Connect with us


The KKK Bombed Jackson’s Beth Israel in 1967. It Just Received Another Threat.



JACKSON, Miss.—Worshippers at Beth Israel Congregation, Mississippi’s largest Jewish synagogue, are looking to move forward after someone emailed a bomb threat to the temple on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023. Beth Israel Congregation Rabbi Joseph Rosen said on Dec. 18 that he suspected the threat was tied to heightened anti-Semitism stemming from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Rosen said he was headed to the synagogue the morning of Dec. 17 when he got a call from a member of their admin team about the threatening email. “We had to act quickly and decisively to cancel all our events for the day and a few board members worked with law enforcement to conduct a sweep of the building,” Rosen said. “The FBI told us it wasn’t a credible threat. It’s still a scary situation but a calm ending.”

“It’s a difficult reality to grapple with, but I’m thankful for my congregation reaching out to each other to provide comfort and support, and many of our inter-faith friends have done so as well. That’s been really important at this time,” Rosen said.

Beth Israel leadership sent correspondence to their congregation on Dec. 17 to let them know of the threat and to cancel services.

“This morning Beth Israel Congregation received an emailed bomb threat. Out of an abundance of caution, synagogue leadership decided to cancel today’s on-site programming,” Beth Israel Congregation shared through a statement. “Since we received the threat we have been in constant communication with local and federal law enforcement, whose current assessment is that this threat is non-credible. We’re grateful to them for their swift action in ensuring our community’s safety.”

Perhaps no one in Mississippi knows better than to take such bomb threats seriously than Mississippi’s Jewish community, as a historic marker in front of the synagogue on Old Canton Road attests.

Targeted for ‘Repairing the World’

The Beth Israel synagogue on Old Canton Road in Jackson, Miss., was fortunately empty at 10:40 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 18, 1967, when a bomb exploded, destroying its administrative offices. Authorities said then that a half case of dynamite was placed against a recessed outside door and detonated, causing what would amount to more than $200,000 worth of damage today. No one was present or injured.

The act of terror on the Beth Israel temple, originally founded by German Orthodox Jews in 1860 on State Street in downtown Jackson, came the same year it had moved north to what The Clarion-Ledger then called “one of Jackson’s most fashionable neighborhoods. The bombing came late in the Civil Rights Movement when white supremacists were angry about the U.S. Supreme Court’s school-integration decision withstanding legal challenges in 1965 and federal voting and civil-rights laws that had passed in 1964 and 1965.

White terrorism, including many bombings, were still underway across the state in 1967—the same year a bomb killed NAACP activist Wharlest Jackson Sr. in Natchez—with multiple explosions in the capital city targeting a variety of institutions and people of various races and ethnicities who supported rights of any kind for Black people.

A sign marking the Mississippi Freedom Trail. The headline is "Bombings in Jewish Community"
Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers of Laurel and the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race were urging white terrorists to target Jewish leaders like Rabbi Perry Nussbaum who supported Black Freedom in Mississippi in the 1960s. So they did. Photo by Shaunicy Muhammad

Racist rhetoric in Mississippi had long been directed toward Jewish proponents of civil rights for Black Americans with many practicing the philosophy of Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) protesting alongside other civil-rights activists and being attacked and even killed for their courage. In Mississippi, various Ku Klux Klan cells, the Jackson-based Citizens Council, the state-funded Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race—all active in the capital city in 1967 with members of one or more of the groups living in all parts of Jackson: north, south, central and west—calling Jewish or any white people who supported civil rights “communists” as an excuse to target them.

That night in Jackson, no one was hurt at the by-then Reform Jewish synagogue, and The Clarion-Ledger reported then that authorities quickly identified three active Ku Klux Klansmen as suspects: 49-year-old Jackson painter Joe Denver Hawkins who had just been released from the Hinds jail for assaulting a federal officer; his 23-year-old son Joe Daniel Hawkins and J.L. Harper, also 23. They were arrested the same night in West Jackson, but were released without being charged in the bombings.

FBI investigators had identified the elder Hawkins as perhaps associated with the Silver Dollar Group in Natchez, a violent white-supremacist terrorist group known for bombings and connected to the well-known Klan brothers Myron Seale and James Ford Seale, members of the especially vicious White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whom the Jackson Free Press would investigate and report in 2005 for the 1964 murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee. Seale, whom other Mississippi and national media had long claimed was dead, was convicted and finally went to prison in 2007. He died there.

Authorities also had questioned the elder Hawkins for the bombing of the Blackwell Real Estate office at 704 North Gallatin Street to intimidate a white real-estate salesman who was selling houses to Black people in white neighborhoods.

‘An Expression of Bestiality’

Hawkins was also a member of the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race, a group that organized in Natchez in southwest Mississippi in 1963 openly dedicated to “race purity”—a euphemism for stopping intermarriage or sex that would “pollute” the supposedly superior white bloodline, a major reason racists had worked to hard to keep public schools from integrating. APWR, with prominent members from business owners and attorneys to the Franklin Advocate newspaper owner editor David Webb—who served as its publicity director—focused much of its efforts and resources on paying attorneys to defend Klansmen such as the Seales and many others, who were accused of various acts of white terrorism.

The Jackson synagogue’s leader and some members of its congregation had been outspoken against the white violence Jackson and Mississippi had been experiencing for years during the movement for Black freedom. Rabbi Perry Nussbaum was a vocal advocate for racial integration. The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities reports that he had traveled north to Parchman weeks during the summer of 1961 to minister to freedom riders locked inside, Black and white, Jewish and gentile. He wrote to families of the imprisoned activities to assure them that their loved ones were OK, and he helped bridge divides even as he was extremely outspoken. When the current synagogue opened earlier in 1967, both Black and white ministers helped with the dedication, Southern Jewish Life magazine reported.

Beth Israel Congregation Rabbi Perry Nussbaum surveyed the damage after Ku Klux Klansmen bombed the temple in September 1967
Beth Israel Congregation Rabbi Perry Nussbaum surveyed the damage after Ku Klux Klansmen bombed the temple in September 1967. They were angered by his efforts to help Black Mississippians. Courtesy Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio, at

Nussbaum was known for his 1964 interfaith work with biracial religious leaders on the Committee of Concern who had worked together to rebuild Black churches as so many were burned by white supremacists in Mississippi by 1964—the year that so much violence in Mississippi, including the KKK murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner 90 miles away in Philadelphia had helped convince Congress to pass federal civil-rights legislation. The group built 40 new churches until their funds ran out.

The Clarion-Ledger quoted Nussbaum warning about the spate of antisemitic literature that was appearing in Jackson. “The sad fact that there was a lot of bigotry during the recent primaries and distribution of antisemitic didn’t help the situation,” the rabbi told a mix of Jewish and Christian neighbors at a support gathering he held at Beth Israel soon after its September 1967 bombing as attendees sat amid the damage.

“What they did was an expression of bestiality and, this time, focused on my congregation,” the rabbi and Toronto native said.

‘Race-mixing Is Genocide’

Soon after the 1967 temple bombing, which The Clarion-Ledger reported had destroyed thousands of volumes of books including Hebrew history, many white Jacksonians were outraged at the naked violence right in their midst and starting to tire of violent white terrorism and threats, including some who had previously and still supported segregation. An ecumenical group of Jackson clergy led a walk to the synagogue to protest the violence against their Jewish neighbors and prominent citizens, including a reporter for the long-time virulently racist Clarion-Ledger, wrote letters and columns condemning the violence.

Three weeks later, as multiple news reports then described, a midnight bomb went off in a faculty home on the Tougaloo College campus, and then on Nov. 19, a bomb struck the Belhaven home of white activist Robert Kochtistsky on Poplar Avenue. Days later on the night of Nov. 21, Rabbi Nussbaum’s Jackson home on Old Canton Road was bombed, the fourth and the strongest in the few short months of terror in the capital city, although the night riders did not injure any people, just destroyed property.

In the wake of the bombings, The Clarion-Ledger reported that Nussbaum blamed the Jackson chapter of the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race for hateful rhetoric that incited the bombing of his home. And for good reason: APWR had set up a booth at the Mississippi State Fair in Jackson selling antisemitic literature just weeks before his home was bombed, and notorious KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers of Laurel had ordered attacks on both the Jackson synagogue and Nussbaum specifically, Randy J. Sparks reported in his book “Religion in Mississippi,” published by the University Press of Mississippi.

A sign marking the Mississippi Freedom Trail regarding Beth Israel Congregation

Jackson APWR chapter president Roy Campbell and his board of governors took umbrage at the notion, releasing a statement saying their goal wasn’t violence, but white “racial purity,” as The Clarion-Ledger reported then. Nussbaum’s words were “unworthy of a man of his education and position,” Campbell wrote, adding, “We have no hatred, ill will or malice toward any race of people.” The statement said that APWR only wished to educate the public and ensure “relief  for oppressed Christian Americans.” Campbell noted that the world’s “small minority” of Jewish people in the world “claim descent from the Israelites” and had also “sought to maintain the purity of their race.”

“We white Christians wish to do the same …,” Campbell’s statement continued, followed by more tortured logic chiding the victim of the bombing: “Jewish people, as well as Christians, strongly condemn genocide; yet few seem to recognize that race mixing is genocide, in that it destroys both races. As a matter of fact, the Jewish people as a whole are, among themsleves (sic), the greatest practitiiners (sic) of racial segregation,” as The Clarion-Ledger reported. APWR then landed back at race-baiting, which was rampant among the various white-supremacist “race purity” groups of the time, especially aimed at Jewish allies of the Black freedom struggle like Nussbaum.

“There is abundant proof that face (sic) mixing and the aciompanying (sic) strife are promoted by the international community conspiracy,” then ending, “We respectfully submit that the Rabbi should withdraw his unfounded accusations.”

In the wake of the four bombings in quick succession in 1967, Jackson businessmen put together $50,000 in reward money to investigate the civil rights-era bombings with Mayor Allen Thompson’s support—which was ironic because the “Thompson Tank” named for him had been deployed during violent skirmishes between civil-rights protesters and white police officers in Jackson, and he was a staunch segregationist.

A Queen City Bombing, and a Conversion

Still, on May 28, 1968, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Beth Israel Congregation 90 miles away in Meridian, Mississippi’s “queen city” where the majority of the lynch mob who had kidnapped and killed Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in 1964 lived. That bombing caused the equivalent of $400,000 in damage today, but no injuries.

This time, though, authorities identified 22-year-old Thomas Albert Tarrants III of Mobile, Ala., as a lead suspect in both synagogue bombings, along with Danny Joe Hawkins, was was said to be a White Knights hitman. They decided to set a trap for the bombers.

A black and white photo from 1967 of Alton Wayne Roberts gesturing to photographers
Meridian, Miss., window salesman Alton Wayne Roberts was one of seven men eventually convicted of conspiracy in the deaths of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss., gestures to news photographers as he leaves a motions hearing in Jackson, Miss. He also helped authorities set up Thomas Albert Tarrants III of Mobile, Ala., who had bombed Beth Israel Congregation in Meridian in 1968. Photo courtesy Benton Museum of Art

The Institute for Southern Jewish Life reports that the local Jewish community raised funds to pay two KKK members, including ex-Marine and window salesman Alton Wayne Roberts and triggerman in the Philadelphia civil-rights murders who was out on parole, to provide intelligence about the Klan’s bombing plans.

The FBI and Meridian police then set up around the home of Jewish leader Meyer Davidson on 29th Avenue on June 30, 1968, to wait for Tarrants to plant a bomb. When he arrived, a car chase ensued with Tarrants firing a machine gun at officers, but then shot and injured. Accomplice Kathy Ainsworth was found dead from gunfire in the third accomplice Danny Joe Hawkins’ car.

Tarrants was convicted and sentenced to a 30-year term in Parchman. There, he found religion, apologized for his racist actions, which led some Jewish people to urge his release.

Tommy Tarrants III heeded Ku Klux Klan leadership’s call to bomb Beth Israel Congregation and later a Jewish leader there in 1968. But a fellow Klansmen set him up. In prison, a religious conversation and apology led Jewish people to call for his early release.

In 1976, he participated in a work-release program at the University of Mississippi and in 1979 wrote the book “Conversion of a Klansman.” He later helped lead an interracial church in Washington, D.C. and served as president of the C.S. Lewis Institute. He also co-authored “He’s My Brother” with the famed civil rights activist John Perkins of Jackson, who had been a victim of a police beating himself in Rankin County as a younger man.

Ultimately, the bombings served a higher purpose, civil-rights activist and later Jackson City Council Leslie McLemore said at the 2018 dedication of a Freedom Trail marker that stands in front of Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson. “The bombing of the Beth Israel Congregation ushered in a level of bi-racial cooperation and understanding that had not been present in the community before 1967,” he said, as reported by Southern Jewish Life magazine.

Threats to 400 U.S. Synagogues

Over five decades after the spate of Mississippi bombings targeted anyone who supported Black freedom, and Jewish allies specifically, synagogues across the United States have seen a growing number of threats and attacks in recent years, first during the rise of open white supremacy in recent years and recently in the wake of the Hamas attacks on Israeli people and the ongoing violence in Gaza.

The Anti-Defamation League reported to CNN on Dec. 18, 2023 that more than 400 synagogues had received emails threatening an attack similar to the one Beth Israel received last weekend.

While Beth Isreal’s congregation believes Sunday’s threat was a hoax meant to instill fear, past attacks on the synagogue are a key part of its, Jackson’s and Mississippi’s history.

The congregation pledged in a Dec. 17 statement that Sunday’s threat will not shake their faith. “As we continue to see a rise in antisemitic rhetoric and incidents in America, our congregation is committed to continuing to live out our Jewish values of peace, faith, and justice in our community and beyond,” the statement said.

Or, as Beth Israel says on its website: “In the decades that followed (the 1967 bombings), Beth Israel has grown and worked within the wider community to help fulfill the mission of Tikkun Olam.” That work is not about to stop now.

Corrections: The original version of this story stated that John Perkins was a victim of an attempted lynching in Rankin County as a young man. It should have said he was beaten by police officers. Also, one original photo caption incorrectly referred to Beth Israel Congregation as a “church.” The above story and captions reflect those corrections.

Click to comment

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply