Explosion for civil rights


Rabbi Jacob Rothschild and Mayor Hartsfield of Atlanta in the rubble of The Temple (1958). Courtesy of Georgia Encyclopedia via Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Lucy Singer, Jewish Studies Editor

On October 12, 1958, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, The Temple, was bombed by a group known as the “Confederate Underground.” Popular belief suggests that the bombing was a reaction to the outspoken activism of The Temple’s Rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, against injustice toward African Americans. According to The Temple’s official website, two instances of Rabbi Rothschild advocating for civil rights were his High Holy Day sermon in 1947, denouncing segregation, and his invitation to African American leaders to teach at educational events at The Temple. Additionally, Georgia Encyclopedia states that Rabbi Rothschild co-authored the “Minister’s Manifesto” (1957) along with eighty other white members of the Atlanta Christian Council. The “Minister’s Manifesto” was a reaction to an incident in Little Rock, Arkansas in which the National Guard along with a mob of angry whites blocked black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. The authors of the manifesto wanted to prevent an event like this occurring in Atlanta. This document advocated for communication and friendship among the races as well as obedience of the law. Though Rabbi Rothschild never signed his to the manifesto because of its Christian focus, this article partially provoked the bombing.

Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of The Temple 1946. Courtesy of Southern Spaces via Library of Congress.

Although the suspects of the bombing were never convicted, many believe the synagogue was bombed by white supremacists who were angered by The Temple’s support of the black community. As stated in Southern Spaces, on October 13, 1958 a man calling himself “General Gordon of the Confederate Underground” said, “We bombed a temple in Atlanta…This is the last empty building we will bomb . . . Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens.” 

The outcome of the bombing was the opposite of the bombers’ malicious intentions. The public sympathy encouraged Atlanta Jews to continue their support for civil rights. According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, Atlanta’s former mayor, William B. Hartsfield, and the former President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, both condemned the bombers. Mayor Hartsfield gave $1,000 to help find and arrest the bombers prompting others to give an additional $20,000. Another positive effect of the bombing was Rothschild’s sermon the following Friday night titled “And None Shall Make Them Afraid.” In his sermon, Rabbi Rothschild encouraged his congregation by stating:

“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.”

This sermon rallied not only the Jewish community but also its non-Jewish supporters to come together in strength and conviction.

On March 9, 2017, The Weber School will visit the Alliance Theater to watch the play, “The Temple Bombing,” to commemorate 150th anniversary of the founding of The Temple and its most calamitous day, October 12, 1958. This play was inspired by Melissa Fay Greene’s award-winning book “The Temple Bombing.” A Jewish Atlantan, green has been a two-time National Book Award finalist and an inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.