This is the latest installment in Weld’s historical series, No More Bull! You can find the rest of the series here.
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the “separate but equal” doctrine for educating white and black children was unconstitutional. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas exploded the foundation for 60 years of discriminatory public policy — particularly in the South. The court’s opinion was delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote that the practice of educating children of different races separately “has no place in the field of public education.”
The decision set off a firestorm in the South. The flames burned brightest in the political arena, where the most vocal opponents called for — and gave rise to — a “massive resistance movement” among white citizens. When the Alabama Legislature convened for its regular session in February 1956, one of the first pieces of the people’s business taken up in both houses was a resolution declaring that “the decisions and orders of the Supreme Court of the United States relating to separation of races in the public schools are, as a matter of right, null, void, and of no effect…”
The following month, Southern senators and congressmen jumped on the bandwagon. The Southern Manifesto — written by senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Richard Russell of Georgia — was signed by 19 senators and 82 members of the House, all but two of them Democrats. Every signer — including Alabama’s two United States Senators and its nine U.S. Congressmen — represented a state that had been part of the Confederacy. (In the Senate, where the manifesto originated, only three Southern Democrats declined to sign it: Albert Gore, Sr. and Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and the Senate Majority Leader from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson.)
And who were the voters all of those Southern politicians were appeasing? They were the voters whose feelings about racial integration could be summed up in one word. In fact, some among them wore a button, a political lapel pin, with that one word stamped on it: NEVER.
Threads of history
Between November 1957, and October 1958, there were bombings and attempted bombings in seven Jewish communities in the South. Two of the bombs were set in North Carolina, two more in Florida, one each in Tennessee and Georgia (where Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple sustained almost $200,000 in damages in the last of the 11-month rash of attacks). The other was in Alabama, where Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El was a bombing target on April 28, 1958.
The bomb at Beth-El consisted of 54 sticks of dynamite, bundled into a canvas satchel and planted in a basement window well along the eastern wall of the building sometime in the darkness of that early Monday morning. When the bomb was discovered several hours later by the temple’s janitor, James Pruitt, the 20-foot fuse had fizzled out, most likely due to dampness from heavy rains the night before. Investigators at the scene estimated that the fuse stopped burning less than a minute before it would have reached the detonating caps.
The explosion would have been tremendously destructive. The bomb itself was three times more powerful than the one that would kill four young black girls at 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Police said the blast from it would have demolished Temple Beth-El and done extensive damage to nearby structures.
The mention above of the 16th Street Baptist bombing is not coincidental. There were threads that ran directly to that horrific act from the attempted bombing of Temple Beth-El five years earlier — with other stops along the way as well.
Some of those threads were destructive. Long before that bomb was planted at Beth-El, acts of terrorism against black people were commonplace in Birmingham — individually, and through the bombing or burning of black churches, homes and places of business. At the time of the first attack on a local Jewish house of worship, the Birmingham Police Department had on its books at least 35 unsolved cases of bombings that targeted black-owned properties. That web of terrorism linked people who were experienced in promoting racial and ethnic hatred and perpetrating hate crimes.
Other threads were constructive. The providential thwarting of the attack on Beth-El propelled Birmingham’s Jewish community into a heightened sense of cohesion. One outgrowth of that cohesion was an emphasis on cooperation and amity with the local black community. This extended to issues related to Civil Rights.
Outcry and inaction
Reaction to the discovery of the bomb at Temple Beth-El was immediate. The temple’s seven-member board of directors held a special called meeting that same afternoon. The board adopting a resolution instructing its president, Max Kimerling (the father of this writer) to “meet with the heads of all other Jewish organizations with respect to publicity, press releases…etc., [and] reactivate the Jewish Community Council of Birmingham.” The resolution stated further that “such organizations should remain vibrant and active at all times, not just in a moment of crisis.”
Two days later, attorney Mayer Newfield — a member of Birmingham’s Reform Jewish congregation, Temple Emanu-el — wrote the FBI. Newfield requested an investigation of the attempted bombing, writing that the fabled bureau “apparently has clear jurisdiction in the matter…relating to the interstate transportation of explosives, including dynamite.”
On May 1, Birmingham Mayor Jimmy Morgan sent telegrams to Alabama’s U.S. Senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman — both of whom had signed the Southern Manifesto — supporting Newfield’s legal analysis. Both senators, in turn, contacted U.S. Attorney General William P. Rogers. From the floor of Congress, New York Rep. Emanuel Celler demanded action on the rash of bombings aimed at Jews and blacks, including the attempt at Temple Beth-El.
Meanwhile, Temple Beth-El provided $5,000 toward a reward fund to solicit any and all information regarding the bombing of the synagogue and the identities of those involved. The Birmingham Ministerial Association asked its members to contribute to the fund, which was administered by Federal Judge Seybourn Lynne. Ministers and congregations of all denominations contributed to the fund, along with hundreds of other individuals and organizations. The fund quickly reached $10,000, with contributions from Alabama Governor James “Big Jim” Folsom, the United Mine Workers and United Steel Workers organizations, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the local VFW.
(Among the members of the VFW was Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. In fact, Connor issued a public call for the State of Alabama to adopt the death penalty for any person convicted of bombing an unoccupied house, school or church. He had ulterior reasons for this, as we shall see.)
But, outcry or not, reward or not, the United States Government did not intervene immediately in the Beth-El bombing.
The FBI’s rationale for inaction was outlined in a file memorandum written by the head of the bureau’s Birmingham office after he returned from a meeting with Director J. Edgar Hoover in Washington. Dated July 24 and appearing under the subject heading “Bombing Matters,” the memo noted Hoover’s stressing that “we do not want to be burdened with purely local offenses.”
Mr. HOOVER informed me that we should exert every effort to keep out of matters not within our primary jurisdiction, the memo read. He said many groups are trying to get us into the bombing situations, including the BNAI BRITH, NAACP and others. The Director pointed out that we always want to keep our eyes and ears open, but we do not want such organizations as listed above to be able to “dump these cases on us.”…[Hoover] does not want…to give the impression we are going to take over.
According to the FBI memo, Hoover also issued other directives to the Birmingham office. One was an order not “to engage in any conference in which non-law enforcement people are present.” Hoover specifically instructed that the Birmingham office have no contact with William P. Engel, whom the memo identified as “a Jewish leader in Birmingham.”
That characterization of Engel was correct, as far as it went. The founder of Engel Realty Company, Engel certainly was a pillar of the Jewish community, revered for his willingness to lead by example in calling for the Jews of Birmingham to “pay their civic rent.” He also was one of the most successful and respected business and civic leaders in the city. In 1950, he had been the first Jew to chair the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, and he was active in the Downtown Improvement Association (a forerunner of today’s Operation New Birmingham).
Engel was also at the forefront of Jewish opposition to the city’s segregationist laws and policies, and he quickly took a leadership role in the call for a full investigation of the Beth-El bombing attempt. Engel’s general attitude regarding race relations and progress in Birmingham was encapsulated in a question he once posed in a speech given at an event in his honor. Imploring the crowd gathered at Birmingham’s Jewish Community Center to search their souls, Engel posed a pointed question.
“Are we to follow our course already established as a progressive city, or are we going to become a city of infamy, known for violence?”
“It’s not a crime to hate a Jew”
Hoover’s other directives to the Birmingham FBI concerned another thwarted bombing that took place two months after the failed attempt at Temple Beth-El — one that the bureau was investigating. That bomb was at Bethel Baptist Church, the mother church of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and the pulpit of the Movement’s local leader, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
The bomb that exploded at Bethel Baptist on the night ofJune 29, 1958 — alert sentries had spotted the bomb and moved it to the middle of the street, so the only damages were broken windows in the church and surrounding homes — was the second of what ultimately would be three bombings of the church. On Christmas night in 1956, a bomb had damaged the church and demolished the adjoining parsonage, though Shuttlesworth and his family emerged unhurt from the blast.
Shuttlesworth was an obvious target for J.B Stoner and his confederates, Stoner being an avowed racist, then in his mid-30s, and a founder of the white supremacist National States’ Rights Party. In Stoner’s words, the black minister was dangerous for his “effort to create interest in integration and to create unrest” in Birmingham. He specifically resented Shuttlesworth’s efforts to personally desegregate Terminal Station (Shuttlesworth and his wife, joined by white minister Lamar Weaver, bought tickets and, with police protection, sat in the white waiting room until their train arrived), Phillips High School (arriving to attempt to enroll his daughters, the minister was severely beaten by a white mob gathered in front of the school) and Birmingham’s bus system (the proximate cause of the 1956 bombing of his church and home).
Regarding the latest Bethel bombing, Hoover told his Birmingham office to “play Connor ‘down’ to where he belongs.” The FBI director also ordered the local office to “keep pressing on Stoner’s participation in order to get a federal violation against him if we possibly can.”
Stoner’s history of anti-black and anti-Jewish activities dated to the late 1940s. A staple of the many diatribes he delivered over the years was repeated in 1980, when he finally stood trial and was convicted of the 1958 Bethel bombing. “Being a Jew,” Stoner said in open court, should be “a crime punishable by death.” Stoner was well known to the FBI through its on-and-off surveillance of his activities over the years.
He was also known to Bull Connor, who wanted to keep a tight rein on segregationist activities in Birmingham. Connor understood the racial dynamics of Birmingham, in which his police department would not interfere with bombings of black churches and homes, but violence against white institutions — including those of Jews — was not “permissible.” So he kept up with Stoner through Hugh Morris, a local Klansman Connor recruited as an informant.
Although he was a Georgian, Stoner had strong ties in Birmingham. He was close to the Cahaba River Bridge Klavern, three of whose members eventually would be convicted in the murderous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Stoner also was closely tied to a group that called itself the Confederate Underground — which, after the bombing of the Atlanta temple, took credit for the rash of attacks on Jewish institutions in 1957-58. “[W]e are going to blow up all the Communist organizations, and all the Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens,” a caller who identified himself as “General Gordon of the Confederate Underground” said in a call to the Atlanta Police Department after the October 1958 bombing there.
“This man will do anything against the Jews and Negroes,” the Klansman Morris is quoted as saying of Stoner in a Birmingham Police Department report 10 days after the Beth-El bombing attempt. “Especially against Jews. He hates Jews.” In a subsequent report, Morris recounted Stoner’s insistence that “acts of violence against Jews would stop integration faster than on Negroes,” and his belief that he had a “divine calling to eliminate the Jewish race.”
A review of memos in FBI and Birmingham police files make it clear that the FBI had sufficient information to make arrests within days of the Beth-El bombing. Bull Connor funneled the bureau all of his informant’s statements, linking Stoner to the planning and execution of both the synagogue and Bethel Baptist bombings, to no avail.
Tired of waiting for Hoover to act, Connor proceeded with his own plan for Stoner — trying to entrap him by luring him into another bombing attempt. To this end, Connor dispatched his Klan informant, Morris, and two Birmingham police officers, detectives Tom Cook and G.L. Pattie. The three men met with Stoner onJune 21, 1958, and led him to believe that financial support would be provided for future bombing attempts against blacks. After the bombing of Bethel Baptist eight days later, Stoner contacted the detectives, demanding a $2,000 payment.
Apparently as Connor intended, the FBI launched an immediate investigation of the Bethel Baptist bombing. The bureau did not get involved in the synagogue attacks until after the successful Atlanta temple bombing in October — nearly six months after the attempt at Beth-El, and only after President Eisenhower publicly expressed his “feeling of horror” at the desecration of a house of worship. Within days of the Atlanta bombing, five men with ties to Stoner’s National States’ Rights Party were arrested, later to be tried and acquitted of planting the bomb. After the trial of the alleged Atlanta temple bombers, one of the jurors justified the verdict with the statement, “It’s not a crime to hate a Jew.”
Despite evidence readily available from both Birmingham Police sources and the FBI’s own investigation, Stoner himself would remain free until his conviction for the Bethel bombing in 1980, for which he served a three-year sentence. In the interim between 1958 and the time of his trial, he continued to espouse his white supremacist views, ultimately running unsuccessfully for the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and U.S. Senator in Georgia. Among other things, he was investigated by the FBI for involvement in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
A turning point
It probably was difficult to view it this way at the time, but in retrospect, the bombings of Temple Beth-El and Bethel Baptist Church within weeks of each other comprise a turning point in Birmingham. This was especially true for the Jewish community, which came to a collective understanding of the need to become an agent for change in a troubled city.
In this sense, the events in Birmingham were analogous to the infamous Kristallnacht — “night of broken glass” — attacks against Jews that took place in Nazi Germany in 1938. Of that night, it has been said that “alarm bells rang in every Jewish home,” and so it was for the Jews of Birmingham in 1958.
The rhetoric of hate had morphed from the personal to the institutional. In response, the local Jewish community became engaged in Birmingham’s torturous, lengthy, but consistent course of resistance to violence and rejection of the tactics of fear and coercion.