This Day in Jewish History |

1958: White Supremacists Bomb Atlanta Congregation

It was part of a series of attacks of Jewish communities, many of which supported the civil rights struggles of the era.

David Green
David B. Green
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Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma, Alabama, alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other civil rights activists.
Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma, Alabama, alongside John Lewis, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other civil rights activists.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

On this day in 1958, a bomb rocked the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, a Reform synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia. The blast, caused by the explosion of 50 sticks of dynamite, took place at 3:30 A.M. on a Sunday morning, and no one was hurt. Shortly thereafter, a local wire-service office received a call from someone identifying himself as “General Gordon of the Confederate Underground,” claiming responsibility for the attack and promising that “this is the last empty building we will bomb…. Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens.” The Temple bombing was one of eight such attacks or attempted attacks on synagogues, mostly in the South, between November 1957 and October 14, 1958, when Anshei Emeth Temple in Peoria, Illinois, was terrorized.

Only four years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, had ruled segregation unconstitutional. To many white racists at the time, Jews and Communists (who were somewhat interchangeable to them) were responsible for the travesty of desegregation. The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, established in 1860 by German Jewish immigrants, was (and remains) Atlanta’s oldest and most affluent synagogue, and thus an obvious target for militant racists. Additionally, its rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was an outspoken advocate for civil rights who gave numerous sermons on the subject, sometimes to congregants’ consternation, and later worked with and supported Martin Luther King, Jr.

Five men, members of the white-supremacist National States’ Rights Party were quickly arrested and tried for the Atlanta bombing and all were acquitted – twice. But the attack nonetheless served to draw significant public sympathy for the synagogue and condemnation of the attack, including a statement from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A group of black inmates at a local prison even took up a collection for the synagogue’s building fund and sent it to Rabbi Rothschild by way of their prison chaplain. At the same time, there was widespread resentment among many blacks at the wide disparity between the official responses to the synagogue bombing and similar attacks on African-African institutions.

No one was ever convicted of the Temple bombing. Jacob Rothschild remained rabbi of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation until his death in 1973, and continued his involvement in civil rights activities. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., he was outspoken in criticizing the increasingly militant tactics of some black activists, which strained relations with some of them. Nevertheless, he continued speaking his mind until the end of his life.



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