Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, I belonged to a tight-knit and thriving Jewish community; I spent many days of my week teaching Hebrew to children or partaking in multiple social justice initiatives at “Shalom Park,” the center of Jewish life in the city. Here, the Reform synagogue, Conservative synagogue, Jewish Day School and Jewish Community Center (JCC) were all right next door to each other, allowing for easy collaboration and fostering of friendships among families. I also had the opportunity to visit other southern synagogues and meet many other Jewish teens in nearby states, like Florida and Georgia, all throughout high school.
However, it was not until last year that I discovered my synagogue and all the others I visited had something dark and tragic in common: they were all targets of bombings during the Civil Rights Movement.
According to historian Clive Webb, white supremacist groups, such as the Confederate Underground and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), believed integration was part of a Zionist-Communist plot that would allow Jews to take over the country. Of course, this antisemitic theory was baseless, but southern white supremacists also began to feel increasingly threatened by rabbis who were outspoken advocates of Black civil rights. Such beliefs and fears resulted in *8 southern Jewish temple bombings from November 1957 to October 1958.
*Note: While Webb states that are 8 temple bombings, he only mentions 7. I need to do further research to try to find the eighth temple targeted.
The Temples Targeted:
- Temple Beth-El in Charlotte, NC on November 11, 1957
- Temple Emanuel in Gastonia, NC on February 11, 1958
- Temple Beth-El in Miami, FL on March 16, 1958
- Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, AL on April 28, 1958
- B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR (date currently unknown)
- Agudath Achim in Alexandria, VA (date currently unknown)
- Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (The Temple) in Atlanta, GA on October 12, 1958
How could I belong to a synagogue and be so involved in the community for years and not know anything of this history? After I learned this information, I began to ask my friends at the other targeted synagogues, and they also had no idea about the bombings.
This dilemma inspired my main research questions:
- How do the southern temples discuss the history of the bombings on their personal websites? Do they work to keep the memory of the attack alive? Or do they attempt to bury it and silence it?
- How do mainstream websites, like Wikipedia, discuss the history of the bombings and attempt to preserve the memory of the attacks? Do they have any information on the attacks at all?
- How do the two websites differ in their information and retelling of the attacks? Is there a clear bias? Significant historical gaps?
To answer the first question, I will examine the personal websites of the synagogues listed above. Many of them have “About Us” or “History” pages online.
For the second question, I will search the incidents on Wikipedia, as well as conduct a basic Google search to see what other websites may appear. I am willing to examine current (last ten years) news articles written on the incidents for this project. Many outlets discuss the incidents on their anniversaries or to connect them to current antisemitic events in the country.
For the last question, I will mainly look at the sources the two websites use. I will also compare their historical facts to the scholarship of Clive Webb, the author of Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, and Leonard Dinnerstein, the author of “Southern Jewry and the Desegregation Crisis, 1954-1970,” to properly assess possible historical gaps. Webb and Dinnerstein are the only two scholars who have thoroughly researched the bombings.
As far as I know, there are no existing projects that are similar to mine — this topic is severely under researched and historians of the field rarely go in-depth on the incidents. On the bright side, there is an archival collection of the Atlanta temple bombing in the Civil Rights Digital Library, but it only contains a singular news clip.
With this project, I hope to bring more awareness to these incidents. I would also like to inspire others (and myself) to further research southern temple bombings, possibly correct wrong information of these attacks online, or even provide the crucial historical information to the websites, in order to expand public knowledge of this time period and the southern Jewish communities.
3 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: Remembering Southern Temple Bombings”
Rachael, your proposal looks really well-researched. I think it would be incredibly interesting to see the discrepancies in how these temple bombings are remembered historically, especially across different websites. I think the research you would conduct for this print project would transfer really well to a digital project. Since you mentioned there is a stark lack of focus on these temple bombings in the field, a website or similar project containing your findings would be an incredibly valuable resource!
Rachael, I love that you are focused on bringing more awareness to these temple bombings, and I think your method is fantastic. I’m especially interested in how specifically southern news outlets discuss these events, both in the past and even today, compared to perhaps national news outlets or sources. Is there some revisionist history going on? Would the coverage have been different if the bombings were in completely different parts of the country? It seems to me like you will discover answers to all of these questions and so many more through this research, and I am so excited to see what you find!
This is a really compelling idea for a project. I like the way that you draw on your own personal experience in setting the stakes for the project. The question you raised about how you could be a part of a community that is a part of this history but not even know about it really hits home how this is an under told story.
Exploring the history of the bombings online makes a lot of sense. I think focusing on the websites of each of the temples is itself is going to be a powerful way to get at that too. I think that is particularly significant given that part of your interest here is about how the local communities around these temples engage with and tell the stories of this history. Looking at the story as told in other online sources, like Wikipedia, makes a lot of sense too, but I think the most interesting parts of this project are likely to come from looking at the organizational websites for the temples (and likely their affiliated organizations, like schools, or other related organizations in the community).
If you were to go forward with this project, I think the one thing I would add is that I think it would be particularly valuable to reach out to the individual temples and share a bit about what you are finding and ask them if they would be willing to share why they do or don’t focus on this story as part of their online presence. I think that kind of meta/reflective interaction with members of the communities could be particularly enlightening as part of the story about why this story isn’t told as much and how it gets told. I think you could do that with something as simple as going back and forth over email with people from these organizations but it could also work to talk with folks from the organizations on the phone or Zoom or something like that too.
I think this has the potential to be a really powerful exploration of the way that social memory works in these communities and could end up being a really interesting essay that I think you could publish in a public history journal.