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August 18, 2015 10:33 am

Marking 100 Years Since the Lynching of Leo Frank

avatar by Menachem Z. Rosensaft & David Meluskey /

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Leo Frank. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Leo Frank. Photo: Wiki Commons. – In the early hours of Aug. 17, 1915, a 31-year-old man took his last breath as the table beneath him was kicked out and the short rope hung from an oak branch snapped his neck.

The man hanging from that tree was an American Jew by the name of Leo Frank. Although Frank was the only Jew in the history of America lynched by a mob, his death had a profound and lasting impact on American Jewry.

Earlier, Leo Frank, a superintendent at a pencil factory in Atlanta, had been sentenced to death on questionable evidence for murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1913. She had worked at the factory. His trial was a foregone conclusion; Frank had already been convicted in the court of public opinion.

The Northern Jew was the obvious target of the people’s rage. A hate-infused trial ensued, and Frank was portrayed as the insidious Jewish infiltrator, taking what he pleased.

A conviction quickly came, and Frank was sentenced to death.

As he went from appeal to appeal, the case against him began to fall apart. Even some of his accusers conceded that Frank had not murdered Mary Phagan. After his appeals had been rejected by the Supreme Courts of both Georgia and the U.S., Georgia Governor John M. Slaton investigated the body of evidence and, taking a bold stand, commuted Leo Frank’s sentence to life in prison. Slaton did not believe the accused had been guilty of the crime.

But this did not sit well with a community longing for justice but blinded by bigoted rage. After he arrived at the Milledgeville State Penitentiary, Frank’s throat was slit by a fellow prisoner. He survived this attempt on his life, yet the wound had barely healed when on Aug. 16, 1915, a well-oiled mob of 25 rolled up to the prison gates, removed Frank in less than a half hour without firing a shot, and brought him to Marietta, Mary Phagan’s hometown.

After being badly beaten, he was hanged from a tree at 7 a.m.

With so many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, why should we take time to remember this singular incident? Because Leo Frank’s death was the functional equivalent of state-sponsored murder.

Although the governor had commuted the sentence, prominent Georgians, including judges and other state officials, plotted and carried out a seamless abduction and lynching. A huge crowd watched the lynching, which was supervised by a well-known superior court judge. That very same day the perpetrators of the crime were absolved of any wrongdoing by a grand jury, although they were all well-known locally.

Several photographs were taken of the hanging, which were published and sold as postcards in local stores, along with pieces of the rope used to hang Frank, his nightshirt, and branches from the tree.

In the aftermath of the murder, fear spread among Southern Jews. Until then, they had found themselves quite comfortable and safe in their genteel southern communities. They owned businesses, were respected by their neighbors, and even held government office.

While Frank’s death may have been the only anti-Semitic lynching in America, there were of course thousands of African Americans who were cruelly murdered in this fashion. We cannot forget these poor souls either. We must acknowledge and learn from this dark chapter of our history.

The Leo Frank tragedy occurred when American Jews in Georgia generally felt secure. Georgian Jews never imagined that a pogrom could happen to them.

The lesson here is vigilance. Today, American Jews feel safe, in every state. America is not an anti-Semitic country, on the contrary: it’s the best place in the world for Jews to live outside Israel.

But not even America is immune to hate-fueled violence against Jews. The anti-Semites are among us, and sometimes they strike in a deadly fashion, as was the case in Kansas City last year, or in Seattle in 2005. We must stay alert and be prepared to stamp out evil whenever and wherever it surfaces.

As Leo Frank twisted in the Georgian breeze, evil was rising. The Ku Klux Klan seized the hate-filled moment and held a cross burning on Stone Mountain later that same year. This would mark the resurgence of the Klan that had largely lain dormant until then.

We now see a similar resurrection. Just this summer a vigilante, homegrown terrorist, inspired by unchecked Internet hate speech, walked into the oldest black church south of Baltimore and lynched nine African Americans.

And while the nation sought swift action and began acknowledging the hateful symbols that alleged perpetrator employed, we saw a shameful reappearance. The modern day Ku Klux Klan held a rally in support of the Confederate Battle Flag on that same Stone Mountain.

We cannot let these hate groups rise again. We cannot allow divisive rhetoric to enable enhanced recruitment into these groups.

Racism, bigotry, and hatred are not dead today, and not just in the South, but all over the country and all over the world.

America needs to remember Leo Frank, remember all of our lynchings and similar atrocities, and learn from them. America needs to rise above this past. Humanity needs to rise above this past. We must abolish hatred and bigotry from our hearts and banish it from our institutions of power. Governments must seek out mobs, vigilantes, domestic and foreign terrorists, and crush them.

Leo Frank received a partial pardon in 1986. It did not address his innocence or guilt, and it did not mention the blatant anti-Semitism that took him from handcuffs to a vigilante’s noose.

Frank still has not received justice. Let our remembrance and our vigilance be a step in that direction. The parallels and lessons from 100 years ago resonate today.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell, and Syracuse universities.

David Meluskey is the executive assistant to the CEO of the World Jewish Congress.

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  • Robert Weintraub

    Why is not the lynching of Yankele Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights riots remembered in the same way as Leo Frank’s is? During the same riot a truck driver was pulled from his truck and beaten ton death. Does anybody remember his name?

  • yaakov ainoris

    Senator Wagner tried to pass the anti lynching bill….look into who and what groups opposed him…he was my great uncle.He later tried to save 40000 Jewish children from nazi s Wagner Rodgers bill….also rejected…Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson) explains why….Shalom

  • Mike Mann

    I think it’s time to do to this deceased, convicted pervert what the Jews do every year to the hated Haman of Old Testament lore: Hang him in effigy. But since he was one of their own, right down to the perverse lifestyle of most of them, for the sake of the Tribe let’s do what they all are so adept at. Let’s call evil good and good evil.

    • Dante

      1. “Deceased” – no, lynched.
      2. “Convicted pervert” – not in a fair trial, as it appears. This would be neither the first nor the last time.
      3. “right down to the perverse lifestyle of most of them” – no further questions, your honor.
      4. “Let’s call evil good and good evil” – what “good” – the lynching? Something like that is never good.

    • John Galt

      No doubt you are a descendant of the lynchers and a proud one, I’m sure. Did you even bother to read the story? No matter. Even if you did, your antisemitic mental illness would prevent you from seeing the truth. Haman, by the way does not appear in the Tanakh (what you call the OT). His story takes place in Megillas Esther. The events described took pace after the Written Torah had been codified. But you obviously are not bothered by facts.

      • John Galt

        took PLACE, not PACE (a typo)

  • In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, Jews escaped from Eastern Europe and came to the “Goldene Medine” (to the new world) to ESCAPE the Pogroms! And it seems that the hatred of Jews followed them to America, although not to the same extent, but was still happening, mainly in the South.

  • Rachel White

    KKK members were not welcome at the rally at Stone Mountain this summer. It was not a KKK rally and your description of the people who came to the rally as the modern day KKK was wrong and misrepresented the truth of the situation.

    The organizers stated repeatedly that racism and hate would not be tolerated and they lived up to that when a self-proclaimed KKK member started with his hateful message. He was heckled and repudiated and left. This was supported by our local news reports:

    The violence at the rally came from a young black man who opened fir at the vehicles as they entered the park.

    We must remember history and also not misrepresent the present.

    • John Galt

      Thank you, Rachel, for the facts. I really hate when an important article such as this is ruined either by lazy fact-checking or general ignorance. To the writers: the facts are that, to many southerners, the confederate flag is NOT a symbol of [a desired return to] racism. (In fact, there are many southern blacks who venerate that same flag.) I’d fly a confederate flag too but, it would have little meaning or significance here in Israel. (I’d do it as a protest against political correctness and all the corrosive hatreds it engenders.) Also to the writers: when you see the growing antisemitism not just in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East but in America, which WAS the absolute best place in the world for Jews before 1948 even with some latent antisemitism, perhaps you should consider coming HOME?

  • enufizenuf

    If the authors are truly concerned about the rise of hate groups in this country they should turn their attention from the handful of overweight middle-aged men who make up most of the paltry membership of the KKK
    and it towards CAIR, the NOI, the muslim Students Association, and the DEMOCRAT PARTY, whose actions have, in recent years, done incalculable damage to the Jewish people and the nation of Israel.

  • Ephraim

    It is very difficult to achieve your laudable goal for several reasons, not the least of which is that, at this point in time, antisemitism comes from the top. An administration that tolerates, and commits, antisemitic acts is not likely to reform, let alone help erase the hatred.

  • Brilliant article. It is an old, current and future fact that antisemitism has been, is and may always be with us. My view is that it exists because we Jews, have so much to teach and so much light to shine, that when we refrain from showering that light, we are hated and despised for it. It is our historic responsibility to share that light because the Christians have NEVER accepted our Mishna, Gemorah and the myriad of Jewish teachings which explain and act as a key to understanding the 5 Books of Moses, the Old Testament or the Chumash.