Chris Rosenblum: Lessons of bias, hate resonate 100 years later

A century ago, a man swung from a Georgia oak.

Leo Frank, an Atlanta pencil factory superintendent, had been pulled from his prison cell by a vengeful mob, driven to the tree and lynched.

Shoddy police work, dubious evidence and inflammatory prosecution had led a jury to convict him of murdering a young female employee. In many eyes, he had been framed.

But for a bloodthirsty rabble on the morning of Aug. 17, 1915, Frank was guilty beyond a doubt of another crime — being a Northern Jew.

The Frank case, widely considered a judicial travesty and a historic flashpoint of anti-Semitism, will be the subject of a free discussion at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the State Theatre.

Tied to a May 14-16 local production of “Parade,” the Tony-award winning musical inspired by the Frank story, the discussion will feature three speakers. Tobias Brinkmann, a Penn State professor of Jewish studies and history, will join fellow history professor Anthony Kaye and Rabbi David Ostrich from Congregation Brit Shalom to delve into the tragedy’s enduring significance.

Brinkmann plans, in part, to speak about the position of Jews in early 20th-century Southern society. Though anti-Jewish stereotypes abounded, Jews passed as accepted whites in the social hierarchy — or so they thought.

“The Frank case was so shocking because it showed that Jewish integration was fragile and, in a sense, illusionary,” Brinkmann said.

The sad tale began with Mary Phagan, the 13-year-old daughter of tenant farmers who had moved to Atlanta for better prospects.

On April 26, 1913, she collected her weekly pay at the pencil factory from Frank. He turned out to be the last person who acknowledged seeing her alive. A watchman found her battered and strangled body that night in the factory cellar.

Frank told police he was in his office 20 minutes after Phagan left, but another worker said she came to collect her pay about the same time and couldn’t see him. The watchman, also an early suspect, said Frank called later in the day to ask if everything was all right, which he supposedly had never done.

The accounts and Frank’s agitated reaction to viewing Phagan’s body led to his arrest.

His 25-day trial inflamed Atlanta. The prosecution’s star witness was James Conley, a black janitor whom police had arrested earlier after he was seen washing red stains from a shirt. He also admitted writing two notes discovered near Phagan that pointed to his guilt.

In often contradictory affidavits and then testimony, though, Conley insisted Frank was the killer. He said Frank confessed the murder to him, then paid him to hide the body and write the notes to throw off the police — an implausible scenario, as more than a few reporters noted.

During the trial, prosecutor Hugh Dorsey used hearsay testimony to paint Frank as a pervert who preyed on both young girls and boys. Hatred swelled throughout the city. Frank, a college-educated, Brooklyn, N.Y., native, became a symbol of Northern exploitation of Southern people and ways, an outsider and a defiler.

Frank, whose housekeeper placed him at home having lunch at the time of the murder, steadfastly maintained his innocence.

In the end, the all-white jury believed Conley, suspect testimony and all — an irony in the deep South. Frank was sentenced to death.

Atlantans had been clamoring for a conviction. Crowds cheered Dorsey every day as he arrived, then celebrated in the streets after the verdict. Cries of “Hang the Jew!” rang out.

But around the nation, and especially in the North, the trial was denounced as a miscarriage of justice. Calls came for a new trial as evidence unraveled. Hair found near Frank’s office and presented as Phagan’s proved to be from another woman. People recanted testimonies.

Meanwhile, an influential Georgia populist politician Thomas Watson fanned resentment against perceived Northern interference with local legal affairs. His publications relentlessly attacked critics of the case and slandered Frank in venomous, anti-Semitic terms.

Frank’s appeals were rebuffed — until a last-ditch petition to outgoing Gov. John Slaton. He concluded Frank had not received a fair trial and, to public outrage, commuted the sentence to life in prison.

Soon after, a noose was tossed over Frank’s neck. Crowds posed for photos by his corpse and ripped off clothing scraps for souvenirs.

Frank’s lynching made lasting cultural ripples. It revived the fading Ku Klux Klan, which spread its hatred to Jews as well as blacks. His death also sparked the creation of the Anti-Defamation League to defend civil rights and social justice. Ballads, movies, a TV mini-series and novels recalled the trial.

The case struck fear among Southern Jews, who kept low profiles in the next decades — for good reason. More than 40 years later, virulent anti-Semitism and racial hatred again flared in Atlanta.

As part of Thursday’s discussion, Brinkmann will discuss the notorious 1958 Atlanta Temple bombing by white racists after a new rabbi from Pittsburgh advocated civil rights and associated with Martin Luther King Jr. Nobody was convicted.

“It showed that nothing had really changed,” Brinkmann said. “Atlanta was the capital of the New South, so it was hardly Selma or Birmingham at this point.”

The talk isn’t meant to bash the South. Certainly, the region has no hold on ethnic and racial distrust and hostility, cancers still eating away at all of America.

Instead, the Frank story presents an opportunity for reflection.

Brinkmann contends that the tale still resonates because America has yet to fully confront its history of lynchings. Most of them murdered African-Americans, but not all, and incidents happened outside the South.

In front of the Georgia Capitol stands a statue of Watson — an example, Brinkmann said, of the buried past. He believes it should remain, but that Watson’s role in Frank’s death should be noted.

Frank’s trial also can be studied for insight into anti-Semitism and ethnic division. It came as an agrarian society was being industrialized, playing into people’s fears about change and exploitation by Northern factory owners.

Frank, who was eventually pardoned in 1986, paid the price. History is rife with examples of Jews and other minorities becoming scapegoats during times of upheaval — see Czarist Russia and pre-World War II Germany.

Lastly, by learning about Frank, we’re left with uncomfortable questions. Anti-Semitism persists, as we saw locally in 2013 when a Jewish fraternity was vandalized with swastikas and other crude graffiti. Similar incidents continue to occur worldwide.

Add our ongoing crisis of black men being killed by police, and we have to ask: Have we evolved at all in 100 years? Can we overcome bias and hate and recognize our common humanity, or will we always be divided by ignorance, forever us versus them?

At any rate, Brinkmann said, we must continue our fight through knowledge and education — starting Thursday.

“We have to talk about it,” he said. “That’s the important lesson.”