Counterblast: How the Atlanta Temple Bombing Strengthened the Civil Rights Cause

University of Sussex
Published June 22, 2009
Damage from the Reform Temple bombing, October 1958
Damage from the Reform Temple bombing, October 1958. Courtesy of the Cuba Archives of the Breman Museum.

Clive Webb revisits the 1958 bombing of the Atlanta Reform Temple, when militant white supremacists expressed their resistance to segregation and civil rights by dynamiting the most prominent symbol of Jewish life and culture in Atlanta. While members of white radical groups like the National States Rights Party hoped the blast would ignite a full-scale race war against Jews and blacks in the South, it instead served to underscore support for Jews and liberal racial attitudes. Using archival material, including letters of support sent after the bombing and propaganda materials from the National States Rights Party, Webb examines the complex ways in which the bombing and its aftermath affected Atlanta's Jews, blacks fighting for civil rights, and segregationist southern whites.

Clive Webb
University of Sussex

Atlanta Temple Bombing

On the morning of Sunday, October 12, 1958, shortly after 3:30 a.m., an explosion ripped through the Reform Temple on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Although no one was hurt, the blast, which woke people from their sleep several blocks away, caused almost $200,000 of damage.1

Mayor William B. Hartsfield speaks on location after the bombing, October 12, 1958. Courtesy of Walter J. Brown Media Archives, WSB Television Newsfilm Collection, University of Georgia Libraries.

Within fifteen minutes of the blast, staff at United Press International received a call from an individual identifying himself as "General Gordon of the Confederate Underground." "We bombed a temple in Atlanta," intoned the voice. "This is the last empty building we will bomb . . . Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens."2

The bombing of the Reform Temple was the culmination of an orchestrated terrorist campaign against southern Jews. Since the colonial era, Jews and Gentiles had lived in relatively peaceful coexistence in the South. Latent prejudice toward Jews nonetheless surfaced in times of social and economic upheaval, such as the Civil War, the agricultural depression of the late nineteenth century, and the transition from a rural to an urban and industrialized economy. In each of these instances, Jews were blamed for the problems that beset the southern people.

Christian Anti-Jewish Party flyer, circa 1950. Ralph McGill papers, Emory University Special Collections.
Christian Anti-Jewish Party flyer, circa 1950. Ralph McGill papers, Emory University Special Collections.

The desegregation crises of the 1950s and 1960s were the catalyst for renewed outbursts of anti-Semitism. Although Jews could trace their roots in the region back to its colonial settlement, their ethnic and religious identity set them apart from their fellow southerners. The conflict over black civil rights gave renewed focus to traditional southern hostilities toward outsiders. Although the more moderate segregationists tended to eschew anti-Semitism, among militant white supremacists there was widespread suspicion of Jews as fifth columnists working to subvert the southern racial order from within. According to one estimate, there were as many as forty anti-Semitic groups operating in the South at the time of the black freedom struggle. Some of these organizations promoted their cause exclusively through propaganda. Others took more direct action.

The Temple bombing was only one in a series of terrorist strikes on Jewish institutions by the "Confederate Underground." This band of fanatics had launched their first attack almost a year earlier. Their target was Temple Beth-El in Charlotte, North Carolina. On November 11, 1957, the caretaker discovered six sticks of dynamite concealed at the rear of the synagogue that although lit had failed to detonate. Four months later, on February 11, 1958, unidentified assailants planted thirty sticks of dynamite outside Temple Emanuel in the neighboring city of Gastonia. Once again, only a faulty fuse saved the synagogue.3

Ellen Rafshoon, Locations of bombings and attempted bombings of Jewish buildings and institutions, 1957–1958, from "'The Bomb that Healed': Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, Civil Rights and The Temple Bombing of 1958," Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library, Emory University, 2008.
Ellen Rafshoon, Locations of bombings and attempted bombings of Jewish buildings and institutions, 1957–1958, from "'The Bomb that Healed': Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, Civil Rights and The Temple Bombing of 1958," Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library, Emory University, 2008.

The odds that the bombers would succeed in their aims were nonetheless narrowing. On March 16, 1958, they scored their first success, striking not once, but twice. The calm of night was shattered at 2:30 in the morning when an explosion tore through the school annex of Miami's Orthodox Temple Beth El. Such was the strength of the blast that local residents thought a plane crash had woken them from sleep. Before the dust had time to settle, reports began to come in of a second bombing, this time at the Jewish Community Center in Nashville. The explosion, which occurred shortly after 8.00 p.m., smashed the windows and front doors, and brought the ceiling in the reception hall crashing down.4

A month later, the bombers attacked again. Dynamite planted outside the Conservative Beth-El synagogue in Birmingham on April 28, 1958, failed to explode when the fuse burnt out a minute away from the detonating caps. Just over twenty-four hours later, in Jacksonville, Florida, the Jewish Community Center survived a similar bomb attack.5

Synagogues across the South immediately intensified security. As the events of October 12 showed, it was not enough to spare the Reform Temple in Atlanta. Anti-Semites had been active in the city for some time. The Christian Anti-Jewish Party had circulated hate materials throughout Atlanta from the early 1950s. Only three months before the bombing, in July 1958, a group of protesters had demonstrated outside the offices of the Atlanta Constitution, bearing placards with the inscription "Free America from Jewish Domination."6

The Temple was a particular target because of the conspicuous leadership that its rabbi, Jacob M. Rothschild, had provided in support of black civil rights. Once asked by a representative from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to write a report on his activities in the area of civil rights, Rabbi Rothschild replied, "whatever part I played in the Atlanta story was an extremely minor one." This was an unduly modest assertion. Through his outspoken support of integration, at a time when others chose to remain silent, Rothschild helped encourage a climate of tolerance and understanding between the races.7

Rothschild was active in a number of liberal organizations, including the Southern Regional Council, the Georgia Council of Human Relations, and the Greater Atlanta Council on Human Relations. An eloquent critic of racial segregation, he had attracted national attention for a sermon he delivered at the Central Synagogue in New York City that compared southern racism with Nazi persecution of Jews and other minorities. Rothschild was also one of the authors of the Atlanta Manifesto. Published in November 1957, the document, which was signed by more than eighty ministers, called on city authorities not to succumb to pressure from segregationists who would sooner close than integrate the public school system. Rothschild had refrained from adding his name because he believed that Christian ministers needed to take the initiative in providing a voice of moral authority on the civil rights issue. He was, however, the signatory of a more forceful document published the following year that urged white Atlantans to "face up to the fact, that under the ruling of the Supreme Court . . . enforced segregation in the public schools is now without support in and contrary to national law."8

Portrait of Jacob Rothschild, 1946.
Portrait of Jacob Rothschild, Rabbi of the Temple in Atlanta, Georgia, 1946. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Rothschild commanded the support of most of his congregation on the race issue. The relatively progressive political climate in Atlanta contrasted with the repressive and claustrophobic climate in many smaller southern communities that forced even racially liberal Jews into an uncomfortable public silence. Some Atlanta Jews publicly sided with the forces of reaction, most conspicuously restaurant owner Charles Lebedin whose belligerent refusal to integrate his businesses generated angry protests from black activists in the early 1960s.9 In comparison with many other southern rabbis, however, Rothschild encountered little recrimination from a congregation generally in sympathy with his stance. Those who did take issue with him differed more over means than ends.10

Federal and state authorities lost no time in searching for those responsible for the attack. The earlier synagogue bombings had already led southern officials in May 1958 to establish a network linking the police departments of twenty-eight southern cities in an exchange of information on the synagogue bombings. In response to the Temple bombing, a joint operation between city and federal officials led to the indictment on October 17, 1958 of five men: Wallace Allen, Robert Bowling, George Bright, Luther Corley and Kenneth Griffin. All five had links with the extremist National States' Rights Party and the Knights of the White Camellia.11

Role of the National States' Rights Party

Founded in August 1958, the National States' Rights Party (NSRP) was a fusion of numerous far-right groups including the Columbians, the Christian Anti-Jewish Party, and the United White Party. Its principal architects were Edward Fields and J. B. Stoner, both of whom had been active members of the far right since the 1940s.12

NSRP demonstration for segregation.
NSRP Demonstration for Segregation, from FBI file.

Contemporary and retrospective evaluations of far-right organizations such as the NSRP have relied on a pathological interpretative model. According to such analysis, the far right comprises some of the dispossessed elements of society, women and especially men influenced by a sense of failure and frustration in their lives. These people attempt to compensate for their own deficiencies by projecting the blame onto others, particularly racial and religious minorities. Journalist Drew Pearson conformed to this stereotypical understanding of the far right when he described the inaugural meeting of the NSRP as a gathering of the "dirty collar crowd." Author Melissa Fay Greene has similarly written of the NSRP that "these were crackpots; these were madmen."13

Dismissing the NSRP as a bunch of sordid lunatics nonetheless diminished the seriousness of the danger they posed African Americans and Jews. Arnold Forster of the Anti-Defamation League acknowledged the threat that the NSRP represented in pronouncing that its leaders were of "higher calibre than Klan elements and the membership more articulate." A list of the foremost NSRP activists compiled in the early 1960s further revealed that several of them were members of the professional middle class.14

Initially based in Jeffersonville, Indiana, the NSRP permanently relocated to Birmingham, Alabama. The party operated along military lines. Members wore a uniform consisting of a white shirt and black trousers and decorated with a black tie, Sam Browne belt, and armband bearing the party emblem, a thunderbolt superimposed on a Confederate battle flag. At the pinnacle of its political influence, the NSRP claimed to have thirty-six chapters in thirteen states, not only in the South, but also from across the Midwest to the Pacific Coast. Many of these local branches existed in little more than name, however, and estimates of external sources suggest NSRP membership never exceeded 500. Although most of these members were men, women occupied a number of prominent positions within the party hierarchy, including Vice Chairperson Anne Bishop and Secretary Treasurer Bernice Settle.15

Racist propaganda illustration from a NSRP party pamphlet.
Illustration from a National States' Rights Party pamphlet, from FBI file.

The core philosophy of the NSRP was a fanatical determination to resist racial reform by any means necessary. In the words of the party constitution, "We dedicate ourselves to the task of saving America and the White race and the preservation of the pure blood of our forefathers . . ."16

The NSRP emphasized the strength of its members' convictions by stating that African Americans were not simply a lesser race than were whites, but an entirely different species. "Scientists Say Negro Still in Ape Stage," asserted a leaflet published by the party, which included a diagrammatic comparison emphasizing their common features.17

Since African Americans were not human, according to the NSRP, miscegenation would result in an inferior mongrel race. Yet even though African Americans were a serious threat, they were but a biological weapon in the hands of the real adversary of the white race. In the words of J. B. Stoner, "the negro is not the enemy. The Jew is THE enemy of our White Race and the Jew is using the negro in an effort to destroy the White Race that he so passionately hates." To address the threat created by Jews, African Americans and other minorities, the NSRP proposed the creation of a National Repatriation Commission to administer the resettlement of minorities: blacks to Africa, Jews to Madagascar, and Asians to Hawaii.18

Excerpt from NSRP membership application.
Excerpt from NSRP membership application, from FBI file.

As historian David Chappell argues, many southern political leaders had a fatalistic attitude toward desegregation, believing that they could postpone but not ultimately prevent it from happening.19 The militants of the NSRP, by contrast, believed that victory was theirs provided they used whatever means were necessary. Their use of the name "Confederate Underground" was clearly an attempt to mobilize popular support by evoking the spirit of fighting resistance to Yankee tyranny during the Civil War.

The NSRP attempted to make political capital out of the Temple bombing by claiming Jews had staged the incident as a means to bring into disrepute the defense of Jim Crow. John Crommelin, one of the prime movers within the NSRP, wrote an open letter to J. Edgar Hoover in which he accused Jews of blowing up their own synagogue in order to create public sympathy, discredit their political opponents, and encourage federal authorities to extend their influence over local and state affairs.20 The trial of the five NSRP activists arrested by the police also had potential propaganda value. Even if the court convicted the defendants, the NSRP could use this to its political advantage by portraying them as martyrs.

The trial began on December 1. The prosecution presented evidence including a handwritten note found by police in Bright's home threatening "a terrifying experience" that would soon befall the Jewish community. They also offered the testimony of an FBI informant who claimed he had attended a meeting on May 5 at which the conspirators had drawn up plans to destroy the temple. Nine days later, with the jury deadlocked nine to three in favor of conviction, Judge Durwood T. Pye declared a mistrial. Reindicted two weeks later, Bright stood trial a second time in January 1959. This time, a jury acquitted him and he walked free from the court.21

Impact on Multiple Groups

Despite the failure to convict Bright and his cohorts, the bombing of the Reform Temple was a watershed for Atlanta Jewry. The outpouring of public sympathy strengthened the sense of acceptance and security among Atlanta Jews and made them more willing to participate in public life, including the race issue. It also led to the exorcism of the ghost of Leo Frank, which had continued to haunt the older members of the Reform Temple's congregation for almost half a century.

The lynching of Leo Frank, one of the most shocking outbursts of anti-Semitism in American history, was still within the living memory of older congregants. On April 13, 1913, Atlanta police arrested Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old employee at the pencil factory he managed. A court found Frank guilty and sentenced him to death. When Governor John Slaton commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, a mob seized him from the state prison and hanged him near Mary Phagan's birthplace in Marietta. The incident had encouraged a generation of Atlanta Jews that the security of their community was still precarious and that they should refrain from public involvement in controversial issues or suffer violent recrimination.22 Community reaction to the bombing, however, proved that such fears were no longer founded.

Leo Frank and Lucille Frank at his trial in 1915.
Leo Frank and Lucille Frank at his trial in 1915.

Public support for the Jewish community in part owed to the mindset of Atlanta's political elite. Atlanta embodied what historian Matthew Lassiter refers to as "the pragmatic South."23 In a process that started with the New Deal and then accelerated during and after World War II, federal recovery and investment programmes started to transform the underdeveloped southern economy. Business and civic leaders in new and expanding metropolitan centers recognized that an outbreak of racial violence would blemish the reputation of their community and discourage northern capital investment. In Atlanta, a coalition consisting of moderate white politicians, the entrepreneurial elite, and black community leaders came to power after World War II. Although motivated in part by self-interest, the members of this alliance recognized that the promotion of racial progressivism would advantage the entire city by creating the foundations for further economic growth and development. Mayor William B. Hartsfield boasted proudly that Atlanta was "a city too busy to hate."24

Alarmed at the potential impact that the bombing of the Reform Temple might have upon their city's image of being "too busy to hate," Atlantans inundated Rabbi Rothschild with words of remorse. Mayor Hartsfield blamed southern leaders whose outspoken resistance to the Supreme Court decision had, he alleged, led to a loss of respect for the law throughout the region: "Whether they like it or not, every rabble-raising politician is the godfather of the cross-burners and the dynamiters, who are giving the South a bad name." In the five days following the bomb blast, the people of Atlanta contributed over $20,000 to the reward fund established by the mayor.25

Religion also influenced public reaction to the bombing. Adherence to the teachings of the Old Testament led the more fundamentalist Christians of the Bible Belt to believe that Jews were God's chosen people. "Where they made a terrible mistake," Atlanta Reform Temple member Cecil Alexander observes of the terrorists, "was, in a part of the country where the ancient Hebrews were revered as the source of Christianity, to bomb a religious building was totally out of order."26

Letter from Henry McKennie Goodpasture of the Presbyterian Church to Rothschild. Letter from N.B. Herndon of the Herndon Foundation to Rothschild. Letter from the Nashville Jewish Community Center to Rothschild. Letter from Herbert T. Jenkins, Atlanta Chief of Police, to Rothschild. Letter from A.J. Novick and Congressman Burr P. Harrison to Rothschild.
Letters of sympathy sent to Rothschild and the Temple in the aftermath of the bombing.
Jacob M. Rothschild papers, Emory University Special Collections.

The purpose of the attack on the Reform Temple was to shock Rothschild and his congregation into silence on the civil rights issue. Ironically, the outpouring of public sympathy helped to reassure Atlanta Jews of their security within the wider community. As Atlantans recoiled in horror at the incident, so an atmosphere of increased tolerance and understanding began to settle over the city. In the words of Cecil Alexander, "we all took a second look and thought, 'Well, after all, we do have a position in this community that does entitle us to feel secure.'" Once the anxieties of his congregation had eased, Rabbi Rothschild was able to speak out with renewed vigor on the issue of civil rights. The title of his first sermon following the bombing captured his defiant spirit: "And None Shall Make Them Afraid."27

Excerpt from The Temple Bulletin, October 16, 1958.
Excerpt from The Temple Bulletin, October 16, 1958. Courtesy of The Temple: Hebrew Benevolent Congregation of Atlanta.

Rothschild, along with Catholic Archbishop Paul Hallinan and Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill, was also responsible for arranging a dinner to honor Martin Luther King for his award of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace. Thirteen hundred people turned up at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel on the night of January 27, 1965. "Your words," King later wrote privately to the rabbi, "were both eloquent and moving and I shall treasure them amongst the storehouse of memories as a light of encouragement for the many dark and desolate days of struggle which are before us."28

Public reaction to the Temple bombing nonetheless served in certain respects to aggravate racial tensions. African Americans reacted to the synagogue bombing with a certain degree of ambivalence. Black leaders expressed their sincerest sympathies, seeing the terrorist attack as evidence that southern resistance to desegregation bred violent hostility toward all minorities. As The Birmingham World, a black newspaper, asserted, "if such things are allowed to go unsolved when done against one minority group, the evil-doers become embolden to move after other unpopular groups." Ministers of the AME Church in Atlanta issued a resolution condemning the attack on the city's Reform Temple. Rabbi Rothschild also received a financial donation for repair work from an unexpected source. The black inmates of a local prison asked the chaplain to pass on a collective contribution to the building fund. Deeply moved, Rothschild wrote back that, "of all the gifts which we have received, this one certainly is one of the most meaningful and heart-warming."29

Jacob Rothschild and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Nobel Peace Prize dinner, January 1965.
Jacob Rothschild and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Nobel Peace Prize dinner in January 1965.

The reaction of city authorities to the attack on the Temple nonetheless caused considerable friction among African Americans. One of the principal leads investigated by police came from an attendant at the gas station across the street from the Temple, who claimed the black driver of a 1956 Pontiac hardtop had stopped to ask for directions to the synagogue just over two hours before the explosion. When Police Chief Herbert Jenkins informed reporters that the police were anxious to question the driver in connection with the bomb attack, it created considerable discomfort amongst the African American community. The arrest of five white men only served to reinforce the anger of the city's black newspaper, the Atlanta Daily World. It was typical of those responsible, alleged the paper, to attempt to frame an African American, and even more typical for the police to fall for the idea that the offender they were looking for was black. As its editorial writers argued, "It would [be] quite un-Godly for those who would follow the pattern of 'covering' up their tracks, to attempt the old pattern of involving a Negro 'suspect' to give color to a move to detour from the main course, those who would honestly engage in an effort to find out who these midnight marauders are."30

The contrasting reaction of the authorities to the bombing of black and Jewish institutions also embittered many African Americans. The terrorist attacks against the Temple prompted an outpouring of public sympathy and immediate intervention on the part of local and federal officials. Although African Americans had suffered far more assaults on their homes and churches, the authorities had reacted with indifference to most of these outrages.

Faced with such injustice, many African Americans were inevitably infuriated. A resolution adopted by the black Atlanta Baptist Association four days after the attack on the Temple commended the efforts of federal and city office to track down those responsible. At the same time, the association announced that, "We deplore the pronounced silence, lethargy, and inaction of public officials, national and local, in the cases of the bombings of our Negro churches and homes. . . " Responding to the indictment of the five NSRP members, the Atlanta Daily World applauded the role performed by FBI investigators. If only, it continued, they could turn their skills to tracking down those responsible for similar offenses against black institutions. "Many cases of obvious violence which has stirred up terror and drove peaceful citizens from their home towns and counties, have been noted, only to find that 'no federal laws have been violated.' For the want of a federal law violation, many such cases have gone the way of all earth."31

The most passionate denunciation of the different treatment accorded African Americans and Jews by the authorities came from Annie Moore. In a letter addressed to Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill, Moore compared the rapid reaction of the federal government to the Temple bombing, with the indifference it had shown following the murder, in 1951, of her father, Florida state director of the NAACP, Harry T. Moore. Moore was celebrating Christmas with his family in Miami when a bomb exploded inside the house. He and his wife died instantly. Despite considerable pressure from various political and religious organizations for a full investigation, federal authorities refused to intervene. "I remember quite well," recalled Ms. Moore, "that no large sums of money were offered for information leading toward the apprehension and conviction of the ones responsible for this tragedy; no Governor spoke, no President urged the FBI to investigate to the fullest and report to him; no policemen stood on 24 hour guard over us who remained. . . " As to why there was such a discrepancy in the reaction of the authorities, she continued, "Could this be the reason: the Jew, while hated, is nevertheless White."32

Although public reaction to the Temple bombing encouraged black activists to go on the offensive, it had the precise opposite effect on their segregationist counterparts. From its outset, the more responsible leaders of the massive resistance movement had disavowed violence and articulated their opposition to desegregation in terms of their adherence to states' rights. These segregationists understood that racial violence would prove counterproductive to their cause, alienating a white northern public whose support they needed and provoking federal government intervention. This fear that the anarchic tactics of extremists could fatally compromise the legitimate protest of more responsible segregationists was forcefully articulated by South Carolina journalist William D. Workman, Jr. According to Workman, there were four enemies that most endangered the southern social order. The first three, predictably, were the Supreme Court, the NAACP, and northern liberals. However, the fourth was not an external but an internal threat; white racial militants.33 The Citizens' Council articulated a similar line of reasoning. "This is no Klan revival," affirmed an editorial in its newsletter. "The organizations are determined not to be taken by lunatics of the far right, either by American fascists and fanatics who always try to horn in on States' Rights Southerners."34

The Temple bombing forced an already defensive segregationist leadership further on the back foot. Massive resistance leaders moved swiftly to dissociate themselves from the bombing for fear that it would undermine their carefully cultivated image of respectability. The Citizens' Council published a cartoon in its newsletter disingenuously claiming that communist subversives had carried out the attack in order to taint all segregationists with a reputation for violent bigotry. The cartoon showed a rodent scampering from the wreckage of the bombing, underneath which were written the words "Smell a Rat?" Southern columnist David Lawrence similarly asserted that the bombing was a Soviet plot "to stir up antagonisms inside the United States and to portray America before the world as denying religious freedom."35

"Smell a Rat?" cartoon from The Citizens' Council, Oct. 1958, 3.
"Smell a Rat?" cartoon, The Citizens' Council.

Whomever they blamed for the bombing, massive resisters agreed that it was an abhorrent act. Georgia's Senator Herman Talmadge, for instance, condemned the attack as "a shocking and unthinkable act."36 There was nonetheless more than an element of hypocrisy about the reaction of supposedly respectable segregationists to the bombing. Southern political leaders framed their resistance to racial integration within the confines of the law. The Southern Manifesto of 1956, committed the more than one hundred politicians who signed it to use "all lawful means to bring about a reversal" of the Brown decision. Although they did not sanction violence, this defiance of federal authority nonetheless fostered a political climate in which militants believed they could act with impunity. "Let it be understood," stated Ralph McGill in an astute editorial for the Atlanta Constitution, "that when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gates to all those who wish to take law into their hands."37

The Atlanta bombing also obliged segregationists to defend themselves against accusations of anti-Semitism. Segregationists were determined to demonstrate that their support of Jim Crow was consistent with American values. This necessitated their avoidance of any association with fascism. Public awareness that Nazi racial policies had resulted in the systematic extermination of millions of people encouraged segregationists to disavow overt white supremacist rhetoric and instead emphasize legalistic justifications for Jim Crow. Rabbi Rothschild received a contribution to the repair fund from the Dallas County Citizens' Council in Selma, Alabama. Embarrassed to be associated in any way with the segregationist movement, Rothschild asked Mayor William B. Hartsfield to return the check.38

The terrorist tactics of rabble-rousing extremists not only failed to reverse the tide of civil rights reform, but actually fastened its forward advance. Racial terrorism also resulted in greater federal intervention in southern state affairs. Reacting to the Temple bombing, New York Senators Jacob K. Javits and Kenneth B. Keating appealed to Attorney General William P. Rogers to support legislation empowering federal government investigation of racial hate crimes. The political momentum generated by the bombing led President Eisenhower in May 1960 to sign a new Civil Rights Act into law. As well as measures protecting and promoting black voting rights, the legislation made it a federal crime to use threats or force to obstruct a court order. It also authorized federal authorities to investigate the bombing of schools, churches, and other buildings when there was evidence that the perpetrators had fled across state lines. The terrorist acts committed by members of the NSRP were instrumental in shaping federal policy. During the Senate debate, Kenneth Keating documented eighty-eight bombing incidents between 1955 and 1960; at least sixteen of these incidents directly or indirectly involved the NSRP.39

Although some southern politicians saw the new powers assigned to federal investigators as an infringement of states' rights, others conceded that local law enforcement was insufficient to counter racial violence. While these legislators opposed the voting rights provisions of the bill, they willingly approved the anti-bombing measures. Terrorist brutalities undermined the ability of white southern political leaders to sustain their own resistance to racial integration within the confines of the law. Referring directly to the Atlanta bombing, Herman Talmadge, one of the most outspoken opponents of black civil rights in the Senate, asserted that he had "nothing but contempt and loathing for that type of dementia which motivates a person to destroy with explosives or fire a church, a school, a plant, a house, or any structure." Congressman Prince H. Preston of Georgia, another signatory of the Southern Manifesto, took a similar position. Such declarations were, as already stated, somewhat disingenuous. The defiance of federal law by politicians including Talmadge and Preston created the context for lawless extremism in the first place. The violence of white extremists nonetheless placed the southern political leadership on the defensive. Their acceptance of increased federal power undercut the states rights' philosophy that impelled their opposition to the civil rights movement.40

Although its terrorist campaign against southern synagogues proved counterproductive, the NSRP remained a potent political force throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Some of its members were active in Nacirema ("American" spelled backwards), a terrorist network responsible for many of the bombings of black institutions that occurred in the 1960s.41 The NSRP also mobilized grassroots violence against civil rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964; and Bogalusa, Louisiana, 1965. Moreover, in contrast to Atlanta, the NSRP benefited in these communities from the equivocation or even active complicity of local and state authorities. It took public officials in the more intractable southern communities a decade to learn the lessons that city leaders in Atlanta had absorbed; that the cost of resistance of civil rights reform—school closures, the breakdown of law and order, and a disreputable public image that deterred potential investors—was as damaging to whites as it was to blacks. Only then did they move decisively against the extremists within their midst.

  • 1. Atlanta Constitution, October 13, 1958; New York Times, October 16, 1958. For a more substantial narrative of events, see Melissa Fay Greene, The Temple Bombing (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996).
  • 2. UPI report, October 13, 1958.
  • 3. Albert Vorspan to I. Cyrus Gordon, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, March 3, 1958, "Attempted Dynamiting of North Carolina Synagogues," Small Collections, Jacob Rader Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • 4. Nathan Perlmutter, "Bombing in Miami: Anti-Semitism and the Segregationists," Commentary 25 (June 1958): 498–503; Jackson Toby, "Bombing in Nashville: A Jewish Center and the Desegregation Struggle," Commentary 25 (May 1958): 385–89.
  • 5. Southern Jewish Weekly, May 2, 1958; Richmond Afro-American, May 3, 1958.
  • 6. Arthur J. Levin, Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, Atlanta office, circular, August 15, 1952, box 46, folder 15, Series 5, Ralph McGill Papers, 1853–1971, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta.
  • 7. Jacob M. Rothschild to Balfour Brickner, October 12, 1961, box 5, folder 8, Rothschild Papers, 1933–1985, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta.
  • 8. Harold C. Fleming to Jacob M. Rothschild, January 6, 1958, box 3, folder 8, Rothschild Papers; Columbus Enquirer, February 19, 1947; David A. Harmon, "Beneath the Image: The Civil Rights Movement and Race Relations in Atlanta, Georgia, 1946–1981," PhD diss., Emory University, 1993, 206–8; Leonard Dinnerstein, "Southern Jewry and the Desegregation Crisis, 1954–1970," American Jewish Historical Quarterly 62 (1973): 239; P. Allen Krause, "Rabbis and Negro Rights in the South, 1954–1967," American Jewish Archives 21 (April 1969): 38.
  • 9. Paul Good, The Trouble I've Seen: White Journalist/Black Movement (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1975), 25–6.
  • 10. Janice Rothschild Blumberg, One Voice: Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild and the Troubled South (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), 63–4.
  • 11. New York Times, October 18, 1958.
  • 12. For further background on Fields and Stoner, see John George and Laird Wilcox, American Extremists: Militias, Supremacists, Klansmen, Communists & Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996), 354–61.
  • 13. Denver Post, December 4, 1958; Greene, Temple Bombing, 164.
  • 14. Chicago Defender, November 22, 1958. See also the description of George Bright, one of the suspects in the Atlanta Temple bombing case, as a "brilliant architect" in SCR ID # 1-8-0-16-5-1-1, Sovereignty Commission Online, Mississippi Department of Archives & History Digital Collections,, accessed December 1, 2006.
  • 15. California Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, Para-Military Organizations in California White Extremist Organizations, Part II: National States Rights PartyThe Present-Day Ku Klux Klan Movement, Report by the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, 90th Cong. Ist Sess., December 11, 1967 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1967), 13. (Sacramento, CA, 1965), NSRP-4; (unpublished monograph, May 1970), 5, National States Rights Party, Federal Bureau of Investigation File, Part II, ii, 2; NSRP membership application form, box 39, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul; The Present-Day Ku Klux Klan Movement, Report by the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, 90th Cong. Ist Sess., December 11, 1967 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1967), 13.
  • 16. George Thayer, The Farther Shores of Politics: The American Political Fringe Today (London: Allen Lane, 1968), 38.
  • 17. "Scientists Say Negro Still in Ape Stage," Birmingham Police Department Surveillance Files, 1947–1980.
  • 18. J. B. Stoner, "The Philosophy of 'White Racism,'" n.d., American Jewish Committee Anti-Semitic and Extremist Collection, Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Human Relations Library, New York.
  • 19. David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
  • 20. John G. Crommelin to J. Edgar Hoover, November 1, 1958, John Crommelin Federal Bureau of Investigation File.
  • 21. "The Trial of George M. Bright," ADL Bulletin 16 (February 1959): 7; Janice Rothschild Blumberg, One Voice: Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild and the Troubled South (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), 99–107; Arnold Shankman, "A Temple is Bombed—Atlanta, 1958,” American Jewish Archives 23 (November 1971): 131.
  • 22. For more information on Frank, see Leonard Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968) and Steve Oney, And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (New York: Pantheon, 2003).
  • 23. Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006).
  • 24. For an excellent analysis of the moderate coalition that controlled Atlanta in the postwar era, see Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), especially 19–41.
  • 25. Atlanta Constitution, October 13, 14, 1958.
  • 26. Cecil Alexander, interview with author, November 13, 1993.
  • 27. Cecil Alexander, transcript of oral interview, Atlanta Jewish Community Archives; Krause, "Rabbis and Negro Rights," 39.
  • 28. Benjamin E. Mays, Born to Rebel: An Autobiography (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 261–63; Xenona Clayton with Hal Gulliver, I've Been Marching All the Time: An Autobiography (Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1991), 148, Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jacob M. Rothschild, March 8, 1965, box 6, folder 7, Rothschild Papers.
  • 29. Birmingham World, May 3, 1958; Atlanta Daily World, October 21, 1958; Jacob M. Rothschild to Chaplain Bill Allison, December 5, 1958, box 5, folder 3, Rothschild Papers.
  • 30. Atlanta Daily World, October 14 and 15, 1958.
  • 31. Atlanta Baptist Association, resolution of October 14, 1958, box 4, folder 1, Rothschild Papers; Atlanta Daily World, October 18, 19, 23, 1958.
  • 32. New York Times, December 27, 1951; Annie Moore to Ralph McGill, October 14, 1958, box 4, folder 1, Rothschild Papers.
  • 33. William D. Workman, Jr., The Case for the South (New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1960), vii.
  • 34. The Citizens' Council, November 1955, 4.
  • 35. The Citizens' Council, October 1958, 3; Evening Capital (Annapolis, MD), October 16, 1958.
  • 36. Albuquerque Journal, October 13, 1958.
  • 37. Atlanta Constitution, October 13, 1958. See also Ralph McGill, A Church, A School (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1959), 9–11.
  • 38. Tom Strong to Jacob M. Rothschild, October 16, 1958; William B. Hartsfield to Tom Strong, October 25, 1958, box 4, folder 4, Rothschild Papers.
  • 39. Congressional Record, Vol. 106, Part 5, 86th Congress, 2d Session, 5727–28.
  • 40. Congressional Record, Vol. 106, Part 6, 86th Congress, 2d Session, 7581 and Vol. 106, Part 4, 5462.
  • 41. George McMillan, "New Bombing Terrorists of the South Call Themselves NACIREMA," Life (October 11, 1963): 39–40.

Browse by