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
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 (The poem is part of an unpublished manuscript that explores history and culture through the lens of a white, southern, Jewish, Smith College-educated woman.)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
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 —
of The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation
(known for generations in Atlanta
simply as “The Temple” )
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.