Atlanta author re-opens 1958 temple bombing case

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Nonetheless, some people wanted to put a stop to the alleged Jewish conspiracy. And on Oct. 12, 1958, they bombed Atlanta's Hebrew Benevolent Society — the oldest and largest Reform congregation, commonly known as the Temple.

In an era of gas attacks in Tokyo subways, and the bombings of New York's World Trade Center and Oklahoma City federal building, the 50 or so sticks of dynamite that ripped open a wall of the Atlanta temple may seem like small potatoes. Nobody died. No one was even hurt.

Five men, all associated with white separatist groups like the National States' Rights Party, were tried and acquitted. No one was ever convicted for the crime.

The case remained a mystery — one Melissa Faye Greene wanted to solve.

But instead, the supersleuth-cum-writer penned a sociopolitical history of Atlanta's Jewish community during the early days of the civil rights struggles.

In the process of researching, interviewing and ultimately telling the story of the Temple bombing, Greene uncovered a good deal about the Jewish history of Atlanta, coined "the city too busy to hate." Furthermore, her work sheds light on the breeding grounds for today's militias and the white separatist movement.

"I thought a lot about why I wanted to tell this story," Greene said during a recent visit to San Francisco. She got her answer in the Oklahoma City bombing.

"Everyone figured it was Middle East extremists. Then I got a call from a friend at the [Atlanta] Journal Constitution. `Melissa, it's your boys.' I realized they [the Temple bombers] were the forerunners to these [other] groups," she said.

"They're plugged into a certain channel where it's pre-ordained what they will learn. The dissemination of racist and anti-Semitic literature, which used to be slipped from hand to hand, briefcase to briefcase, now goes through the Internet. And no fresh air blows through there."

But on Peachtree Street in the 1950s, Atlanta's Reform Jewish community was ridding itself of rhetoric — throwing out Old-World ways for a new life in America's South.

German Reform Jewry was king. Assimilation was viewed as a mark of success. Nary an eye was batted at the Christmas trees that overshadowed chanukiot in Jewish households.

When Rabbi Jacob Rothchild joined the Temple as its spiritual leader, the bridge-playing World War II veteran with a mean tennis backhand added political activism to the congregation's traits.

Rothchild was outspoken in his support of civil rights and integration, and was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. before it was fashionable or even noteworthy. His congregants weren't particularly supportive of his Friday-night sermon urging social action.

But white separatists were enraged by his cry for black equality.

They thought Rothchild was "inciting blacks to step out of place," Greene said. And she believes the Temple bombing was their warning against it.

Rothchild didn't stop his rallying after picking up scraps of prayerbooks from the rubble. In fact, it spurred his congregants — those who lunched on shrimp cocktail at Rich's department store and sneaked out for a snack during Yom Kippur services — to join him in his fight for civil rights.

Greene, who was born in Macon, Ga., and lives in Atlanta, interviewed many of those now older congregants (Rothchild died in the 1970s) while trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. But she didn't consider putting pen to paper until she was certain she could tell the other side.

"I knew I could tell the Jewish story. But I needed to know I could work the other side of the street."

For that opportunity, Greene thanks the late Reuben Garland. A flamboyant attorney known for his electric-blue silk suits, shock of white hair and courtroom theatrics, Garland would take on any case that might win him attention. The temple bombing trials offered such an opportunity.

Garland defended the five accused bombers, and in the process lost any friends he had made in Atlanta's Jewish community. Yet more than 30 years later, Garland's son and Greene's husband are partners in law. And this was her "in."

She approached the still-living one-time suspects by simply saying, "I'm the wife of the partner of Reuben Garland's son."

Wallace Allen asked, "Are you a Jew?" He hung up as soon as Greene said yes. But George Bright agreed to speak.

According to Greene, Bright still claims he is innocent. And he still believes his way of thinking is right.

"Forty years later, he's still a true believer" in white separation and superiority, Greene said.

But Greene believes Bright didn't do it, and said it probably wasn't Allen either. Greene discusses several theories in her book, but in the end admits she still doesn't know for sure.

Although she didn't solve the mystery, Greene said she better understands the forces that gave birth to today's white power movements and "appreciates how hard it was to be a Jew in the '50s in the South.

"I met Rothchild's son recently," Greene recalled. "He said he cried when he read the book. I didn't know what to say. I told him `I wish I'd known your father.'

"`You did,' he said."