Similar Issues -- Different Time

Similar Issues -- Different Time

I am pleased to share the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s 2015 Annual Report. I encourage you to look through it and see the incredible Jewish experiences YOU are making happen for our Jewish community and beyond.

In addition, for those of you unable to attend Charlie Schiffman’s Memorial Service, here is a video of the evening’s program courtesy of Elie Bulka with One Click Studio PDX. 

As we watch the challenges facing our world today – economic, political, race relations, etc. – it reminds us of how far our country both has and has not come in the past century.

On August 17, 1915, basically one century ago, Leo Frank, an Ivy League–educated (Cornell University) Jewish industrialist, was lynched in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta (today it would be considered similar to Beaverton). A group of 25 prominent citizens stormed the Milledgeville, Georgia prison hospital where Leo Frank was recovering from having his throat slashed by a fellow inmate. They cut off the prison phone lines, overpowered the complacent prison guards, dragged Frank back over 150 miles to Marietta and hanged him to death. They even had the gall to glorify the moment with postcards and souvenirs of the event to dole out to spectators and fans of Leo Frank’s demise.

It started on April 27, 1913 when a night watchman discovered the dead body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in the basement of Atlanta’s National Pencil Company, where Leo Frank was the superintendent. Phagan was one of the many child laborers from rural areas who worked in the industries of Atlanta for low wages. Leo Frank was charged with her murder.

As reported in various newspapers, Hugh Dorsey was the prosecutor who saw this as an opportunity to make a name for himself. For the grand jury, Dorsey painted Frank as a sexual predator. What he did not tell the grand jury was that a janitor at the factory, Jim Conley, had been arrested two days after Frank when he was seen washing blood off his shirt. Conley then admitted writing two notes that had been found by Mary Phagan’s body. The police assumed that, as author of these notes, Conley was the murderer. Conley, however, claimed, after apparent coaching from Dorsey, that Leo Frank had confessed to murdering Mary in the lathe room and then paid Conley to pen the notes and help him move Mary’s body to the basement.

Even after Frank’s housekeeper testified he was at home having lunch at the time of the murder and despite gross inconsistencies in Conley’s story, both the grand and trial juries chose to believe Conley. This was perhaps the first instance of a Southern black man’s testimony being used to convict a white man. On August 25, 1913, the all-white jury found Frank guilty in less than four hours. Crowds outside the courthouse shouted, "Hang the Jew."

The conviction sparked outrage amongst Jews across the country. The New York Times Publisher Adolph Ochs used the case as a driving force in his crusade to fight anti-Semitism. For nearly 18 months, The New York Times continued with the story, including 33 articles and five editorials about the case in December 1914 alone. In fact, other metropolitan newspapers, magazines, and filmmakers followed the Times’ lead, and kept the story going.

In addition, Louis Marshall, a well-known constitutional lawyer, made a failed final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia Governor John Slaton (interestingly, he had a conflict of interest as he was law partner of Frank’s lead counsel) questioned the verdict and commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison in June 1915. Some news outlets cheered while others were furious, including the editor of the southern newspaper The Jeffersonian feeling “Jew money has debased us, bought us, and sold us – and laughs at us. Hereafter, let no man reproach the South with Lynch law; let him remember the unendurable provocation; and let him say whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.” In many ways, the editorial incited the people of Marietta to hang Frank.

In 1986, WXIA-TV in Atlanta shared that the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned Frank on grounds of the state’s failures to protect him, without making a judgment on his guilt or innocence. The decision, in part, was affected by the confession of Alonzo Mann on his death bed, an office worker at the pencil factory, who came forward with testimony that he had seen Jim Conley carrying the body of Mary Phagan by himself. The revelation received national news attention and reaffirmed belief that Frank had been innocent.

This case sent reverberations throughout the country – even emboldening a Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League (founded in 1913) to aggressively fight anti-Semitism. National and local Jewish advocacy groups, like our own Jewish Community Relations Council (and its Intergroup Outreach Committee), developed and to this day continue to fight injustice, build bridges, and advocate on behalf of Jews worldwide.

Here is a fantastic documentary telling the story called The People vs. Leo Frank. I highly recommend you watching it.

I am unsure how many people know about the Leo Frank story. But, for someone who lived in Atlanta for 10 years, the story is well known and of great importance. The case was much more than just an unjust conviction. It was a public relations and ideological battle between northern and southern states, between rural and urban values, Jews and non-Jews, and between competing disempowered groups. They are in many ways the same ideological battles of today.

Shabbat shalom.



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