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Contextualizing Tragedy: Why Leo Frank Matters Today

Leo Frank and his wife Lucille circa 1909.
Leo Frank and his wife Lucille circa 1909. (Courtesy William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum)

What can a hundred year old tragedy tell us about violence and anti-Semitism in our current day? The sensational murder trial and lynching of a Jewish man named Leo Frank sent shock waves through Atlanta’s Jewish community and across the country. Recent events such as the Tree of Life Shooting in Pittsburgh and the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville have given the story renewed relevance.

The 1998 musical "Parade" chronicles the Leo Frank saga and captures the mood that existed in Atlanta in the years 1913 - 1915. You witness the dramatic buildup of hysteria that surrounded the case in a scene from the play’s second act. Georgia Governor John Slaton stands in front of a gallows as he explains to a crowd that he is commuting the sentence of a man convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl.

“Two thousand years ago, another governor washed his hands and turned a Jew over to the mob," Slaton exclaims. "Ever since then, that governor's name has been a curse.”

As the governor speaks, the former populist politician turned newspaper editor Thomas E. Watson talks over his speech, fanning the flames of anti-Semitic fervor. He’s  joined by a chorus, who sings: 

“Will you beg for the Jew’s reward? Walk with us by the side of the Lord? Put your soul in the devil’s hand? Where will you stand when the flood comes?”  

The story is based on fact. After the governor commuted Leo Frank’s death sentence, a mob abducted him from his prison cell and lynched him.  

“Atlanta was still getting over the Civil War,” playwright Alfred Uhry told VPM. “It was never called the Civil War. It was the War Between the States.”

Uhry wrote the book for "Parade." It’s part of a trilogy of plays about Atlanta that also includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Driving Miss Daisy." His great uncle owned the factory where Frank worked and he researched the murder there when he was growing up. A teen girl’s body was found in the basement. Frank was the last one to see her alive. Uhry was devastated by the story. 

“It broke my heart," Uhry said. "Mary Phagan was a little girl who was 13 years old. Her father had lost his farm in Alabama. Like a lot of families, they came to the city of Atlanta and she was forced to go to work when she was 11 years old and denied a childhood and murdered at work. It was an ugly story.” 

A jury convicted Frank for the crime and sentenced him to death. Historians who have studied the trial say the evidence was flimsy and that it was sensationalized in the press. It became a national story, accompanied by waves of fear and antisemitism. After Frank’s lynching, Jews who had lived in Atlanta since its founding felt their sense of security was destroyed.  

Uhry recalls that whenever anybody mentioned Leo Frank, some of the older people would just get up and walk out of the room. 

At a recent gathering of the Southern Jewish Historical Society in Charlottesville, Jeremy Katz, the director of the Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History, said that for many Jews that immigrated to Atlanta, Leo Frank’s lynching resurrected earlier experiences of oppression.  

“It was a post-traumatic stress for a lot of the immigrants that escaped anti-Semitism in Europe coming to America, the land of freedom and opportunity," said Katz. "We're talking about all these Jeffersonian values and experiencing basically a pogrom. He became kind of a boogie man. Nobody wanted to become the next Leo Frank.” 

The publicity that accompanied Frank’s murder trial helped to re-invigorate the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, according to  Kennesaw State University professor Catherine Lewis, Leo Frank became case number one for the Anti-Defamation League or ADL, an organization formed to address issues of anti-Semitism and other types of intolerance.

“What the ADL has become, I think, is basically a champion of civil rights for so many," Lewis told VPM. "What started out of tragedy out of the Leo Frank trial and the ultimate lynching has turned into one of the most powerful and profound organizations, I would say in the world on social justice.” 

Lewis points to many factors besides anti-Semitism that impacted the Leo Frank case, including industrialization, race, gender, violence and ethnicity. The things that historians think about today, she says, were present from 1913 to 1915. 

Echoes of the Leo Frank case can be seen in some of the violent incidents that have happened recently, particularly the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. Although the rally was supposed to be a protest over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, protesters were chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

“Those two things on the face of it have nothing to do with each other," said Lewis. "But what it reveals is that racism and intolerance and antisemitism are all one toxic stew. And it simply takes one match to light it.”

Mary Phagan’s murder was the same kind of spark. Lewis argues that's what happened in Charlottesville when white supremacist rallies in 2017 led to the injuries and death of anti-racist protesters. 

Alfred Uhry wrote "Parade"  21 years ago. At the time, he wanted to tackle something with complexity, that was operatic in scope. 

“Well, it's a story that's like a ripple in a pond. You put your finger in the pond and you stir the water a little bit. It stirs and it stirs and it stirs all the way out. It goes wide,” he said.

And those ripples are all the lives that were impacted by the violence and prejudice that surrounded it. 

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