Rededication of Leo Frank’s Memorial
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Rededication of Leo Frank’s Memorial

Rabbi Steven Lebow, ADL and the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation gathered to rededicate Frank's memorial.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

In Deuteronomy is found the instruction: Justice, justice you shall pursue.

The rededication of a memorial was but one step in the decades-long campaign to gain justice for Leo Frank, who was lynched on Aug. 17, 1915, in the Marietta woods near where Roswell Road intersects Interstate 75 today.

The memorial, which the Georgia Department of Transportation removed four years ago because of road construction, now stands anchored in a sidewalk in a grassy area carved out by GDOT.

Those in attendance on the morning of August 23 came to remember the evil perpetrated a short distance away.

Allison Padilla-Goodman, director of ADL Southeast region.

“Leo Frank was innocent. And those four words have eluded polite conversation in Atlanta and in Marietta for over a century,” declared Rabbi Steve Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth.

The memorial had been located across Roswell Road near Frey’s Gin Road. It was close to where Frank, the 31-year-old Jewish superintendent of a downtown Atlanta pencil factory, was hung at daybreak following his kidnapping overnight from the state prison in Milledgeville.

Frank was to have spent the remainder of his days there after Gov. John Slaton, in one of his last acts in office, commuted the death sentence Frank received. A jury found him guilty of the April 26, 1913, murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who worked at the factory.

Those planners and executioners of the lynching included leading citizens of Cobb County.

Lebow, whose Reform congregation is located a few miles from the memorial, is a vocal advocate for a complete exoneration of Frank. He was granted a limited pardon by the state in 1986 on the grounds that he was denied a fair trial and that the state failed to protect him in prison.

“You know, we have a saying that ‘justice delayed is justice denied,” Lebow told those assembled. “And Frank has had his justice delayed. He’s still guilty in the official records of the state of Georgia. Yet every historian, every politician, and every prosecutor knows that Leo Frank was innocent.”

Rabbi Steve Lebow, Temple Kol Emeth

The restored memorial reads: “Near this location on August 17, 1915, Leo M. Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, was lynched for the murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, a factory employee. A highly controversial trial fueled by societal tensions and anti-Semitism resulted in a guilty verdict in 1913. After Governor John M. Slaton commuted his sentence from death to life in prison, Frank was kidnapped from the state prison in Milledgeville and taken to Phagan’s hometown of Marietta where he was hanged before a local crowd. Without addressing guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the state’s failure to either protect Frank or bring his killers to justice, he was granted a posthumous pardon in 1986.”

Below those words are those who erected the marker: the Georgia Historical Society, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, and Temple Kol Emeth.

Jerry Klinger is president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.

The placement of the memorial is a sign, Lebow said, that the state of Georgia and the Georgia Historical Society “tacitly understand” that Frank was a victim, and not the killer. “So, we are slowly moving in our community to realize the horrors of lynching toward all, but also the ultimate exoneration of Leo Frank,” he said.
Following the ceremony, as a crepe myrtle tree provided by the Southeast regional office of the Anti-Defamation League was planted several feet from the memorial, some in attendance took their turn placing a shovelful of dirt into the hole.

Frank is buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in the New York borough of Queens. 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.

A little more than two miles west of the Leo Frank memorial, in the Marietta City Cemetery, is the grave of Mary Phagan.

Wreath provided by Jerry Klinger, Rabbi Lebow and ADL for Mary Phagan at her grave site.

The organizers of the rededication ceremony – Lebow, the ADL, and Jerry Klinger, JASHP president – also ordered a floral wreath to be placed at Phagan’s gravesite.
Klinger has been Lebow’s partner in efforts to restore the memorial. He called Lebow “a courageous individual” for his ongoing efforts to gain Frank formal exoneration.

Jerry Klinger is president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.

Klinger, a retired financial services executive who lives near Washington, D.C., paid for the Leo Frank memorial. He’s done the same for markers in 30 states and five countries that recall noteworthy events and people in Jewish American history.

In his remarks, Klinger announced that GDOT has approved his plan to also place on that site a marker made of black Georgia marble that reads: “In respectful memory of the thousands across America denied justice by lynching; victims of hatred, prejudice, and ignorance. Between 1880-1946, ~570 Georgians were lynched. ADL, Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, Rabbi Steven Lebow, Temple Kol Emeth.”

That memorial will be 36 inches tall, 14 inches wide at its base and six inches in depth, and will be dedicated later this year.

“I realized we had an opportunity to transform the meaning of this location beyond Leo Frank, to transform it into something of national significance,” Klinger said, calling it the first memorial in the United States dedicated to all victims of lynching.

[Note: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice,” which opened April 26 in Montgomery, Ala., along with an accompanying museum, “is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence,” according to the memorial’s website.]

In his remarks, attorney Dale Schwartz recounted the story of how the limited pardon was gained. In those years, as a member of the ADL’s Southeast region board, Schwartz was the lead counsel for the pardon application process.

In 1982, 83-year-old Alonzo Mann, who had worked at the factory as a boy, told the Nashville Tennessean newspaper that he had seen another worker at the pencil factory, Jim Conley, carrying a girl’s limp body and that Conley had threatened him not to tell.

In December 1983, 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 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.”

Schwartz, now a prominent immigration attorney, recognized Lebow’s efforts. “Rabbi Lebow really has never let us slow down in trying to get Leo Frank exonerated.”

“We hope that those who come to this green space in the future and read the story of the events that took place here in 1915 not only gain a greater understanding of what happened here, but also come away with an understanding of the role that historical markers play as an educational resource,” said Patricia Meagher, GHS communications director.

Senior Rabbi Daniel Dorsch, Congregation Etz Chaim

The memorial rededication ceremony that began with a prayer by Rabbi Daniel Dorsch of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta ended with the chanting of “El Maleh Rahamim” by Cantor Barbara Margulis of Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell and the Kaddish recited by Lebow.

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