In the early morning of 12 October, a dynamite blast tore through the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, an Atlanta synagogue led by civil rights supporter Rabbi Jacob Rothschild.1 Arriving at the scene, Mayor Hartsfield decried the bombing and offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the persons responsible.2 On 17 October five white men were arrested in connection with the bombing, but they were later freed after a jury acquitted the alleged ring leader.3 Hartsfield thanked King for this letter on 15 October.4
Hon. William B. Hartsfield
Mayor of the City of Atlanta
On behalf of thousands of Southern Negro leaders and laymen who advocate our program of non-violent goodwill to bring the inveitable social changes of our time, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference commends your prompt action and vigorously expressed determination to “leave no stone unturned” in apprehending those responsible for the cowardly bombing of the Hebrew Congregation of Atlanta Sunday morning. Suth forthright firmness, if exercised by law enforcing agencies throughout the South could readily put an end to the wanton lawlessness that not only discredits the South but also embrasses the entire nation. Since this tragic incident has occured in Atlanta, a city long prided as a shining example of civility and tolerance in the South, we pray God, that it will challenge the decent people of our city, state and region to speak out for “due process of law” and peaceful settling of differences and with equal clarity, to speak out against those who use their elective positions of trust to peddle hatred and to inflame the dynamiters and cross-burners to commit their dastardly deeds of destruction. Surely we who love the South must find the courage and intelligence to provide the constructive leadership so sorely needed now. Our Conference stands ready to help.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., President
208 Auburn Avenue, N.E.
1. Jacob Mortimer Rothschild (1911-1973), raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received his A.B. from the University of Cincinnati and completed his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College. He was ordained in 1936 and in 1946 was offered the pulpit at Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation. As early as 1948 Rothschild unsettled congregation members and aggravated Atlanta’s white community with sermons calling for racial tolerance. In the face of opposition from members of Atlanta’s business establishment, Rothschild helped arrange the January 1965 dinner honoring King for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
2. At the scene of the bombing, Hartsfield took aim at segregationist politicians who he claimed created a climate for violence: “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” (“Rabble Rousers Share The Blame, Mayor Says,” Atlanta Constitution, 13 October 1958). William Berry Hartsfield (1890-1971), born in Atlanta, studied law in the law office of former governor John B. Slaton. Hartsfield served on the Atlanta City Council (1923-1928), and in the state legislature (1933-36) before being elected mayor of Atlanta in 1937. Originally elected with the support of segregationist governor Eugene Talmadge, Hartsfield gained a reputation as a racial moderate during his twenty-three years in office.
3. James Sheppard, “Bright Acquitted of Bombing,” Atlanta Constitution, 24 January 1959.
4. On 16 October King, Sr. sent Hartsfield a statement on behalf of the Atlanta Missionary Baptist Association condemning the recent wave of church and synagogue bombings: “Such dastardly acts are un-American, unchristian, unlawful, and undemocratic and are not only a threat to our religious liberties but are ultimately a threat to our total liberties.”
MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.