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The Temple Bombing and Atlanta Civil Rights 

Atlanta’s Civil Rights story has facets. One of the most notable but often overlooked chapters in the city’s long struggle for equality happened outside the Black community.

In 1958, Atlanta’s historic synagogue, known as The Temple, was bombed by a group of militant White supremacists who called themselves the “Confederate Underground.” This bombing shook the city to its core. 

A long arc of Civil Rights stories

On this page we’ll talk about:

  • The early days of the Civil Rights in Atlanta and the South
  • How Atlanta’s famous Temple influenced the Civil Rights story
  • The Temple’s Civil Rights leading rabbi
  • The history of violent Anti-Semitism in Atlanta and the South
  • The Temple Bombing
  • The Bombing aftermath

Civil unrest in the 1950s

In the late 1950s, there was unrest simmering in the South as some people were vocal about desegregation, more robust Civil Rights, and ensuring that Blacks could vote. 

However, the violence that the rest of the country and the world would witness that did bring change wouldn’t happen for several more years. So many events that happened in the 1950s went largely unnoticed outside their own communities. 

The Temple Bombing 

In the early hours of Oct. 12, 1958, a bomb ripped through the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation – more familiarly known as The Temple. 

The Temple holds a very special place in Atlanta. 

It is the oldest congregation in the city, formed in 1860, before the Civil War, to meet the needs of German-Jewish immigrants. The current building for the synagogue is situated prominently in Midtown on Peachtree Street – the main thoroughfare of the city. 

The building itself is a neoclassical masterpiece, designed by famed local architect Philip Trammell Shutze in 1931. It is a spectacular building, inside and out. 

For many years leading up to the Civil Rights Era, The Temple and Atlanta Jews were discreet about their religion and worship. 

Many Jewish people tried to assimilate into Christian society – celebrating Christmas, decorating for holidays, and worshiping their own religion behind closed doors. 

The reason for this is actually pretty awful and is directly related to one of the darkest episodes in Atlanta history – the lynching of Leo Frank. 

The Story of Leo Frank 

In 1913, Frank, a superintendent at the National Pencil Company, was convicted of raping and murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a child who worked at the plant. 

This was during a time that there was growing skepticism about Jewish factory owners and child labor. It certainly didn’t help public perception that Frank moved to Atlanta from New York – a “Yankee” to many people. This was about 50 years after the end of the Civil War, and resentment and anger were still very strong. 

The Leo Frank Trial

The trial engulfed the city in the worst possible way. 

The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Jim Conley, an African American janitor at the company. 

He changed his story numerous times, but the prosecution explained that by saying any lies he told were a function of his race. 

National press descended on the city – William Randolph Hearst, who had by this time become a white supremacist, helped sensationalize the story. The prosecution exploited the jury’s antisemitic sentiment about Jews – particularly ones from the North. 

After two hours, the jury convicted Frank and sentenced him to die. 

The Lynching of Leo Frank

The next two years were filled with appeals and more wild stories, culminating in weeks of violence. 

Finally, right before his execution in 1915, the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. 

Mobs began forming and Gov. Slaton declared martial law. An inmate slashed Frank’s throat – two doctors managed to save him. 

Meanwhile, a group of prominent citizens – including elected officials and a former governor – planned Frank’s lynching. They gained easy access to him, abducted him, drove him to Marietta, Ga. (Phagan’s hometown) and lynched him publicly. 

The case didn’t end here. 

The Rise of the KKK

The perpetrators were protected, and the event was widely celebrated in Georgia. Indeed, it resurrected the KKK, which called itself the Knights of Mary Phagan. 

It was a dark period for Jews, and many fled the state. 

They knew if a Black man would be believed before a White Jew, that means the state was more antisemitic than racist – a scary thought at the time. (Especially given the reality that most scholars agree that Conley, the janitor, was the killer.) 

This event, among others, explains why Atlanta Jews were quietly observant, if at all. 

Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild

Enter Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild. 

Rabbi Rothschild came to The Temple in 1946. He grew up in the North and was immediately disturbed by the racism he saw in the South. 

Besides the anti-Black sentiment, there was a growing anti-Semitic movement in the city, fueled by everyone from the KKK to the Christian Anti-Jewish Party. 

Rabbi Rothschild wasted no time speaking up – the next year in his High Holy Days sermon he denounced segregation. Even in the face of clear bigotry, Rabbi Rothschild would not back down, although he started slowly, his congregation eventually followed. He befriended Black clergy and leaders and invited them to events at The Temple. He encouraged his congregants to worship and observe – and stand up against discrimination. 

He was not the only Southern Rabbi encouraging desegregation and Civil Rights. And the Confederate Underground targeted other synagogues across the region, from North Carolina to Miami (and even in Illinois). But Rabbi Rothschild was one of the most outspoken rabbis and The Temple was the most prominent. 

Synagogues across the South ramped up security, but it wasn’t enough to spare The Temple. Even though a press office received warning that a bombing would happen, no one took it seriously. At 3:30 am, a bomb made of 50 sticks of dynamite shattered the building, causing nearly $200,000 in damages (nearly $7500,000 in today’s dollars). Thankfully, no one was hurt. But the scene was shocking. (The film Driving Miss Daisy immortalizes this moment and features the actual temple in the movie.)

Within 15 minutes, staff at United Press International received a call from General Gordon of the Confederate Underground who ominously said: “We bombed a temple in Atlanta. This is the last empty building we will bomb . . . Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens.”

Within a day, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI – under orders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, were on the case and almost immediately five suspects were arrested. 

One confessed immediately. The Anti-Defamation League (founded, in fact, in the wake of the Leo Frank lynching) proclaimed all five were members of a White supremacy group the National States Rights Party as well as the Knights of the White Camelia, a terror group associated with the KKK. 

Unsurprisingly, none of the five were ever convicted despite multiple trials. One made a deathbed confession, but no one served time or paid a price for their crimes. 

While the results of the trials were disappointing to many people in Atlanta, the bombing wound up being one of the most critical and pivotal moments in the city’s path towards becoming the capital of the South – and a model for relative peace in what would become an increasingly violent era. 

Leaders across the city rallied around The Temple. The mayor at the time, William B. Hartsfield, raced to the site and posed for a photo with Rabbi Rothschild in the rubble. That photo hangs inside The Temple today. 

Ralph McGill, editor for the Atlanta Constitution would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his impassioned editorial about the bombing – and the forces behind it. He wrote the next morning: “You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field. It is an old, old story. It is one repeated over and over again in history. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe . . . For a long time now it has been needful for all Americans to stand up and be counted on the side of law and the due process of law even when to do so goes against personal beliefs and emotions.  It is late. But there is yet time.” 

The President of the United States denounced the bombing and donations poured in from around the world to rebuild The Temple – in fact, the building’s old social hall was called “Friendship Hall.” 

Rabbi Rothschild delivered one of his most eloquent sermons in the immediate aftermath. Titled “And None Shall Make Them Afraid,” he said: “This despicable act has made brighter the flame of courage and renewed in splendor the fires of determination and dedication. It has reached the hearts of men everywhere and roused the conscience of a people united in righteousness. All of us together shall rear from the rubble of devastation a city and a land in which all men are truly brothers, and none shall make them afraid.”

The Temple bombing was another violent episode in what would become a decade of violence as Blacks (and many Whites) fought for Civil Rights, equal rights, and voting rights.  

If you’d like to read more about the Temple bombing, there are numerous books on the subject, the most comprehensive being Melissa Fay Greene’s work, The Temple Bombing.

You can learn more about The Temple on their site and take tours through The Breman Museum, which is around the corner from The Temple and also features numerous exhibits about Atlanta Jewish life

For more places in Atlanta to learn about civil rights, visit my page here.

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