Eve Hoffman wore a new dress to The Temple youth group’s fall membership party the evening of Oct. 11, 1958.
“I felt pretty — really, really pretty,” Hoffman wrote in her poem “The Yellow Dress,” about the night she was installed as youth group president.
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 …
At 3:37 a.m., a bomb fashioned from 50 sticks of dynamite tore through a side entrance of The Temple, an explosion audible far from Peachtree Street.
a gaping hole blasted
in the north side of the building
where just hours before we’d been dancing
to Elvis Presley, Perry Como,
and the Kingston Trio.
Hoffman receives a mention in “The Temple Bombing,” a play that will premiere Feb. 22 and run through March 12 at the Alliance Theatre in Midtown. This year marks the sesquicentennial of The Temple, founded in 1867 as the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation.
The script is based on Melissa Fay Greene’s book of the same name. It also draws from the memories of Janice Rothschild Blumberg, whose late husband, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, was The Temple’s spiritual leader and an increasingly outspoken advocate of civil rights.
“We realized that there could be danger, but we didn’t think about it consciously,” Janice, now 93 years old, says in a video produced by the Emory University Center for Ethics through its Ethics & the Arts program.
My Northern upbringing taught me little about the lynching of Leo Frank in a Marietta woods on Aug. 17, 1915, or the bombing on Oct. 12, 1958. Not until I wrote about the legacy of the lynching a century later did I read extensively about the bombing.
Just hours after the blast, Mayor William Hartsfield stood in front of the rubble and declared, “Whether they like it or not, every political rabble-rouser is the godfather of these cross burners and dynamiters who sneak about in the dark and give a bad name to the South. It is high time the decent people of the South rise and take charge.”
The Temple was one of several synagogues and a larger number of African-American churches bombed or burned that year. By any era’s definition, these were acts of terrorism.
The next day, a column by Atlanta Constitution Editor and Publisher Ralph Emerson McGill concluded: “For a long time now it has been needful for all Americans to stand up and be counted on the side of law and the due process of law — even when to do so goes against personal beliefs and emotions. It is late. But there is yet time.”
Five white supremacists were arrested. Only one stood trial, and he was acquitted on the second attempt after a mistrial.
Janice Rothschild Blumberg has said that the support received after the bombing helped “lance the boil” of anti-Semitism that had caused the Jewish community to turn inward after the Frank lynching.
The Jewish population of Atlanta, about 14,500 in the late 1950s, grew to more than 70,000 by 1990.
Rabbi Rothschild’s Shabbat sermon the Friday after the bombing was titled “And None Shall Make Them Afraid,” referencing Leviticus 26:6.
“This despicable act has made brighter the flame of courage and renewed in splendor the fires of determination and dedication. It has reached the hearts of men everywhere and roused the conscience of a people united in righteousness. All of us together shall rear from the rubble of devastation a city and a land in which all men are truly brothers and none shall make them afraid,” he told a packed sanctuary.
In the Emory video, Janice Rothschild Blumberg applies a lesson from 1958 to current times: “I hope people will get an idea of how bad things can be when we look down on each other, when we feel that somebody else doesn’t have the same rights or shouldn’t have the same rights we have.”