Remembering the Temple bombing, 50 years ago this week

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

By Jamil Zainaldin

Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield stands beside damage from a bomb at the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, or "the Temple," on October 13, 1958. Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield stands beside damage from a bomb at the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, or “the Temple,” on October 13, 1958. Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954, the hellhounds of racial hatred were unleashing a torrent of threats to any and all who dared challenge the South’s segregation.

Residents of a southern city with a reputation for pragmatic government and a relish for seizing the main chance, Atlantans could justly describe their home place as “too busy to hate.” When they awoke on the morning of October 12, 1958, they were confronted with an event that had the power to change everything.

“Dynamite in great quantity Sunday ripped a beautiful Temple of worship in Atlanta,” the Atlanta Constitution’s Ralph McGill editorialized the next day on the paper’s front page. Casting his gaze across the city and the region he loved, he called it an “act of cowardice” to put the blame alone on the culprits. “Let us face the facts. This is a harvest. It is the crop of things sown.”

Why the Temple? Since his arrival in 1946 as rabbi of Atlanta’s first and most prominent synagogue, Pittsburgh native Jacob Rothschild was relentless in using his pulpit to attack segregation.

In the prize-winning book The Temple Bombing, author Melissa Fay Greene‘s account of the bombing is also a revealing window on the clashes of ethnicity and social class that churned beneath the city’s surface.

One of the stories of that day belongs to Eve Hoffman, a native Atlantan whose grandfather, the respected civic and commercial leader Frank Neely, was on the original building committee for the Temple. She herself was president of the Temple’s youth group, where just hours before the blast, they were enjoying their annual membership party.

Hoffman’s poem “The Yellow Dress,” below, attempts to unscramble the deeply etched and elusive meaning of that single event in her life 50 years ago. (The poem is part of an unpublished manuscript that explores history and culture through the lens of a white, southern, Jewish, Smith College-educated woman.)

THE YELLOW DRESS

By Eve Hoffman

Atlanta, Georgia, October 1958

I loved this dressy-dress

Poet Eve Hoffman in a special yellow dress, 1958. Credit: courtesy of Eve Hoffman

Poet Eve Hoffman in a special yellow dress, 1958. Credit: courtesy of Eve Hoffman

as I spun ’round and ’round

in the dressing-room mirror

of Rich’s department store,

swirling the skirt, checking it out

— front, back, side-to-side —

yellow chiffon, scooped neck,

puffed sleeves, starched crinolines

two-toned crisscrossed green sash.

 

But my father, an attorney in his office

a few blocks away, refused to pay for it,

to even come see it

when my mother phoned him using the store phone.

It’s too expensive for a sixteen-year-old girl.

 

So Mother and I took the escalators

to the Rich’s fifth-floor executive offices

where Mimi, my grandfather,

pulled fifty dollars in new bills

from his gold money clip

— he always had crisp money —

and handed it to Mother.

***

The first time I wore the yellow dress

was for my installation as president

of The Temple Youth Group

during the fall membership party,

held in the synagogue social hall —

a plain boxy room we’d decorated

with colored crepe paper and black

construction paper records, 45 RPMs,

names of current hits printed across them —

Catch a Falling Star, All I Have to Do Is Dream,

The Purple People Eater.

 

I felt pretty — really, really pretty.

***

Five hours after the Youth Group party ended,

while I lay asleep in my bedroom twenty miles away —

the yellow dress across a chair,

trail of stockings and dyed-to-match

yellow shoes on the floor —

the synagogue

 

of The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation

(known for generations in Atlanta

simply as “The Temple” )

was bombed

 

at 3:37 AM — while I slept

the north side of the building

blown wide open

where just hours before we’d been dancing

to Elvis Presley, Perry Como

and the Kingston Trio.

 

At 7:15 AM while I was still asleep

longtime custodian Robert Benton

was the first to discover the damage —

offices and Sunday School classrooms busted out,

the sanctuary rattled, dust and pieces

of elaborate plaster friezes representing

the twelve tribes of Israel

on pews and the floor,

stained glass shattered,

construction paper 45 RPM records strewn

among broken brick and concrete.

***

Five men with multiple histories of racist

and anti-Semitic associations

were arrested within a few days —

George Bright, Kenneth Griffin, Luther Corley,

brothers Robert and Richard Bolling —

indicted for setting off fifty sticks

of dynamite in the recessed side entry of The Temple —

dynamite allegedly supplied by J. B. Stoner,

founder and chairman of the National States Rights Party

who was out of town at the time of the bombing.

 

First to be tried was thirty-four-year-old

George Bright, a cotton mill engineer,

probable mastermind, represented by,

among others, James R. Venable,

Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,

who, with his brothers, owned Stone Mountain,

where Klan rallies were held and crosses burned —

so large they could be seen miles away.

Bright was tried twice — the first trial

ended in a hung jury, the second in an acquittal.

Discouraged prosecutors dropped charges

against the other men

indicted for bombing the synagogue

of the congregation on Peachtree Road —

 

the congregation that my great-grandparents

helped found in 1867,

whose Rabbi David Marx married my grandparents,

where my mother was confirmed,

the congregation whose Rabbi Jacob Rothschild

was active in the Civil Rights Movement,

 

the congregation where I had just become

president of The Temple Youth Group.

 

***

Twenty years and dozens of loved dresses later,

I come across the yellow dress

on a wire hanger in the chifforobe

in my childhood room,

throw it across my arm, take it home,

hang it in the guest room closet.

 

One morning, looking for extra pillows

in the closet, I pull out the yellow dress,

hold it up against my body,

twirl ’round and ’round in front of the mirror.

I can feel the sideways sway of “slow dancing,”

the hand of a teenage boy at my waist.

I can hear the Platters singing

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Copyright © Eve Hoffman

Eve Hoffman, a fifth-generation Georgian, is a poet and writer, and her work has been published by the Georgia Humanities Council, Emory University Center for Ethics, New Southerner, and Southern Women’s Review. She founded the first statewide organization of business and education leaders, and has served as an elected official.

Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

7 replies
  1. Robert Lee Mays says:

    Eve Hoffman’s recollections were stirring. I did not realize your grandfather was Frank Neely. My Father thought Mr. Neely was the most brilliant business leader in Georgia. On occasion, when we would come to Atlanta and visit Rich’s, my Father & I would stop by his office to say Hello. His Secretary always saw I left with some candy. Mr. Neely retired soon after I entered elementary school, but I shall always remember his graciousness. Mr. Neely’s graciousness was the exact opposite of the hate exhibited by the bombers of The Temple.Report

    Reply
  2. Robert Lee Mays says:

    Eve, it is funny the things we remember as children. I vividly remember getting off the elevators on Rich’s 5th Floor and walking down that rather narrow corridor wallpapered in brown with the small sign that read Executive Offices. Some time when we are together I will share a story about my wandering off – and ending up in the Executive Offices. Do you remember Mr. Neely’s secretary’s name? Since your posting, I have racked my brain thinking of her name.Report

    Reply
  3. Henry Hall says:

    I see it plenty of it in other places and across a racial spectrum, Teresa. The South doesn’t exactly have a lock on bigotry… And it does a good bit better than it once didReport

    Reply

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