalition. In 1969 a member of the Temple, Sam Massell Jr., was elected mayor of Atlanta; in 1973 he ran for reelection but lost to Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, who served three terms. It was a bitter race in which, as Gary Pomerantz’s book recalls, Massell ran an advertising campaign under the slogan “Atlanta’s Too Young To Die,” which was meant to imply that the city would fall apart under a black mayor.

Another case in point is that of the late Morris B. Abram, who was a Temple member and probably the leading white civil rights figure in Atlanta—Abram was King’s lawyer in 1960, when he was put in jail on a trumped-up traffic charge. But Abram broke with the civil rights movement when it went beyond its efforts to pass colorblind laws. He left the Democratic Party and was appointed by Ronald Reagan to the US Commission on Civil Rights to campaign against affirmative action.

Abram was much more politically committed than most Temple Jews, but I’d be surprised if many members of the Temple today could articulate a program for black progress (other than self-help) that they would wholeheartedly support. In New Orleans over the last few years, for example, a black city council member, Dorothy Taylor, has been attacking Mardi Gras organizations that use the public streets for parades but are closed to black members. Most of them have no Jewish members either, but most of the Temple Sinai Jews have firmly opposed Taylor’s efforts.

Both The Temple Bombing and Greene’s previous book, Praying for Sheetrock (1991), an account of the rise of a black political movement in a small Georgia town, describe singular events that have genuine moral content, and she tells the stories well. I wish I agreed with her conviction that Southern Jews had only to accept themselves as Jews to become strong supporters of black progress. In the 1950s it could be argued that the two groups had similar problems of discrimination. Today there are only a few places where Southern Jews are not accepted, while blacks still face discrimination in overt ways, as well as severe problems of poverty, crime, and social disorganization that have long since disappeared among Jews. Moreover, the interests of blacks and Jews can often conflict. One obvious example of this is affirmative action, and another is raising the taxes of the middle class and the well-to-do in order to redistribute income to the poor.

Greene implies that if some Jews lack sufficient devotion to social justice, as soon as they abandon assimilationism, firmly identify themselves as Jews, and begin to practice Jewish rituals, they will become more concerned about it. While it is true that commitment to justice is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, one can share this commitment without being religiously observant or unapologetically ethnic. Conversely it’s possible to have a much more easy, confident Jewish identity than the Southern Jews had at midcentury and be unimpeachably active religiously without having much of a social conscience at all. Making Southern Jews less self-denying has been one struggle, largely successful. For them to become active participants in a movement to solve the problems of black America is another, separate, struggle, though it is one in keeping with Jewish tradition. This struggle has met with little success lately. In fact, it seems less advanced now than it was when Jacob Rothschild took over the Temple.

Letters

White Liberals, Black Problems March 6, 1997

  1. 1

    See Michael Kelly’s refutation in the July 15, 1996, issue of The New Yorker, of the idea that the recent church burnings have been part of a coherent wave of racist activity.

  2. 2

    Greene believes that while the recent church bombings in the rural South are probably not the work of a single coherent organization, these arsonists subscribe to similar racial theories and “they find each other, signal to each other, with these flames.” (“The Fire Last Time,” Newsweek, June 24, 1996, p. 34.)

  3. 3

    A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner, 1996.

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