Forty members of the Temple Sisterhood had left the synagogue just minutes before janitor Eddie Edwards discovered a package outside, leaning against the rear wall of the building.
Inside were six sticks of dynamite. The fuse, about 14 feet long, had been lit.
But, according to a front page story in the Nov. 22, 1957 edition of The Charlotte Observer, “the flame traveled a few inches over the fuse (before) it apparently went out.”
Temple Beth El on Providence Road was spared, avoiding “what would have been one of the biggest tragedies of the era,” said Willie Griffin, staff historian at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South.
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This abortive attempt to destroy in Charlotte turned out to be the first in a wave of terrorist attacks on Southern synagogues in 1957 and 1958.
Like the shootings last month at a Pittsburgh synagogue, these attempted and actual bombings six decades ago were, historians believe, the work of white supremacists who were targeting Jews for their solidarity with people of color.
In the 1950s, that meant aiding African-Americans engaged in a historic civil rights struggle that was spurred, in part, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to end racial segregation in public schools.
In the Pittsburgh shootings, Robert Gregory Bowers, the sole suspect, made it clear in social media postings that he blamed Jewish groups and congregations for their support of the thousands of Central American refugees making their way to the U.S. border in hopes of being granted asylum.
“There is a parallel,” said Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “In the 1950s, (white supremacist groups) blamed ‘devious, smart Jews’ for creating an intolerable situation for white people. In the Pittsburgh shooting, Jews were believed to be behind a devious plot to bring in refugees and non-whites.”
Just months after the attempted bombing of Charlotte’s Temple Beth El in 1957, 30 sticks of dynamite were found at Gastonia’s Temple Emanuel. Again, the fuse had been lit; again, it burned out just short of an explosion.
“(Gastonia) City Patrolmen Willis Cantrell and J.H. Prather Jr., making a routine 4 a.m. check, found the deadly bundle leaning against the synagogue door,” reported The Charlotte Observer in its front page story on Feb. 10, 1958. “The dynamite, enough to destroy the brick building in a residential area at Third Avenue and South Street, was in a lady’s light blue overnight case.”
The bombing attempts continued throughout the South that year. Some of them were successful. Explosions ripped through a Jewish school annex in Miami and a Jewish community center in Nashville. Then, after failed attempts to blow up a synagogue in Birmingham and a Jewish community center in Jacksonville, Fla., a blast tore through the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation on Peachtree Street in Atlanta at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 12. There were no injuries at Atlanta’s oldest and most prominent synagogue, but damages totaled $200,000.
“The firebombing of Atlanta is still celebrated on white supremacist websites,” said Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A group calling itself the “Confederate Underground” claimed credit for the Atlanta bombing, adding in a phone call to the press: “Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens.”
According to “Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights,” a book by Clive Webb about the era, several members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted in Charlotte of possessing loaded dynamite, but “their involvement in the attempted bombing of (Temple Bel El) could not be proved.”
Support for civil rights
Not all Jews in North Carolina supported the civil rights movement in the 1950s. But many did, taking courageous public stands that drew the ire of not only white supremacist groups but also many everyday white Southerners.
In “Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina,” author Leonard Rogoff reported that the North Carolina Association of Rabbis endorsed the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling, which repudiated the South’s insistence that its segregated school system was “separate but equal.”
In 1955, as then-N.C. Gov. Luther Hodges was calling on both races to continue segregation on a ”voluntary basis,” Rogoff wrote, the state association of rabbis passed a resolution declaring its “whole-hearted support of the Supreme Court decision for the de-segregation of public schools.”
Invoking “the Fatherhood of God” and the “Brotherhood of Man,” the rabbis’ group added that “we dare not permit the existence of laws which discriminate against any human being.”
Charlotte, meanwhile, was the home then of Harry Golden, a prominent Jewish writer and journalist who was also vocal — especially in the pages of his newspaper, the Carolina Israelite — for civil rights for African-Americans.
Griffin, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, said Golden’s high profile may have been why Charlotte was targeted by would-be bombers.
“His writing in the Israelite caught a lot of attention,” Griffin said. “And I think Harry Golden is representative of a good majority of the progressive Jewish view (at the time).”
According to Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett’s biography of Golden — “Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care About Jews, The South and Civil Rights” — white supremacists were aware of Golden and strongly objected to his views on “the race issue.”
“Starting in 1955 and ‘56, white supremacists had hit on the idea of writing Golden’s advertisers and threatening to boycott them, or worse, if they stayed in (his) paper,” Hartnett wrote. “The national advertisers, such as Katz’s Deli, couldn’t have cared less. But these threats caused many local advertisers and businesspeople, both Jews and Gentiles, to shy away.”
Golden had ties to Temple Beth El. He wrote the synagogue’s first constitution. And after the dynamite was discovered there in 1957, Golden was one of three people named by the Beth El board to contemplate what action could be taken, according to “The Bridge Table,” a book charting the history of Temple Beth El.
Biographer Hartnett said it’s “probably a stretch” to say that Golden was the reason the dynamite was planted at Temple Beth El.
But she said he did get threats over the phone from people vowing to bomb his home and the sites of his speeches.
And Golden “certainly had a role in attracting attention to the Jewish community,” Hartnett said. “If you’re a Klan member spoiling for a fight, Golden was all over the airwaves and in the papers.”
Golden’s view? When he addressed the bombings in print, he employed his stinging wit and argued that it wasn’t Jewish support of desegregation that caused them, it was anti-Semitism.
“If all the Jews in the South joined the Ku Klux Klan,” Hartnett quoted Golden as saying, “the anti-Semites would say, ‘Aha, the Jews are smart. They have joined (the Klan) in order to mongrelize the South.’”
‘Side by side’
The recent murder of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh has brought flashbacks of not only the Southern synagogue bombings of the 1950s but also of Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass,” when Hitler and his Nazis pressed their war against Jews.
On Nov. 9-10, 1938, violence broke out across Germany. More than 90 Jews were killed. Others were deported or sent to concentration camps. Synagogues and Jewish businesses, homes and hospitals were torched, shattered or vandalized.
Temple Israel in Charlotte marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht with an event last week featuring a procession of Holocaust survivors, somber music, and prayers. The sanctuary was packed, thanks partly to many from other faiths or no faith who came to show their support for the Jewish community in these tense times.
“You are the reason we need not live in fear,” said Senior Rabbi Murray Ezring, welcoming the visitors with open arms. “Because we know that you are standing side by side, hand in hand, with us.”
Ezring and other Jewish leaders in Charlotte acknowledge that, while anti-Semitism is an ancient malady, the proliferation of guns and the sore lack of civil discourse in the United States require increased vigilance.
“We are in continual contact with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, the state, and we work with Homeland Security,” Ezring said. “We are not afraid, but we’re not foolish. So we’re always tightening security.”
Mark Epstein, former president of the congregation at Temple Emanuel in Gastonia, said the synagogue targeted in 1958 has, after many years with no incidents, begun locking its doors during service.
This change happened, he said, “because of the rhetoric of the past two or three years. ... The distance between word and deed grows shorter and it was joined in Pittsburgh.”
And yet, Jewish leaders locally and nationally say they’ve been moved by the broad interfaith support the Jewish community has received as it continues to do what the Torah commands, including welcoming today’s brown-skinned immigrants just as their ancestors from Eastern Europe were once welcomed.
That’s what distinguishes the America of 2018 with the South of the 1950s and the Germany of the 1930s and ‘40s, Ezring said.
“No one stands alone in this country. We help each other,” he said. “And I think and most Americans still believe in the words of the Constitution: Rights are not just for me, but for everyone.”