By Dave Schechter / firstname.lastname@example.org
Nothing near the intersection of Roswell Road and Frey’s Gin Road in Marietta says slow down, look around, evil happened here.
Motorists on Roswell Road between Cobb Parkway and Interstate 75 cannot miss the “Big Chicken,” a 56-foot metal structure atop a KFC restaurant.
But nothing marks the site a couple of hundred yards away where, on Aug. 17, 1915, a Jewish man named Leo Max Frank — convicted of a murder for which he may have been innocent — was hanged in the best-known, though perhaps not the only, lynching of a Jew in the United States.
Close your eyes. Use your imagination.
You’re in a woods on land owned by a former sheriff of Cobb County. A phalanx of cars pulls up. Leo Frank, kidnapped late at night from the state prison in Milledgeville, 125 miles to the southeast, is pulled from one of the cars. His glasses have been removed from his face. He is blindfolded. He wears a sheet around his waist because he was taken while wearing only a bed shirt. His legs are bound together.
This is no unruly mob, but vigilantes organized by prominent citizens of Marietta, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, memorializing the slain girl. A rope is produced, one end thrown over a tree limb. A noose is knotted around Frank’s neck, still bandaged from where another prisoner had tried to slash his throat a few weeks earlier.
The conversation is brief. He asks that his wedding ring be returned to his wife. A table is kicked out from under his feet. Frank’s neck snaps, the flow of oxygen to his brain is cut off, and after a brief struggle he is dead. The time is shortly past 7 a.m.
Keep your eyes closed. More people have arrived, people coming because word has spread and created excitement. Later they will tell others that they saw the limp body of Leo Frank hanging from that tree, that they saw justice done. The shoeless body is left hanging for hours.
The 31-year-old dead man can’t see the carnival scene around him. Cameras are set up and photographs taken. Some will be turned into postcards for sale. Pieces of his clothing are torn away. Small pieces of rope will be hawked around town for 50 cents, much as alleged pieces of a cross were sold in another time and place. No one will be brought to justice for lynching Leo Frank.
Open your eyes. Do people traveling along Roswell Road know what happened in this place? Do they recognize the name Leo Frank? Do they know that local streets carry the names of men involved in the lynching? Do they know that prominent citizens of modern Marietta and Cobb County are the killers’ descendants?
There were plaques on the side of a building near the site — one put up in 1995, on the 80th anniversary, and the other in 2005, on the 90th — but the building has been torn down. Those plaques sit on the floor of the office of the man who put them up, Rabbi Steve Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth, a Reform congregation a few miles to the east.
A marker that stood beside the road in front of that building — sponsored by the Georgia Historical Society, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation and Temple Kol Emeth — is stored in a Georgia Department of Transportation warehouse, pending a decision on its relocation after the widening of Interstate 75.
A little more than two miles west of the lynching site, in the Marietta Confederate Cemetery, is the grave of Mary Phagan, the 13-year-old girl killed April 26, 1913, Confederate Memorial Day, at the National Pencil Factory in downtown Atlanta, where Frank was the superintendent.
Frank is buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in the New York borough of Queens. Along with the dates of his birth (April 17, 1884, in Cuero, Texas) and death are the words “Beloved Husband” and “Semper Idem,” Latin for “always the same.” His Atlanta-native widow, Lucille Selig Frank, never remarried and died in 1957, and her ashes are buried between her parents’ graves in the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta.
In 1983, after an elderly man who had worked at the factory as a boy came forward and implicated another worker at the plant, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected an appeal that Frank be exonerated, saying that his innocence could not be proved beyond a shadow of doubt.
On March 11, 1986, the board granted Frank a posthumous pardon “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence and in recognition of the state’s failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank and thereby preserve his opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction, and in recognition of the state’s failure to bring his killers to justice, and as an effort to heal old wounds.”
The Leo Frank case has been referred to as the “American Dreyfus case,” compared to that of French military officer Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew wrongly convicted of treason about 20 years earlier. In his appeal of Frank’s conviction, attorney Reuben Arnold called it “the most horrible persecution of a Jew since the death of Christ.”
In his June 21, 1915, order commuting Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment, issued the day before the scheduled execution, Gov. John Marshall Slaton rejected the notion that prejudice against Jews was a factor in the case: “The charge against the State of Georgia of racial prejudice is unfair. A conspicuous Jewish family in Georgia is descended from one of the original colonial families of the State. Jews have been presidents of our Boards of Education, principals of our schools, Mayors of our cities, and conspicuous in all our commercial enterprises.”
One hundred years later, the lynching of Leo Frank in that Marietta field remains a sensitive issue in the Atlanta Jewish community. Some strive to keep it in the public consciousness, while others regard it as a matter for the history books. Some link it to other historical events, while others say it should not overshadow communal successes.
Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, who became the senior rabbi at The Temple in 1974 and today is rabbi emeritus, sees a wound that may require another century to heal completely.
“The tragedy of his life was so deep for Leo Frank and his widow, Lucille, and all of the family that were related and The Temple family and the Jewish community of Atlanta,” Rabbi Sugarman said.
The Leo Frank case put Atlanta’s Jewish community — particularly those of German descent, whose forebears had founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society, known today as The Temple — on notice that assimilation was illusory. In its wake, according to reports, Jewish schoolchildren were harassed, Jewish-owned stores were vandalized, Jewish men sent their wives and children to live with relatives out of town, an untold number of Jews simply moved from Atlanta, and no Jew ran for public office locally for more than a decade. The community withdrew into itself.
“It was a very crushing experience,” said Mark Bauman, a historian of Jewish life in the South. “The Atlanta Jewish community had felt extremely secure,” based on its involvement in the economic, civic and philanthropic life of the city. “They really felt accepted.”
The historian compared this attitude to that two decades later of Jews who felt themselves assimilated into German society before the rise of Hitler and the horror that followed.
“For Jews in Atlanta, in Georgia, in the South and in the United States, the Frank case made them feel leery, made them feel marginalized. They never expected anything like the Frank case to occur. It really shocked them,” said Bauman, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y., but has lived in Atlanta since attending graduate school at Emory University in 1972. He edits Southern Jewish History, published by the Southern Jewish Historical Society.
The Jews may have felt in step with the professional classes among the gentiles, but Bauman suggested that they overlooked a change in public attitudes as poor farmers left their land and moved into the city. These refugees from rural Georgia brought with them prejudices exploited by demagogues, notably Thomas Watson, the populist politician and publisher whose Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine railed against Slaton’s commutation of Frank’s sentence, its vitriol aimed at Frank as a Jew but also as a Northerner from New York City.
Businessman and philanthropist Steve Selig is a great-great-nephew of Frank’s wife, Lucille.
“I think it helps sensitize us to acts of anti-Semitism,” he said about the legacy of the case.
Selig’s wife, Linda, who grew up in Miami, was (with Lynda Walker) co-executive producer of the 2009 docudrama “The People v. Leo Frank.” She learned about the family history while researching the story in advance of production and was particularly impressed by Lucille Selig. “When I read about it, I was very touched with the loyalty that she showed to Leo by keeping her name and staying in Atlanta and never remarrying. … It took a lot of courage,” she said. “The fact that she had the courage to stay and call herself Mrs. Leo Frank, I found it very touching.”
The Leo Frank story resonated with those in the Jewish community who made donations to finance the film, but Linda Selig also noted that the significant donors included descendants of prominent Marietta citizens involved in the lynching.
Playwright Alfred Uhry, whose family also was close to the maelstrom, had a front-row seat to the aftermath in the decades after the case.
Uhry’s “Atlanta trilogy” of plays — “Driving Miss Daisy” (1987), “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” (1996) and “Parade” (1998) — was inspired by his family and Atlanta Jewish history. He is the great-nephew of Sig Montag, who owned the pencil factory that Leo Frank managed.
“When I was growing up in Atlanta in the ’40s and ’50s, Leo Frank was mentioned only in hushed tones. I remember people getting up and walking out of the room if anyone talked about the case. Why? I think it was some sort of toxic combo of shock, horror and embarrassment,” said Uhry, who lives in New York. “Our particular strain of Judaism was German. The family came to Atlanta in the 1840s, when the town was still called Marthasville. They considered themselves Southern first, American second and Jewish third. So when one of their own (albeit a New Yorker) married into one of the ‘good’ families, became the focus of rabid anti-Semitism, it was a brutal slap in the face.”
He added: “All those years of assimilation counted as nothing. German Jews were just Jews, no matter how long they’d been in Georgia. The case was a severe blow to their pride, as well as a personal tragedy. How did they fit in to the Atlanta they loved? It took several generations to resolve the issue — if, indeed, it is resolved. I like to believe it mostly is.”
Repercussions from the Leo Frank case were evident in the population growth of the local Jewish community. There were about 4,500 Jews in Atlanta in 1910 and 11,000 a decade later. Throughout the 1930s, estimates were close to 12,000. In 1945-46, however, the figure dipped to 10,200. By 1960, there still were just 14,500 Jews in the area. Their number rose to 27,500 by 1980, and then came significant growth, to 70,000 by 1992 and 120,000 by 2006, when the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta completed its last survey of the population.
The community is made up heavily of transplants. Federation’s 2005-06 population study found that only 19 percent of local Jews were born in Georgia (most in Atlanta). Thirty percent were born in the New York-New Jersey area. An awareness of the Leo Frank case and an understanding of the trauma it caused do not come naturally to transplants.
“There are fewer people now with historical roots to the Atlanta Jewish community, even though they’re now Atlantans and they’re Jewish,” Linda Selig said, adding that this diversity has spread leadership within the community among a greater number of people than in the past.
Rabbi Lebow hails from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but has invested himself in this piece of history. “Like every other student of Jewish history, I had heard about the case,” he said. But before coming to Atlanta in 1986, “I don’t even think that appeared on my radar.”
When friends pointed out the site to him, Rabbi Lebow was unaware its significance. There were no markers “because it’s the most shame-worthy event in the history of Georgia,” he said he was told. “I used to call it the original sin of Cobb County because it was unspoken but it was always in the room.”
He has gone to the lynching site annually the past 20 years to mark Frank’s yahrzeit and chant Kaddish, the Jewish prayer used to mourn the dead.
Rabbi Lebow will lead a memorial service and call for Frank’s exoneration at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16, at Temple Kol Emeth. Scheduled speakers include former Georgia Chief Justice Norman Fletcher; Van Pearlberg, Georgia’s senior assistant attorney general and a longtime speaker about the Frank case; and Dale Schwartz, an Atlanta lawyer who was instrumental in obtaining the 1986 pardon.
Among those expected to attend are Otis Brumby III, the publisher of the Marietta Daily Journal, and Allison Barnes Salter, principal of the Barnes Law Group, both descended from men involved in the lynching.
“By their very presence we are assured that the tenor of our service is one of reconciliation rather than the eternal shaming of our city. We are not looking for apologies or admission of blame after 100 years. All we are trying to do with the service that day and in weeks and months to come is to clear an innocent man’s name. No more. But no less will do,” Rabbi Lebow said.
“I don’t think it’s about the lynchers anymore,” he added. “That ship has sailed. They were exposed. Their names have been published. It’s been embarrassing to their families, and I don’t think that’s a fruitful avenue anymore. … Cobb County and Marietta are completely different 100 years later.”
He knows children and grandchildren of members of the lynching party and said almost all of them are “the nicest, sweetest, not racist or anti-Semitic group of people.”
Rabbi Lebow would like the Board of Pardons and Paroles to issue a pardon that “will acknowledge one simple fact, just four words long: Leo Frank was innocent.” Failing that, he would welcome such a proclamation from the governor, the Cobb County Board of Commissioners or the Marietta City Council.
Rabbi Shalom Lewis will lead a separate service at Congregation Etz Chaim at the same time and on the same day as the Kol Emeth service just over two miles away. The Conservative Etz Chaim is the first Jewish congregation in Marietta, founded in 1975.
Scheduled speakers include Rabbi Albert Slomovitz, former spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah and a history professor at Kennesaw State University; Marietta businessman and longtime City Council member Philip Goldstein, whose grandfather owned a store on Marietta Square a century ago; Charles Clay, a Marietta lawyer whose great-uncle has appeared on lists of those involved in the lynching; and Schwartz.
Along with the chanting of Kaddish, the service will include the screening of a film clip on the case, the planting of a tree, and the dedication of a stone marker.
“Obviously, the conversation has changed over time,” said Goldstein, who heard family stories about the tension of those times, “from where there was little or no conversation in the open to one where there is open conversation on the topic and public recognition of Leo Frank. … The secrets are out in the open as well as the conversation.”
Rabbi Lewis understands the significance of Etz Chaim’s location in East Cobb with a Marietta address. “For many years the incident was not spoken about by either Jews or those involved. The former just wished to put the fear behind them, the latter to avoid identification and prosecution. The lynching was not ancient history, but many of the descendants of those involved or who simply observed the hanging are still around. Prominent names in Marietta history and politics remind all that the event is not distant ancient history. Many Jewish memories still remain as family sagas. Some descendants, though not bigots, do still believe in Frank’s guilt.”
Rabbi Lewis acknowledged his own learning curve. “I do not recall when I first became aware of the Frank case. I suspect that I stumbled across it in my study of modern American history or a reference in a documentary on anti-Semitism, but not until I moved to Marietta and saw the TV movie with Jack Lemmon did I really understand what happened here and the panic and migration north of many within the Jewish community.”
Fight for Pardon
Twenty years ago, on the 80th anniversary of the lynching, Rabbi Lebow and a small group placed a plaque on the building nearest to the lynching site. The plaque reads: “Leo Frank (1884-1915) — wrongly accused, falsely tried, wantonly murdered, pardoned 1986.”
Ten years ago, Rabbi Lebow affixed another plaque to the now-torn-down building that included the question “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”
The Cobb Board of Commissioners passed a resolution that year that condemned the lynching and pledged that “no such injustice will ever happen again.” The commission chairman was Sam Olens, who five years later became the first Jew to win a statewide election in Georgia when he was elected attorney general.
Olens, a Florida native raised in New Jersey, said he “was generally familiar with Leo Frank growing up and have of course learned much more about this tragic case while a Cobb County resident and commissioner.” He added, “The descendants of those responsible for Frank’s murder have always treated me with respect and courtesy.”
Asked whether the centennial of the lynching is the occasion for a pardon that exonerates Frank, Olens said: “It is not appropriate for me to answer the question given my current responsibilities.”
Dale Schwartz compared securing the 1986 pardon to “Sisyphus pushing that rock up a hill.”
He was a member of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast Region board and served as lead counsel for the pardon application process. Schwartz later chaired the ADL regional board and served on the national board and executive committee. Today he is a prominent immigration lawyer in Atlanta and teaches at Emory.
Schwartz, who is from New York but grew up in Winder, remembers how difficult the effort was 30 years ago and advises against a fresh attempt to secure a pardon. “I think it would be impossible, and it could set the cause back even to try. The way the world sees it, Leo Frank was pardoned,” said Schwartz, who can recite examples of evidence indicating Frank’s innocence. “I just feel that if it were to fail, it diminishes what we did to get the pardon.”
The effort to gain the 1986 pardon was not universally popular in the local Jewish community, he said, recalling a meeting of 300 to 400 people at which some urged the organizations seeking the pardon — the ADL, the American Jewish Committee and Federation — to leave the past alone.
The Frank murder trial and appeals provided renewed impetus for B’nai B’rith to create the ADL “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” Frank was the president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith when he was arrested.
The case also gave rise to an antagonist of the ADL. On Thanksgiving Day 1915, three months after lynching Leo Frank, 17 men, including some members of the Knights of Mary Phagan, burned a cross atop Stone Mountain and declared themselves to be the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan, the anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, racist organization whose members hid beneath white robes and hoods.
Inside The Temple
Leo and Lucille Frank were members of The Temple, where “the story lives within our walls, still, every day,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, just the fifth senior rabbi in the congregation’s 148-year history. The Temple, where Frank is personal history, has made the case part of its sixth-grade history curriculum for Sunday school and has included the case in its adult education programs.
Janice Rothschild Blumberg’s first husband, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, led The Temple from 1946 until his death in 1973.
“As to how the community talked about it when I was growing up, it didn’t,” Blumberg said. “I first heard about it in 1939 in the course of a required course for freshmen at UGA entitled ‘Contemporary Georgia.’ When I asked my mother (born and raised in Columbus) if she had ever heard of Leo Frank, she said, ‘Of course, dear. You know Miss Lucille.’ I heard this story repeated almost verbatim in a television interview with Alfred Uhry, his mother having been born and raised in Atlanta.
“Both of us knew Miss Lucille all of our lives, but it wasn’t unusual for a woman the age that she was when we knew her to be widowed, so we never thought to ask what became of her husband.”
If the Frank lynching was a seminal moment in the history of Jewish Atlanta, another was the bombing of The Temple on Oct. 12, 1958, a pre-dawn blast caused by the detonation of 50 sticks of dynamite and believed to be a response to Rabbi Rothschild’s advocacy of the civil rights movement. No one was convicted of the bombing.
Blumberg drew a link between the Frank case and the bombing.
“In my opinion it would have been impossible to commemorate the case here in any way until the generation alive then (and even those born within the next five years or so) died,” said Blumberg, who is 91. She said Temple members of her generation “would/should have expunged their fear of local anti-Semitism as a result of the general community’s reaction to The Temple bombing (I called it the bomb that healed because it lanced the long festering boil of the Frank case). Generally speaking, the conditions that made the case what it was have changed dramatically — not that anti-Semitism has gone away, but diversity of population and general exposure to other cultures has rendered it non-PC” — not politically correct.
Blumberg, a past president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, sees a changed attitude compared with the period after the Frank case, when the community turned inward.
“Let us not forget the enormous changes that have taken place within the total Jewish community in the past century,” she said. “We are no longer mostly first-generation Americans, fearful of offending our Christian neighbors and inordinately proud of being ‘accepted’ by them, as most German Jews were in those days. As assimilated as our ancestors were, my work in American Jewish history as well as American Judaism confirms my suspicion that our forebears — regardless of time as U.S. citizens — still harbored historic memory of discrimination in Europe, and it didn’t take much to rekindle the flame. Thanks in large measure to the existence of Israel and in even larger measure to the burgeoning of Jewish education and concomitant pride (and knowledge) of our roots, we have solid confidence in ourselves as Americans, whereas our forebears did not.”
Rabbi Sugarman, an Atlanta native born in 1938, attributes his attitude toward the Frank case to his father, who was born in 1892, and other family members who belonged to The Temple, including an aunt who taught in its school.
“I grew up in a Jewish society where the motif was ‘Don’t rock the boat,’ ” Rabbi Sugarman said. “As a child, I remember him telling me over and over, and as a teenager, about the tenor of the times. I still remember as a child and as a teenager and a young adult that whenever the name came up there was a look of horror. … ‘Shh … don’t even say the name out loud.’ That has impacted my life.”
Decades later, “the tentacles of the Leo Frank case … are still deep in our flesh,” he said.
“If you would have asked me this question 20 or 30 years ago, I would have answered quite differently. The community then, especially members of The Temple, were still hesitant to discuss the case. It was a black mark on their collective history. After Frank was lynched, Jewish leaders met at ‘the club,’ probably the Standard Club, and decided to not say or do anything about the crime because they believed that it would adversely affect their standing and more importantly their safety. That was the general feeling for a very long time,” she said.
“Today the community is different. I don’t believe anyone (even within The Temple community) considers the case other than as a historical moment in time. Many young people have never heard of the case or the name Leo Frank. During this, the anniversary year of the lynching, it is important to remind people of the effect that Leo’s trial and subsequent history had on the shaping of Jewish life in America today,” Berman said.
Dottie Freedman Cohen felt that influence growing up as the daughter of Adalbert Freedman, Southeastern director of the American Zionist Organization, and Miriam Kaufman Freedman, who was the president of The Temple’s sisterhood and active in Hadassah and other Jewish organizations. “Jewish identity, Jewish issues, Zionism were constant topics of conversation in my home,” Cohen said. Her parents taught her about the Frank case, and she recalls it being discussed during Sunday school at The Temple.
“The impact Leo Frank had on me was feeling a connection with all vulnerable communities and a call to social activism,” Cohen said. “My coming-of-age experiences occurred during the late ’50s and ’60s, so the civil rights movement was a powerful influence. Jews were not typically lynched … but the theme of minority murders and racism are linked in my experience.”
Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Reconstructionist Congregation Bet Haverim grew up in Atlanta and drew a line between past and present.
“The lynching of Leo Frank hovered around to remind us that Jews were never truly safe in the South. I think as a child I was less aware of the social tensions, the facts of the case, the sensationalism of it in its time and the formation of the ADL as a response than I was of the sheer terror of it. It was a cautionary tale of being Jewish,” he said.
“Today, the Frank case is more of a complex social history where class, race, religion and police negligence came together in a way that shocked the nation. During a time where the disparities of class, race, religion and police enforcement are front-page news, this is a case that can help Jews relate and understand what our role should be in the struggle for racial equality and justice.”
New Cobb County
Stephen Schuster, the chief judge of the Superior Court of Cobb County, is a member of The Temple, where he grew up, and Kol Emeth. At The Temple, “I do remember this was a topic of teaching and that we read books on the subject. Mrs. Frank died somewhere during this period, and she was a Temple member,” he said. “Teaching about Leo Frank was important to The Temple. It was also a tool for the clergy to teach you about race relations and the importance of equality. I am convinced The Temple’s forward thinking on race relations was shaped by the lynching of one of their members.”
Schuster said that when he began practicing law in Cobb County in 1976, “I could count the other Jewish attorneys on one hand. I was probably the first prosecutor who was Jewish. But that changed rapidly. Cobb now has a vibrant Jewish population. There are no barriers to entry in local politics.”
He pointed to Olens, Goldstein, Pearlberg (a former Marietta City Council member) and the late Debra Bernes (a judge on the state Court of Appeals) as examples of Jews elected to public office in Marietta and Cobb County.
“Cobb has probably elected more Jewish people to positions than Fulton and DeKalb combined,” he said.
Theater director Mira Hirsch grew up in East Cobb “when a good part of the area was still horse farms,” not far from the site of the lynching.
“I was taught that Leo Frank had been hung, practically in the shade of the Big Chicken, the area’s most iconic landmark. The story was concerning, but it wasn’t something that was discussed amongst people my age,” Hirsch said. “While I believe I was one of only two students who identified as Jewish in my school (Wheeler High School), I was not generally considered an outsider due to my religion. In fact, it rarely came up. But not because this population was so evolved in the areas of diversity and tolerance — almost the exact opposite. In the late ’70s, early 1980s, most teenagers in East Cobb County wouldn’t have even imagined that someone amongst their peer group was anything other than what they were — white and Protestant. I don’t remember the name Leo Frank ever coming up within the walls of my high school.”
Hirsch said she’s sure she learned the “shocking and haunting” story of Frank from her parents and at Sunday school at The Temple, and it felt distant to her. Then she saw the two-part TV miniseries “The Death of Mary Phagan,” with Lemmon as Slaton and Peter Gallagher as Frank, in early 1988. “From my new perspective as a young adult, the story had greater resonance and meaning. I realized that it hadn’t, in fact, happened that long ago. And by then, I could clearly see the remnants of long-held, ingrained bigotry in this state — particularly when I joined Hosea Williams’ march in Forsyth County that same year.”
Hirsch added: “It makes sense that the ADL would be birthed as a result of actions that took place in an area of our country in which Jewish assimilation was very prominent. The Jews of the South have long lived amongst their gentile peers, sharing neighborhoods, shops and schools, developing a level of trust and community. I think the Leo Frank incident tested all of that. Jews who thought they were safely ingrained in the Atlanta community were suddenly shaken from their complacency by this crime. It seemed that ‘Jew’ was OK as long as it was coupled with ‘Southern.’ But once it was matched with ‘Yankee,’ that was sort of a tipping point. And that had to rattle even the most Southern of Atlanta’s Jews.”
Kenny Blank, an Atlanta native, is the executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. “My sense is that 100 years later the case is still very raw for Atlanta and those who were connected directly or indirectly,” he said.
He said Uhry’s “Parade” first showed him the full impact of the case in 1998. “Not only did the production humanize the victims, but it revealed the social, political, racial underpinnings of this tragic historical episode. Sadly, these strains of prejudice and bigotry are deeply rooted in parts of the South and elsewhere and no doubt will require many generations before we can say they have been truly eradicated.”
Emory film professor Matthew Bernstein is the author of 2013’s “Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television.”
“I grew up on the North Shore of Long Island in the 1960s and 1970s and never heard of the Leo Frank case there,” Bernstein said. “I may have heard a reference to it while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the ’80s, but that’s all. I really didn’t learn about it until after I arrived here in 1989 and joined The Temple, where Frank was a member. But I didn’t really know the details until I started researching it for my book on the two films and two TV dramatizations of the case.”
He said two books, Leonard Dinnerstein’s “The Leo Frank Case” and Steve Oney’s “And the Dead Shall Rise,” hooked him on the case. “I could feel myself becoming increasingly fascinated with the case, as so many people in Atlanta and elsewhere have been. And it tells us so much about where Atlanta and Southern Jews have been and what a long way we have come since then.”
A century after the lynching, with more than 120,000 Jews in the Atlanta area and an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 in Cobb County alone, Sherry Frank would prefer to emphasize the achievements of the Atlanta Jewish community since the Frank case and The Temple bombing.
“I wouldn’t want us ever to walk away from history, but there’s so much more. … Those are two historic events, but that’s not what’s most important about Jews in Atlanta. If you never knew about the Leo Frank case, I don’t think that would be a tragedy,” said Frank, a former regional director of the AJC who is not related to Leo Frank but believes in his innocence and was part of the effort behind the 1986 pardon.
The case “was a terrible tragedy,” said Frank, an Atlanta native who learned about the case as an adult. “I don’t want to minimize the impact. But it’s a blip on the line of history of important things that the Jewish community has done in this city.”
As examples, she cited Sam Massell, Atlanta’s only Jewish mayor, who played a crucial role in building modern Atlanta, including MARTA, and lawyer Morris Abrams, who was instrumental in advancing one-man, one-vote laws in Georgia and was the only Georgian to serve as the national president of the AJC.
“We shouldn’t just focus on Leo Frank and The Temple bombing. … Let’s celebrate Jewish participation in the city in contrast to Jews being scapegoated,” she said.
Three things happened in the 1980s that helped lift the veil on the discussion of Leo Frank, historian Bauman said:
- Alonzo Mann came forward with his memory of seeing Jim Conley carrying the body of Mary Phagan inside the pencil factory and being threatened by Conley if he told. That statement prompted the 1983 effort to secure a pardon.
- Oney in 2003 published “And the Dead Shall Rise,” regarded as the definitive work on the case.
- Lebow launched and has maintained his “crusade” to gain recognition of the lynching site and to clear Frank’s name.
Like Blumberg, Bauman credits the aftermath of the 1958 bombing of The Temple “when the general community came out in support of the Atlanta Jewish community, unlike what happened in the Leo Frank case.”
Schwartz said the 1986 pardon helped lift the veil. “Especially after we got that pardon, it was like a big catharsis. People who hadn’t talked about the case suddenly were telling their grandchildren,” Schwartz said, making an analogy to Holocaust survivors who did not talk about their experiences for decades.
Public attention to historical events tends to be greatest on anniversaries. The centennial of the lynching may be the last best chance to build momentum for another reconsideration of the case. By the end of August, Frank could again be consigned to history.
Rabbi Lebow said a teenager recently told him: “Why should I care about Leo Frank? It happened 100 years ago.”
The case is part of the Georgia studies curriculum for public school eighth-graders in a section that examines the “key political, social and economic changes that occurred in Georgia between 1877 and 1918.”
The Jewish day schools also include it. The Epstein School, for example, teaches the case as part of its middle school “Facing History” program, addressing prejudices and stereotypes, and the case is part of the Davis Academy’s seventh-grade exploration of issues of “Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and the mitzvah of pursuing justice and righteousness.”
Rabbi Sugarman stressed the need to keep alive the lessons of “the unbelievable tragedy” of Frank’s life. “It’s human nature not to confront the stark evil that took place, but it is as important a part of Atlanta’s history, if not more so, than when we secured and hosted the 1996 Olympics, which we were proud of, but is as much a part of our history as the Olympics taking place here. One hundred years later, it is something we need to gird our loins and face up to and make sure that nothing, G-d forbid, like that ever happens again, to a Jew or anyone else.”