The Temple Bombing. By Melissa Fay Greene. Addison-Wesley. $25.00.
In her highly acclaimed first book, Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene focused on a little known patch of the large and complex quilt that is the Southern civil rights movement. She peopled it with characters who were both courageous and flawed, and the end result offered us a fresh and illuminating insight into the difficult and intractable problem of race in this country. Her newest book, The Temple Bombing, works from the same recipe. This time the event is the little known 1958 bombing of Atlanta’s reform Jewish Temple. Greene’s characters are an indefatigable young rabbi, Jacob Rothschild; a violent group of bigots intent on finding a Jewish conspiracy behind the country’s racial turmoil; a burgeoning Southern city on the cusp of radical change; and a host of civic and business leaders whose stance on civil rights is guided by the exigencies of healthy commerce rather than by moral conviction.
One of the elements that made Sheetrock such a success was Greene’s ability to show us her characters’ coming of age during the struggle for their rights. In some ways, their idealism was a perfect foil to the entrenched racism; in others, it was no match for more seasoned bigots and politicians. The characters’ results were quite naturally mixed, and it was from that mixture that the reader gained insight. In this newest book, however, almost all of the characters come fully formed. Rabbi Rothschild’s courage is unwavering; the hatred of his enemies is as fierce as it is without depth. Their clash, though interesting, does not have much lasting resonance in and of itself. What is not fully formed, however, is the character of the city of Atlanta, and it is the city’s transformation which keeps the reader’s interest. Greene’s book explains Atlanta at mid-century as a place that could boast of a thriving black middle-class, of a black business and cultural life centered around stately Auburn Avenue, and of a host of black educational institutions. In a certain sense, there was some truth to the booster’s cry that Atlanta was “The City Too Busy to Hate.” According to Greene, the bombing not only took the city by surprise, but it changed completely the course that the city had charted for itself.
Greene’s story begins with the arrival in Atlanta in 1946 of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild. His congregation at the time, as Cornel West has written, were “middle-dogs—some were even top-dogs—who felt like underdogs.” Before the turn of the century, Jews in Atlanta had been allowed into the upper echelons of society and business, but the increasing Jewish immigration made them more identifiable as a minority. The result was that by the turn of the century the specter of Jewish exclusion began to rear its head. And then, in 1913, a watershed event occurred that would define the relationship between Jews and their fellow Atlantans: the body of 14-year-old Mary Phagan, slashed and battered, was found with a noose around her neck. The prime suspect was Leo Frank, a Jewish engineer. Frank was quickly tried and sentenced to death on circumstantial evidence and a healthy dose of Jewish hysteria. Governor John M.Slaton pardoned Frank, but mob law prevailed, and Frank was hauled out and lynched.”The most awful and lasting legacy of Frank’s murder for the Temple Jews of Atlanta,” Greene writes, “was the sense of isolation: they were marginal, they were dispensable, they were still ‘the other’ in the world of white Christian Atlanta.”
Close at hand, of course, was another group of oppressed: Atlanta’s African-American population. Despite a sizeable black middle class and a black educational center that was a national envy, Jim Crow was alive and well in Atlanta at mid-century. The city’s Grant Park Zoo, for example, provided 200 different entrances, exits and pathways in order to preserve the social code and to avoid intermingling of the races. In spite of the shared oppression, which differed only in degree, most of Atlanta’s Jews did not consider an alliance with their fellow blacks. As Greene explains, Atlanta’s Jews, oppressed as they were, were nonetheless able to exist with more than modicum of comfort, even luxury, unknown to most blacks. As far as a religious or moral call to come to the aid of those in need, Rabbi Rothschild quickly learned that “once the door to modernity was unlocked, secular life with all its dazzling rides, stars, and attractions banged the door wide open and came barging in.”
Rabbi Rothschild tried ceaselessly to engage his congregation in the fight for social justice. He preached to them from the Prophets. He tried to open their eyes to the awareness that the struggle for civil rights implicated his fellow Jews. But to little avail. It took the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision to demonstrate just how intertwined the destinies of the city’s two minorities would be. As journalist James Graham Cook explained, “[t]he assault mounted by the white South to repel the forces of integration. . . . [was] accompanied by an outburst of anti-Jewish propaganda perhaps unmatched in the history of the region.” For most people, anti-Semitism was not so much an articulated ideology as it was part of some larger, amorphous resistance to change in the status quo. These people were like Faulkner’s Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury: “I have nothing against Jews as an individual. It’s just the race. . . . You might be one yourself. . . .”
“No,” says the man with whom Compson is speaking, “I’m an American.”
Though that land of attitude was damaging enough, there were some for whom the struggle was much more personal. For them, the Jewish threat was a complex worldwide conspiracy, the aims of which were outlined by demagogues in specious-anti-Semitic tracts like the Protocols of the Learned Elders ofZion. Atlanta’s cadre of bigots was led by George Bright, who met with his cronies in a fly-specked office where they tried to one-up one another with racist vitriol.
As Bright and his cohorts thought up their half-baked schemes to solve the “Jewish problem,” others like them in other cities were already acting. In 1957, eleven sticks of dynamite were found in a temple in Charlotte; the next year a bomb was discovered in Gastonia and another exploded in a synagogue in Miami. Also that year, a bomb exploded in Nashville and in a Jewish Community Center in Jacksonville. Another was discovered in Birmingham. In spite of the evident danger, Rothschild spoke out in his weekly sermons, exhorting his congregants to heed the law of the Talmud and Isaiah, to “Devote [themselves] to justice; aid the oppressed.”
And then the events that had besieged the nation caught up with Atlanta and its Jewish population. On Oct. 12, 1958, Rabbi Rothschild’s temple was bombed. In Alfred Uhry’s play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” Miss Daisy, when informed about the bombing, responds, “Don’t they know we’re Reform?” According to Greene, whoever planted the bomb was not aware of such niceties, and furthermore, didn’t give a damn; “[t]he bomb that blew a hole in the temple’s outer wall broke into the psyche and the dream life of the congregation for years to come. This most private place, this place where they gathered to be among Jews and to behave as Jews, had been stalked.” The early morning explosion caused significant damage, but hurt no one. In the end, Bright and his cadre were brought to trial, but never convicted. The perpetrators are still unknown, though Green spends time in her book hypothesizing about who they may have been.
But what is as important as the event itself and the people involved is the event’s legacy. As for Rothschild, he went on preaching. Unlike activists who absent themselves at the first sign of danger, Rothschild steered a steady course.”He navigated still by his reliable North star—the Prophets—so that what he said and did would contribute to the repairing of the world, and not rebound in some way to his own personal credit.” Some of his congregants followed in his example; others did not. Rich’s department store, started by Morris Rich, a Temple founder, refused to integrate its lunch counter, and was the target of a sit-in in 1960.The Biltmore Hotel, on the other hand, was integrated with the help of a Temple member. Ralph McGill, the indefatigable columnist for The Atlanta Constitution, won a Pulitzer Prize for his piece condemning the bombing and imploring the city to do its duty to follow the Brown decision.
The most interesting aspect of the legacy is the city’s continued refusal to acknowledge the errors of its past. On the one hand, Atlanta did not suffer the same ignominy heaped upon its Southern neighbors during the civil rights era. And deservedly so. Mayor Hartsfield, who was voted into office in part because of a large black electorate, moved to desegregate the police force and golf courses long before other Southern cities contemplated such a move.
Yet, beneath the chamber of commerce veneer, the reality of the daily life in Atlanta is as segregated, if not more, as any of its similarly sized neighbors. Atlanta is unique in its efforts to sell its soul for money. Its renaissance—touted across the world in the summer of 1996—is, in reality, enjoyed by a few at a cost to many. Ronald Bayer, author of Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta,notes that the interstates that pass through town effectively separate black and white communities. And in a phenomenon of calculated meanness, many streets in Atlanta change names as they move from predominantly black to predominantly white neighborhoods—the clear intent being to distinguish the haves from the have nots who live along the same piece of asphalt. Such acts of ill will have created a city where over 25 percent of the population lives in poverty, and a city center that is the smallest central city of the nation’s ten largest metropolitan areas. Atlanta is not unaware of the problems and has taken steps to correct some of them. But, in the case of its emptying downtown, for example, efforts to stem the exodus were driven as much by fear of international and national criticism than by any sincere interest in improving the lot of those who cannot afford a house in the city’s tony suburbs. Sadly, it is a city that, should it ever take time from advertising itself, may do well to spend a moment’s reflection upon the wise and courageous sermons of one of its former rabbis.