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August 19, 2016

The Living Memory of a Lynching

How an Injustice Committed Over 100 Years Ago Inspires Our Commitment to Justice Today

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This blog orig­i­nally appeared on Medium

Leo Frank

This week, we mark a somber anniversary of the 101st anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman sent to Georgia to manage his family’s pencil factory. This lynching took place at a time of rampant anti-Semitism in the South and more broadly in American society. So it was no surprise that when a young Christian girl was found murdered on the property, fingers were pointed at the outsider Frank. Despite a lack of evidence, and in part due to an environment of incitement, Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death.

When the governor of Georgia subsequently commuted Frank’s sentence from capital punishment to life imprisonment, a mob was enraged by this act of mercy for a Jew. At midnight just over 100 years ago, they tore Frank from his prison cell at the Milledgeville State Penitentiary and hung him on a tree in Marietta. Photographers captured the grotesquerie for posterity.

The sham trial and brutal lynching were an injustice and a wound whose pain still sears the Jewish community. It was an isolated incident for the Jewish community, but just one of thousands of lynchings carried out against black Americans during that time, murders that still scar our national psyche. And it was a moment in time that made clear the need for ADL, which had been founded in 1913.

In this moment, our founders huddled in Chicago and laid out a charter for a new organization they called the Anti-Defamation League. They wrote that it would be energized by a simple mission: “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure fair treatment and justice to all.”

These activists set out to address a mission which eventually led ADL to address the systemic discrimination and pervasive prejudice that kept Jews from achieving full equality in the United States. Decades later, this led to the break down of quotas that kept Jews out of higher education and the tearing down of cultural barriers that prevented our community from participating fully in American life. Their passion prompted our work to unmask hate groups and expose bigots. It motivated our commitment to use education to tear out hatred at its roots. It drives our work today to understand anti-Semitism around the world and to use innovation to identify and call out hate in all its forms.

Basically, the ADL could not have saved Leo Frank, but we since have endeavored to build a world where this kind of lynching never again would take place.

In 2016, the American Jewish community certainly has overcome many of the obstacles that once held us back. We now possess a degree of political power and social capital that was unimaginable in the early twentieth century. To a large extent, the open anti-Semitism that was woven into the culture of a prior generation has been pushed out of the realm of polite conversation. But it has not gone away.

Anti-Semitism remains a potent force and a persistent problem in our society, even if it now assumes different forms. In an age of filter bubbles and personal news feeds, self-selecting communities traffic in anti-Semitism and reinforce each other’s conspiracies. We also encounter this hatred in radically different ways on social mediaon our college campuses or even on the wrestling mat in the Olympics.

Indeed, though open anti-Semitism remains largely taboo in the mainstream, we see haters often hiding behind a veneer of ‘political correct’ hostility, directing their animus toward the Jewish state rather than Jews as a religious group. But we recognize the double standards, overt demonization and the denial of the very right of the Jewish state to exist, a phenomenon also known as delegitimization. Despite all the grave injustices in the world, these are tactics only directed at Israel. They are reminders that what we are facing in a rising tide of anti-Zionism is little more than a modern version of the Oldest Hatred.

That is why ADL remains dedicated to our founding purpose. We never will relent in the fight against anti-Semitism. And that is why we also speak out against all forms of bigotry.

Some seek to portray ADL’s one hundred year commitment to fight hatred in all forms as a dilution of our focus. They say that ADL has lost its way. But we are not distracted by armchair critics who mischaracterize our work from the comfort of the sidelines. We know that our case is strengthened when we dare greatly, that we are stronger when we find common cause with others who also face hate.

The pursuit of partners does not mean that we will shy away fighting anti-Semitism whenever it comes from. ADL will continue to call out anyone who peddles in prejudice regardless of their party or station, whether it’s those seeking public office who resort to cartoonish slander or those who traffic in a modern version of the age-old blood libel.

And we will continue to stand by other communities who suffer from hatred and terror. That is ADL stood with the Sikh community after the murder of four worshippers at a Gurdwara in the summer of 2012. That is why in the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year, ADL launched 50 States Against Hate, to ensure that there are adequate hate crimes laws in all 50 states to protect marginalized communities. That is why we supported the LGBT community after the heinous terror attack perpetrated in Orlando earlier this summer. And that is why ADL will call outanti-Muslim bigotry and the worrying increase in violence targeting Muslim communities and places of worship.

Our tradition implores us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” On this anniversary, Leo Frank’s memory impels us to ignore the critics and fight ferociously against anti-Semitism and bigotry in all its forms. To paraphrase Dr. King, we recommit to the struggle because the work is not yet done.

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March 18, 2016

Seeking Justice: The Pardon of Leo Frank

This week marks the 30th anniversary of a significant event in ADL history – the decision by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles to posthumously pardon Leo Frank.  Frank was the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory who was falsely accused and wrongly convicted in August 1913 of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the factory. leo-frank-anti-semitism

Anti-Semitism was rampant in the early 1900’s and Leo Frank’s trial attracted national attention and significant press coverage – including irresponsible press outlets that inflamed the public with base and salacious anti-Semitism.  The trial itself was infected with a pervasively-hostile and anti-Semitic atmosphere – from the arguments of the prosecuting attorney to furious mobs shouting “Hang the Jew!” outside the courthouse.  Leo Frank’s trial and conviction shocked and galvanized the American Jewish community – and underlined the importance of the establishment of the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in Chicago in 1913 with a mission to “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

Frank appealed his conviction – all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 7 to 2, that Frank’s constitutional due process rights had not been violated.  Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Evans Hughes strongly dissented:  “Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury. “

After all appeals were exhausted, Georgia Governor Georgia John M. Slaton reviewed the case and commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. That courageous decision in June 1915, enraged many and sparked riots in the streets.  Two months later, a mob of armed men kidnapped Frank from his prison cell, drove him over 100 miles to Marietta (Mary Phagan’s hometown) and lynched him.

Leo Frank lynching

Efforts to vindicate justice for Leo Frank were strengthened in 1982, when eighty-three-year-old Alonzo Mann, who ran errands in the factory as a boy, came forward to announce that he had seen the factory janitor carrying Mary Phagan’s body to the basement on the day of her death.  The janitor had threatened to kill him if he told anyone.  ADL’s Atlanta-based Southern Counsel, Charles Wittenstein and prominent immigration lawyer and national ADL leader Dale Schwartz led a vigorous legal campaign to clear Frank’s name.  And on March 11, 1986, those efforts were rewarded with a pardon.  The landmark decision, however, did not exonerate Frank and prove his innocence.  Instead, Georgia pardoned Frank because of their failure to protect him and bring his murderers to justice.

 It’s hard to imagine a trial steeped in such anti-Semitism or racism today, but our nation is far from free of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant discrimination and hate crimes.  Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said:  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  The anniversary of Leo Frank’s pardon is teachable moment and a reminder that the arc does not bend by itself – people striving for equality and justice – even justice, delayed – need to bend it.

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August 23, 2013

100 Years Later, Anti-Semitism Around Leo Frank Case Abounds

leo-frank-anti-semitism

Leo Frank

Anti-Semites are using misleading websites to exploit the 100th anniversary of the Leo Frank case and to promote anti-Jewish views.

On August 25, 1913, Leo Frank was falsely convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, whose body was found in the factory he managed in Atlanta. A mob later lynched Frank after the governor of Georgia commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. The Frank case was a seminal moment in American Jewish history when the Jewish community united to fight against the anti-Semitism that was rampant at that time. 

A number of websites, ostensibly providing information about Leo Frank actually use deceptive means to tell their version of the circumstances surrounding the Frank case. These sites provide documents and testimony from that time, but their aim is to create confusion and perversely to accuse Jews of reverse racism. They claim that Jews used the Frank case to undermine whites, especially in the South.

One site is particularly misleading. Calling itself “The 1913 Leo Frank Case and Trial Research Library,” the site contains numerous documents from the Frank case. However, the “About” section of the site reveals the real impetus for its creation. The site, which is registered anonymously, asserts that the Frank case was one of the events of 1913 that started “the Birth of the Jewish Race War Against European-Americans.”  According to the author of the section, the Frank case led to the creation of a “Jewish lobby” and “became a political and social front for subverting the majority population of Gentiles by a tiny dissenting minority of Jews.” The author also accuses Jews of controlling the government.

Another deceptive Leo Frank website is registered to neo-Nazi Kevin Strom. Strom was a leader in the National Alliance and then the National Vanguard, two neo-Nazi organizations, until he was convicted on child pornography charges several years ago. This site cites anti-Semitic works as resources on the Frank case. Strom also promotes the articles of “Mark Cohen” on National Vanguard, a neo-Nazi site he runs. According to a July 2012 article on National Vanguard, “Mark Cohen” is “the nom de guerreof a person who writes extensively about the Leo Frank case.  Articles attributed to Cohen, which assert that Frank is guilty of the Phagan murder, appear on numerous extremist sites.

There are other websites on Frank that are also misleading. “The American Mercury,” an extreme right-wing site with anti-Semitic content, is running a series of articles that promote conspiracy theories about the Frank case. There is also a “Leo Frank” Facebook page that pretends to be a personal profile page of Frank. This page disingenuously lists a number of Jewish causes but promotes derogatory articles on Frank that appear on anti-Semitic websites.

The goal of these fraudulent websites is clear. They are using deceptive means to attack Leo Frank and the Jewish community’s efforts to fight back against anti-Semitism.

In the News – The Forward (8/20/13) “Neo-Nazis Use Leo Frank Case for Anti-Semitic Propaganda Push”

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