Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple bombing

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Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple bombing
Location Atlanta, Georgia
Date October 12, 1958
Target Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (Reform Jewish temple)
Attack type
Dynamite bombing
Perpetrators unknown
Motive apparently anti-Semitism; group involved was likely white supremacist

The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple bombing occurred on October 12, 1958. The Temple, on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia, housed a Reform Jewish congregation. The building was damaged extensively by the dynamite-fueled explosion, although no one was injured. Five suspects were arrested almost immediately after the bombing. One of them, George Bright, was tried twice. His first trial ended with a hung jury and his second with an acquittal. As a result of Bright's acquittal the other suspects were not tried, and no one was ever convicted of the bombing.

Background[edit]

From Ralph McGill's Atlanta Constitution Pulitzer prize winning editorial on the bombing

It is the harvest of defiance of courts and the encouragement of citizens to defy law on the part of many southern politicians. It is not possible to preach lawlessness and restrict it. To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple or a school. But, let it be understood 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 the law into their hands.[1]

Ralph McGill—"A Church, A State..." (October 13, 1958)

The day after the bombing, Atlanta Constitution editor and outspoken voice of moderation on civil rights issues Ralph McGill tied the bombing to the ongoing civil rights movement in a famous,[2] Pulitzer prize winning[3] editorial which was quoted extensively in The New York Times.[1] Jacob Rothschild, the temple's rabbi since 1946,[4] was a highly visible and early[4] advocate of civil rights and integration,[2] supporter of the United States Supreme Court's decision ending school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education,[4] and friend of Martin Luther King Jr.

Rothschild not only took an activist role in the struggle for racial equality, but, unlike some other pro-integration southern rabbis, was supported in his stance by a significant number of his congregants.[5] The bombing ripped the delicate social fabric of Atlanta, which called itself the "city too busy to hate,"[6] although it also elicited widespread support for Rothschild and the Temple from Jewish and non-Jewish Atlantans alike.[5] For instance, by early November 1958, the Temple had received over $12,000 in donations to its rebuilding fund.[7]

The explosion[edit]

Memo (October 13, 1958) from J. Edgar Hoover concerning FBI input into Dwight D. Eisenhower's pending response to bombing

The explosion occurred just after 3:30 AM Eastern Standard Time on October 12, 1958.[8] Those who heard the blast reported a "loud explosion" to police and newspapers. A United Press International (UPI) staff member had received a call earlier that night warning that a bombing would occur, but did not take the call seriously. At about 3:50 AM, shortly after the bombing, UPI staff received a call from "General Gordon of the Confederate Underground" who said "We have just blown up the temple. This is the last empty building I'll blow up in Atlanta."[8] The explosion caused damage to the building estimated at between $100,000[9] and $200,000.[10]

By October 13, over 75 policemen and a number of Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents were working on the case.[1] They were joined by FBI agents, involved by direct order of president Dwight D. Eisenhower.[11] US army experts had by then already determined that dynamite was the explosive agent used.[1]

Investigation, arrests, and indictments[edit]

From George Lincoln Rockwell's "big blast" letter to Wallace Allen

The big blast is all set for either next Sunday or Saturday, if there is a local ordinance forbidding picketing, etc. on Sunday. We will know tomorrow and will keep you informed. But we want to have it Sunday, if possible, because the boys are coming down from New York for the work here — no guts in the local citizens — and we want to have Saturday to pass out thousands of handbills and put up posters to sort of steam things up for the big blow itself.[12]

George Lincoln Rockwell to Wallace Allen, July 1958[13]

By October 13, five suspects were in custody.[1] One of them, Kenneth Chester Griffin, confessed almost immediately.[14] He accused another one of the men arrested, George Bright, of masterminding the crime and of building the bomb.[14] Griffin also told Atlanta detectives that the dynamite had been supplied by J. B. Stoner, founder and chairman of the National States Rights Party (NSRP), who, according to Griffin, left Atlanta before the explosion in order to establish an alibi.[14]

By October 16, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL) had released a report publicly linking the suspects to the NSRP.[15] All five were also members of the Knights of the White Camelia.[16] Police had by then searched nineteen Atlanta-area houses associated with the suspects and had uncovered large caches of anti-Semitic propaganda, some of which was attributed to the Christian Anti-Jewish Party.[17]

On October 17, one of the five suspects, Luther King Corley, was released and the other four, Wallace Allen, Bright, Griffin, and Robert A. Bolling, had been indicted by a Georgia state grand jury on a capital charge of bombing The Temple.[13] The grand jury also indicted a fifth suspect, Richard Bolling (Robert's brother), who was being sought by police.[13]

The New York Times reported on October 17 that American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell had written to Allen in July 1958 and mentioned a "big blast."[13] Rockwell told reporters that he had been referring to "a picketing demonstration and not to a bombing."[13] Material found during the investigation also linked future NSRP vice-presidential candidate and former naval officer John G. Crommelin with the suspects.[18] Crommelin went on to organize a legal defense fund for the accused bombers.[18]

Richard Bowling was arrested by Atlanta police on October 18[19] and, by October 22, all five suspects had been denied bail.[10]

George Bright's trials[edit]

First trial[edit]

The first suspect to be tried, George Bright, initially appeared before the court on December 1, 1958[20] represented by, among others, James R. Venable, Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.[21] Bright's attorneys filed a motion arguing that the law Bright had been charged under, which allowed for the death penalty in cases of bombings of dwellings, did not include "houses of worship."[20] This argument was dismissed by the judge, who ordered Bright bound over for trial in Fulton County Superior Court.[20]

Bright's trial began on December 2 with the prosecutor promising to show that Bright had been present when The Temple was bombed.[22] He also said that Bright had gone to a meeting in May 1958 at which Temple rabbi Jacob Rothschild had been invited to speak and that, in reference to this meeting, had told his neighbors that "we should go out there and string the rabbi up."[22]

On December 3 the state of Georgia produced a note that Bright (admittedly) had written to Rothschild after the May meeting informing him that "You are going to experience the most terrifying thing in your life."[23] On December 4 a witness testified that Bright had been friendly with noted segregationist John Kasper and had regularly attended meetings of the National States Rights Party.[24]

Bright's case was handed over to the jury on December 6 after he made a statement protesting his innocence and denying that he was an anti-Semite.[25] On December 9 The New York Times reported that the jury was deadlocked 9 to 3, but did not report which way the jurors were split; the trial judge ordered them to continue their deliberations.[26] On December 10 the judge declared a mistrial as the jurors remained "hopelessly deadlocked."[27] The jury foreman told reporters that the panel had been split with 9 in favor of convicting Bright and 3 in favor of acquittal.[27] One of the jurors in favor of acquittal told reporters that "You can't send a man to the penitentiary for life just because he's a Jew-hater."[27]

Second trial[edit]

George Bright's second trial began on January 12, 1959, with the state of Georgia waiving the possibility of asking for the death penalty.[28] The trial ended on January 22, 1959, with George Bright again testifying to his innocence.[29] The jury deliberated for two hours and eight minutes before returning a verdict of "not guilty."[30] Immediately after the trial ended, the presiding judge jailed Bright's lawyer, Reuben Garland, for contempt of court.[31] Garland was freed after five days pending appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which, in June 1959, overturned Garland's contempt sentence.[32]

In November, 1959, George Bright sued Atlanta chief of police Herbert T. Jenkins for false arrest.[33]

The other defendants[edit]

Georgia solicitor general Paul Webb announced during Bright's trial that his prosecution of the remaining defendants would be guided by its result.[31] After Bright's acquittal, Webb was unsure whether his office would proceed with the prosecution of Allen, Griffin, and Richard Bolling, the three defendants remaining under indictment.[31] The prosecutor's office eventually dropped the charges against the remaining defendants[14] and they were never convicted of any crime in connection with the bombing.[16]

Historiography and legacy[edit]

In 1996, Georgia author Melissa Fay Greene published an account of incident and its aftermath called The Temple Bombing.[2] She managed to interview George Bright for her book, although three of the other suspects had died before she could talk to them and the fourth hung up on her on learning that she was Jewish.[2] Greene said "I wanted a deathbed confession," but she ended up being convinced of Bright's innocence by his denials of his involvement.[2]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Claude Sitton (October 14, 1958). "Temple Bombing Stirs Wide Hunt". New York Times. p. 46. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Jim Auchmutey (May 29, 1996). "The Sleuth Behind;'The Temple Bombing';Author drawn to unraveling mystery of '58 Temple blast that shook Atlanta". The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. 1B. (subscription required)
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c "Rabbi Dies". Reading Eagle. January 2, 1974. 
  5. ^ a b Frederick M. Binder (June 1999). "Review of The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s. by Mark K. Bauman; Berkley Kalin; Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States. by Jack Salzman; Cornel West". The Journal of American History 86 (1): 312–4. doi:10.2307/2567542. Of the twelve rabbis whose stories are told, James A. Wax in Memphis, Tennessee, Charles Mantinband in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Perry Nussbaum in Jackson, Mississippi, and Jacob Rothschild in Atlanta, Georgia, forsook the cautious approach and openly and effectively engaged in the struggle for black civil rights. ... ...the 1958 dynamiting of the temple in Atlanta resulted in wide support from both within and without the Jewish community, which for the temple's members 'finally exorcized the lingering trauma engendered more than forty years before by the trial and lynching of Leo Frank' (subscription required)
  6. ^ Virginia H. Hein (1972). "The Image of "A City Too Busy to Hate": Atlanta in the 1960's". Phylon (1960-2002) 33 (3): 205–221. doi:10.2307/273521. (subscription required)
  7. ^ "Atlanta's Fox Theater Evacuated After Bomb Threat is Received". Ocala Star-Banner. November 3, 1958. 
  8. ^ a b Claude Sitton (October 13, 1958). "Atlanta Synagogue Damaged by Blast; F.B.I. Aids Inquiry". New York Times. p. 1. 
  9. ^ "Atlanta Temple Celebrates Date of Dynamiting". The Tuscaloosa News. October 13, 1959. 
  10. ^ a b "Bail is Denied Five in Atlanta Bombing". New York Times. October 23, 1958. p. 19. 
  11. ^ Clive Webb (15 March 2011). Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. University of Georgia Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-8203-4009-8. 
  12. ^ Herman Obermayer (31 January 2012). American Nazi Party in Arlington, Virginia 1958 - 1984. Herman J. Obermayer. p. 174. ISBN 978-0-615-73137-7. 
  13. ^ a b c d e "Five Indicted in Bombing of Atlanta Jewish Temple". New York Times. October 18, 1958. p. 1. 
  14. ^ a b c d John McKay (2011). It Happened in Atlanta: Remarkable Events That Shaped History. Globe Pequot Press. p. 113ff. ISBN 978-0-7627-6439-6. 
  15. ^ "Bombing Suspects Tied to 'Hate' Unit: B'nai B'rith League Links 5 Held in Atlanta Inquiry to 'States Rights' Party". October 16, 1958. p. 23. 
  16. ^ a b Clive Webb (June 2009). "Counterblast: How the Atlanta Temple Bombing Strengthened the Civil Rights Cause". Southern Spaces. Retrieved March 8, 2014. 
  17. ^ "Atlanta Seeking Dynamite Expert". New York Times. October 17, 1958. p. 23. 
  18. ^ a b Clive Webb (15 August 2011). Rabble Rousers: The American Far Right in the Civil Rights Era. University of Georgia Press. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-8203-4229-0. 
  19. ^ "Police Apprehend Alleged 'Central Figure' in Atlanta Bombing Episode". The Times-News. October 18, 1958. 
  20. ^ a b c "First Trial Opens in Atlanta Blast". New York Times. December 2, 1958. p. 41. 
  21. ^ Tom Bennett (January 19, 1993). "Former Klan leader Venable, 91, dies Headed activities in Stone Mountain". The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. C3. (subscription required)
  22. ^ a b "Atlanta Opens Case in Temple Bombing". New York Times. December 3, 1958. p. 31. 
  23. ^ "Note Held a Link to Temple Blast". New York Times. December 4, 1958. p. 29. 
  24. ^ "Bombing Suspect Linked to Kasper". New York Times. December 5, 1958. p. 20. 
  25. ^ "Bombing Charge Goes to the Jury". New York Times. p. 54. 
  26. ^ "Jury Deadlocked in Bombing Trial". New York Times. December 9, 1958. p. 49. 
  27. ^ a b c Claude Sitton (December 11, 1958). "Mistrial Called in Bombing Case". New York Times. p. 7. 
  28. ^ "Bomb Trial Starts". New York Times. January 13, 1959. p. 14. 
  29. ^ "Accused Testifies in Atlanta Bombing". New York Times. January 23, 1959. p. 12. 
  30. ^ "Engineer Freed in Temple Blast". New York Times. January 24, 1959. p. 17. 
  31. ^ a b c "Atlanta Lawyer Reuben Garland Remains in Jail". Rome News-Tribune. January 26, 1959. 
  32. ^ "Appeals Court Reverses Judge in Garland Case". Rome News-Tribune. June 23, 1959. 
  33. ^ "Files Suit for False Arrest". Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal. November 19, 1959. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 33°47′53″N 84°23′21″W / 33.79815°N 84.38908°W / 33.79815; -84.38908