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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-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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