Leo Frank’s Lynching, Tom Watson’s Statue, and White Supremacy in America
The current controversy about replacing the statues of Confederate generals and other racist and problematic figures is hardly new. In 2013, Georgia removed the 12-foot high statue of demagogue Tom Watson from its state capitol.
Early on in his political career, Watson was deemed “a tolerant Populist.” But by 1913-1915 — when he led the campaign to lynch Jewish factory owner Leo Frank for the molestation-murder of Atlanta factory girl Mary Phagan — he was an all-purpose bigot against Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans. Frank was innocent and Georgia’s governor had just commuted his sentence. But Watson made sure that Frank was murdered and swung from a tree.
Watson died in 1922, soon after his election to the US Senate. But Watson’s statue was not dedicated until 1932.
After an ineffectual, anti-Watson campaign lasting years, finally, in 2013, then-governor Nathan Deal decided to relocate the Watson statue to a nearby state-owned park. The move won applause from both Jews and African-Americans. There also followed legislation authorizing a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. to be erected.
Why was 2013 chosen for the uprooting of Watson’s monument? Because that was exactly 100 years since Leo Frank’s false conviction — an event seared in the collective memory of Atlanta’s Jewish community. The Frank case also had spillover effects straining Black-Jewish relations, because the only other suspect in Mary Phagan’s murder was an African-American janitor, Jim Conley, coached by the police to testify against Frank. According to a later deathbed confession by a witness (and echoing suspicions at the time), it was Conley who killed the girl.
As Mark Bauman has shown, Atlanta rabbi David Marx personified the trauma of Leo Frank’s tragic end. Rabbi Marx had been ordained by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Reform Judaism’s founder. The scion of a prominent New Orleans Jewish family, Marx led Atlanta’s predominately German-Jewish congregation. In his services, yarmulke-wearing was frowned upon, services held on Sundays in English, most Jewish holidays and even bar mitzvahs not observed, and Zionism opposed. On the other hand, Rabbi Marx early in his career opposed mandatory Protestant Bible reading in public schools, and also never wavered in his friendship with the African-American community. During and after World War I, Rabbi Marx became super-patriotic and hyper-assimilationist in order to appease reactionaries.
Though most Southern Jews loyally supported the Confederacy, even the most prominent like plantation owner and Confederate Cabinet member Judah P. Benjamin never were honored with statues. Benjamin had to wait until 1948 for a marker memorializing him in Charleston. Now, at the urging of Charleston’s Jews, the marker has been consigned to oblivion.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).