TWISTED THEOLOGY. The Synagogue Bombings of 1957–1958 - America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States (2015)

America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)



the SYNAGOGUE BOMBINGS of 1957-1958

In its forty-year history, the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA), formed in 1917 to collect and disseminate Jewish-centric news to journalism outlets worldwide, reported only two bombing attacks against Jewish targets inside the United States. So the following news story may have seemed an anomaly:

Attempt to Dynamite Charlotte Synagogue Fails; Police Investigate

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Nov. 26, 1957) Charlotte police today continued their investigation of an attempted dynamiting of Temple Beth El here which could have killed some 40 women who were attending a meeting.1

But by February 1958, when another dynamite bomb failed to detonate at Temple Emmanuel in Gaston, North Carolina, a sense of dread began to permeate America’s Jewish community. Within another month it became clear that these concerns were well placed. The JTA reported:

F.B.I. Investigates Bombing of Jewish Centers in Miami and Nashville

WASHINGTON (Mar. 17, 1958) The Department of Justice stepped in today to investigate the bombing yesterday of Jewish centers in Miami and Nashville with a view to determining whether a violation of Federal laws occurred.2

The two earlier attacks had failed because of issues related to the bombs’ fuses. The first successful explosion occurred with the March 16 Miami bombing, producing a noise that local residents compared to a plane crash.3 At eight o’clock that same evening, another bomb caused $6,000 worth of damage to the Jewish Community Center in Nashville, Tennessee, “smashing the front doors, ripping down the ceiling of the reception hall and smashing windows in the building.”4

Like a double-tap gunshot execution, two more, almost simultaneous attacks occurred the following April in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Jacksonville, Florida. The former failed when the “25-foot fuse burned to within 18 inches” of fifty-four sticks of dynamite, enough, the JTA noted at the time, “to demolish the temple.” The Jacksonville bomb did ignite, failing to kill or wound anyone but causing $3,000 in damages, almost $25,000 in today’s money.5

Two additional bombings followed. The most notable occurred on October 12, 1958, when an estimated forty to fifty sticks of dynamite caused serious damage to Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, known to many simply as the Temple. A caller from a group referring to itself as the Confederate Underground—a then largely unknown organization that tied itself to several of the previous attacks—ominously warned that all Jewish and black-owned businesses were now potential targets. “We bombed a temple in Atlanta,” the caller insisted. “This is the last empty building in Atlanta we will bomb.”6

The bombings received national coverage and outraged the nation’s political leaders. At a press conference on October 15, 1958, a reporter asked President Dwight Eisenhower:

Mr. President, over a period of months there have been bombings, explosions in the South … directed against Jewish churches and Jewish community centers. Some of these have been attributed to people who describe themselves as a Confederate Underground. Do you feel there is anything you can do to halt or discourage these incidents, and do you relate them in any way, sir, to the school integration issue?

President Eisenhower responded:

I went out of my way on Sunday afternoon when I heard about the bombing in Atlanta to speak extemporaneously about my feeling about these bombings. Now you had certain phrases in your question to which I want to advert. You said these people described themselves as part of the Confederate Underground. From babyhood I was raised to respect the word “Confederate” very highly, I might add, and for hoodlums such as these to describe themselves as any part or any relation to the Confederacy of the mid-19th Century is, to my mind, a complete insult to the word. Indeed, they should be described as nothing but Al Capones and Baby Face Nelsons and that kind of hoodlum.7

Having spent months resisting calls from Jewish groups and politicians to insert itself into local jurisdictions, the U.S. Justice Department finally formed a task force to coordinate the investigation across state lines before the end of 1958.

The motivation for the wave of bombings on Jewish targets, unprecedented in American history, defied an easy explanation. Many observers, then and now, simply placed the attacks in the general context of anti-integrationist violence in America. Since the Supreme Court, in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, had demanded desegregation of America’s public schools and opened the door to wider integration of the American South as a whole, white supremacist violence had reached new levels of intensity. The simultaneous attacks on Jewish targets mirrored concurrent bombings against black targets in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957. Indeed, the attack on the Jacksonville community center coincided with a bombing of an all-black high school in the same city. Jewish leaders, as part of a wider effort to stop both anti-Semitic and racist terrorism in the South, urged the government to investigate the attacks.

At first blush, the connection between anti-Jewish violence and the wider effort by white supremacists to stop the push toward integration makes sense, and it indeed partially explains the wave of attacks in 1957 and 1958. The leader of the Atlanta Temple, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, was an outspoken advocate in favor of the African American civil rights struggle. The attack on his temple included direct references to “nigger-lovers.”8 And on a wider scale, prominent racists, such as Tennessee Ku Klux Klan leader John Kasper, openly blamed a Jewish conspiracy for the civil rights movement.9 But, as we will detail later, there was something at the bottom of Kasper’s anti-Semitic rants that was even uglier and darker than a simple desire to protect the “southern way of life.”

John Kasper’s anti-Jewish extremism was somewhat rare, even in KKK groups. Anti-Semitism—as an idea—had a long pedigree in groups like the KKK, but it rarely translated into actual violence. The so-called second wave of KKK development—following the success of D.W. Griffith’s pro-KKK movie Birth of a Nation and a famous 1915 cross-burning revival in Stone Mountain, Georgia—was in some ways driven by anti-Semitism, as part of a larger motif of nativism directed against the millions of first-generation immigrants (a sizable chunk of whom were Eastern European and Russian Jews) who arrived in the United States during the Progressive Era. Yet despite the KKK’s wide popularity in the 1920s, when it included millions of members across several dozen states, this newly xenophobic fraternal organization never did much more than rant against Jewish influence. Historians can point to the ever-increasing number of lynchings of black Americans during the 1920s, but beyond the lynching of Georgian Leo Frank in 1915, there are no similar cases of vigilante hanging of southern Jews. Whites (presumably including KKK members) attacked enclaves of prosperous, middle-class blacks in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma. But there were no similar attacks on the small number of southern Jewish communities and institutions during the same time period. Reports from the JTA observed that the “mass of printed anti-Semitic propaganda” did not come from the ten Klans in the South but from “such places as Union, N.J., Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago.” It added that White Citizens Councils, anti-integrationist groups formed from the South’s upper crust, “repudiated anti-Semitism.”10 In fact, most of the bombings and attempted bombings in 1957-1958 did not involve targets with known ties to the civil rights movement.

This was in large part because Jews had largely assimilated into the fabric of the southern communities in which they lived. For the most part, that included passive acceptance of the racist policies of Jim Crow. Fearful for their own well-being, southern Jews “kept their heads down,” even through the civil rights agitation of the 1960s. Some White Citizens Councils paradoxically included Jewish members. Melissa Fay Greene, whose excellent book on the Atlanta Temple bombing embraces the anti-integrationist rationale for that attack, acknowledged that southern Jews, including rabbis, only “occasionally, and from a distance, lent moral support but were little involved in the civil rights struggle.”11

But preserving racial segregation does not serve as the sole explanation for the violence that plagued America’s southern Jews at the time. Nor were such acts simply a warning against Jewish cooperation with civil rights activists. If the point was to send such a message, why did America’s racists stop anti-Semitic bombings in the years that followed the 1958 attacks? Why, when northern Jews became an important constituency in the fight for civil rights in the early 1960s, did the KKK fail to strike at Jewish institutions with the same intensity for the same symbolic reasons? Why did the next major wave of orchestrated anti-Jewish bombings in American history occur several years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when the KKK was in a state of rapid decline?

The riddle is not difficult to unravel: The men who planned these waves of violence embraced a broader agenda than simply defending the so-called southern way of life against the threats posed by integration. Fears of miscegenation only partially motivated the handful of men who planned many of the most egregious acts of domestic terrorism in American history, events like the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four preteen girls in 1963; the so-called Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights activists in 1964; or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. One need only examine the religious ideology of the man who planned the 1957-1958 synagogue bombings to understand the complete agenda and ultimate goals behind these acts of terrorism. Having formed multistate task forces and aligned their inquiries with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, law enforcement officers from across the nation quickly began to hone in on one suspect for this wave of bombings. The Confederate Underground, a newly formed group of about a dozen men in the Southeast, had executed the attacks, but the brains behind their operation was a white supremacist lawyer from Georgia named Jesse Benjamin (J.B.) Stoner.

On the surface, Stoner did not look the part of a domestic terrorist. Standing a portly five seven, with a deformed hand and a pronounced limp since childhood, Stoner often affected the persona of a country bumpkin at worst and a racist blowhard at best. But the image Stoner presented to the public obscured his strategic mind, one that earned him straight A’s in law school. When skeptical law enforcement investigators interrogated one of their key informants inside the Confederate Underground, they suggested that Stoner was not the kind of person who knew his way around a bomb. “Oh yes he does,” the informant insisted. “He has a good working knowledge of a lot of things.” Those who participated in the plots on the ground level offered one consistent observation: Stoner would tell them how to build the bomb and when and where to plant it, but he made sure to be out of town on the day of the crime. He was too smart to get caught, they insisted. The outcome of the bombing investigation seemed to bear that out, as Stoner’s legal colleagues ultimately represented many of the accused bombers and advised them to recant their accusations against J.B. In one case, an Alabama prosecutor refused to use informant reports against Stoner, because he knew Stoner would expose law enforcement’s efforts as entrapment. Stoner never was convicted for his role in the crimes, even though every investigation pegged him as the ringleader.

However much his appearance belied his deviousness, J.B. Stoner was a dangerous man. Through his legal counsel, his incitements of mob violence in public speeches, his propaganda, and his involvement in several different acts of racial violence over three decades, J.B. Stoner was directly or indirectly connected to more acts of domestic terrorism than possibly any other American in history. The simplistic explanation for Stoner’s activities points to his fondness for Nazism. As a teenager, Stoner openly supported the Nazis during World War II, going so far as to correspond with William Joyce, aka Lord Haw Haw, a pro-Nazi radio personality in Europe. If anything, Stoner famously asserted on many occasions that Hitler did not go far enough in exterminating the Jews. The FBI consistently referred to Stoner and his organizations as neo-Nazi in spirit, but this only captured part of Stoner’s motivations, as Stoner never embraced national socialism and enjoyed only a lukewarm relationship with the American Nazi Party and its founder, George Lincoln Rockwell. As Stoner had grown up in segregated Georgia during the Great Depression, his racial animosity and anti-Jewish animosity blended together in a unique stew of hate. If anything, Stoner’s anti-Jewish extremism alienated him from rank-and-file KKK members. When Stoner moved to Tennessee in the late 1940s and joined the Chattanooga Klavern (a subgroup of the statewide KKK organization), his anti-Semitism upset his fellow Klan members to the point that they expelled him from their group.12 Undeterred, Stoner soon returned to Georgia and with local chiropractor Edward Fields cofounded the Christian Anti-Jewish Party in the early 1950s. Centered in Georgia, the group openly protested outside the Temple in Atlanta before the Confederate Underground bombed the institution. The name of the group that Stoner and Fields created points to an element of Stoner’s motivation that has been missed by the FBI and by the few scholars who have focused their attention on Stoner’s violence. Without question, Nazism informed Stoner’s anti-Jewish agenda, just as racism informed his anti-black agenda. But at some point in Stoner’s ever-more-radical shift to a life of domestic terrorism, a perverse understanding of Christianity became a dominant motif in motivating his violent crusade.

However much he dabbled in the occult, and however much he exploited centuries-old religious prejudices dating back to the times of Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Adolf Hitler’s anti-Jewish rhetoric and actions were far more secular than religious in their spirit. Hitler’s brand of anti-Semitism flowed from scientific racism: a belief in genetic contamination and degeneration popular among followers of the eugenics movement and a misguided understanding of anthropology that viewed white Europeans as a master race.

Little evidence of this kind of thinking can be found in Stoner’s writings and speeches. Instead, one finds a devoutly religious motivation for Stoner’s extremism. In 1994, reflecting upon his efforts to a meeting of the Aryan Nations, Stoner said:

I’ve been fighting Jews and niggers all my life. Now I quote from the Bible, I believe in the Bible, I worship my Lord Jesus Christ, but I’m not a preacher. God didn’t call me to be a preacher. God called me to fight Jews and niggers. So I’ve engaged in that fight, against the Jews and the niggers, because that is the best way to serve and glorify God and to help the white race.13

This religious component to Stoner’s hatred traces back fifty years. In 1947 Stoner wrote a treatise called “The Gospel of Jesus Christ vs. the Jews as Explained from the Holy Bible.”14 As early as 1944, Stoner had written to the U.S. Congress, requesting that it “pass a resolution recognizing that Jews are children of the devil and that consequently they pose a grave danger to the United States.”15

The reference to Jews as “children of the devil” becomes important in connecting Stoner to a newly emerging, unorthodox strain of Christian theology that, by the early 1940s, was developing into a fully formed creed. Christian Identity (CI) theology, or simply Identity, has inspired generations of white supremacists, directly and indirectly, to acts of domestic terrorism.

Stoner in some ways was a member of an unholy trinity that also included the head of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan, Samuel Holloway Bowers, and Wesley A. Swift, head of the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian (CJCC), a Christian Identity congregation based in southern California. In that metaphor, Swift, as will become clear, is the father, the inspiration and guiding force behind waves of violence, whom too few scholars recognize for his active role in domestic terrorism. Bowers, as we will see, is the son, the purist who commands a group of followers as they put the father’s plan into earthly action. And Stoner, the Georgian lawyer who became the brains behind the Confederate Underground, is the unholy spirit, linking fellow travelers across time and distance, girding his clients against perceived persecution, and inspiring others to rash acts of mob violence.

Those who isolate Islam as a uniquely violent religion, one more suited to perversion by radicals than other religions, have missed a counter-narrative, one where Christian extremists distorted Jesus’s message long before Muslim extremists hijacked Muhammad’s teachings. In short, in failing to look deeply at people like Stoner, Bowers, and Swift and at the acts of terrorism they planned and inspired, we have missed an important piece of history that could provide an extremely useful frame of reference for contemporary America and for the world at large. An extensive look into the web of associations and organizations connected to J.B. Stoner will help bring this insight into sharper focus, revealing the twisted theology at the core of the white supremacy movement in the United States.