In the 1950s Atlanta was a business-friendly boomtown of boundless optimism and tireless boosters, and eager to become one of a handful of the nation's elite cities. Members of its political and business establishments governed the city pragmatically and were protective of the city's reputation as an oasis of decency, if not liberalism, in an otherwise dim region. Local leaders feared that this carefully cultivated image was in jeopardy when the Temple was bombed, and the incident continued to make news until the following January, when one suspected bomber, George Bright, was tried and acquitted. Charges against the other suspects were dropped.
In order to overcome the suspicions of their gentile neighbors, Temple congregants under the leadership of Rabbi David Marx, who served the Temple congregation between 1895 and 1946, took care to minimize the cultural divide separating Atlanta's Jewish and Christian communities. Conflicts were avoided whenever possible, and efforts were undertaken to foster good relations with mainstream Christian society. Marx's conciliatory instincts were a legacy of the notorious lynching of Leo Frank in 1915, which revealed a virulent strain of anti-Semitism in Georgia and produced a profound sense of insecurity in the city's Jewish population.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which called for the desegregation of public schools, the South was transformed into a tinderbox of racial tension. Southern politicians vowed to defend the region's Jim Crow traditions and urged their constituents to defy federal authorities. As the politics of massive resistance gained traction, staunch segregationists sometimes reacted violently, targeting even churches and synagogues that promoted integration. In fact, the Temple in Atlanta was the fourth southern synagogue to be bombed in little more than a year. Moreover, only days later, another synagogue was bombed, this time in Peoria, Illinois.
Although initial estimates projected that the Temple's structure had suffered more than $200,000 in damage, later estimates placed the figure closer to $100,000. Fortunately, the building was vacant at the time of the blast, and the Temple's historic sanctuary remained unharmed. Still, the damage was immense. An entire wall was blown apart by the blast, a stairwell was mangled and unhinged, offices were destroyed, and shards of stained glass littered the Temple's grounds.
Worse than the physical damage to the building were the anxieties suffered by the city's Jews. Because memories of the Leo Frank lynching and the cultural isolation it had engendered still lingered within that community, many worried that their contemporaries in mid-century Atlanta might react to their plight with indifference or worse.
Local institutions and ordinary citizens throughout the city meanwhile clamored to lend their support. After Mayor Hartsfield pledged $1,000 on behalf of the city for information leading to the arrest of the bombers, others followed suit, and more than $20,000 was soon pledged. Temporary offices for the Temple staff were quickly installed at the nearby Atlanta Jewish Community Center, and the Atlanta School Board offered its facilities for use on weekends. By Monday morning the Temple's front lawn bulletin advertised the title of Rabbi Rothschild's Friday evening sermon: "And None Shall Make Them Afraid."
After uncovering a handwritten note in Bright's home threatening Rabbi Rothschild, prosecutors decided to pursue the thirty-four-year-old engineer first, with the hope that a guilty verdict in his trial would lead to more convictions. A native of New York, Bright had spent his adult life in Atlanta. In 1946, at the age of twenty-two, he joined the Columbians, a neo-Nazi fascist organization then headquartered in the city. Thereafter, he became affiliated with other fringe groups, maintained communication with a network of like-minded extremists, and devoted his spare time to the study of anti-Semitic texts and other writings that warned of the dangers posed by miscegenation, integration, and communism. In May 1958 Bright appeared in the audience at a speech given by Rothschild and briefly heckled the rabbi before being escorted outside the building by authorities. Two months later he was among several men arrested for carrying anti-Semitic placards outside the offices of the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution.
Bright's first trial began on December 1, less than two months after the bombing, and ended ten days later in a mistrial. The jurors were divided 9-3. Some jurors later admitted that even those favoring acquittal believed Bright to be guilty, but they could not support a conviction carrying a possible death sentence on the circumstantial evidence presented.
For his second trial, Bright retained Reuben Garland, a shrewd attorney known for his garish attire and flamboyant courtroom performances. Although his tactics reduced the proceedings to spectacle, and earned him a jail sentence for contempt of court, Garland secured an acquittal for his client. Charges against the remaining four defendants were later dropped.
Members of Atlanta's Jewish community were distressed by the outcome. In his sermons, however, Rothschild encouraged his congregation to look beyond the verdict, reminding them that "the process was sound—and it is in the process that our freedom and security rest." Whereas two generations earlier the Frank case had revealed lawlessness and rampant anti-Semitism, the Temple bombing did not. Because the incident elicited universal condemnation from all quarters of the city, Rothschild concluded that the bombing did not represent a victory for anti-Semitism, but instead a repudiation of it.
The Temple bombing held wider significance for those outside Atlanta's Jewish community as well. Atlanta avoided the bloodshed and rancor that marked the experiences of its regional peers during the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement; the city desegregated its schools without incident, peacefully integrated public facilities, and even hosted an integrated gala dinner, cochaired by Rothschild, to honor Martin Luther King Jr. for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Such reforms might not have been possible were it not for the moderate consensus that emerged in the bombing's wake.
Janice Rothschild Blumberg, "The Bomb That Healed: A Personal Memoir of the Bombing of the Temple in Atlanta, 1958," American Jewish History 73, no. 1 (1983).
Janice Rothschild Blumberg, "Jacob M. Rothschild: His Legacy Twenty Years After," in The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s, ed. Mark K. Bauman and Berkley Kalin (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997).
Melissa Fay Greene, The Temple Bombing (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996).
Edward A. Hatfield, New Georgia Encyclopedia
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