A century after lynching of Leo Frank, Marietta still wrestles over history
Down past the Big Chicken, the 56-foot-high, steel-beaked beacon of extra crispy that may be this town’s most prized landmark, and just across from Fast Eddie Auto Sales, the wedge of dirt hard by Interstate 75 is notable only for its lack of notability. And when Rabbi Steven Lebow pulls up there, he leaves the engine running and door open.
Nearly ever since the South Florida native found a pulpit in this fast-changing county just north of Atlanta three decades ago, this spot — or, more specifically, the tale of murder and vengeance that has stained its ground and local history for 100 years — has weighed on him.
But with transportation crews readying to build over the place where Marietta’s leading citizens lynched a Jewish factory superintendent named Leo Frank on an August morning a century ago, Lebow talks only of what’s worth preserving.
“There’s nothing to see here. It’s anonymous. That’s why we need to be the memory,” Lebow says, as trucks grind past. “We don’t want to remember it, but it’s a cautionary tale.”
As this community revisits that tale, though — “whether it wants to or not,” the Marietta Daily Journal’s “Around Town” columnists wrote recently — there are reminders that it remains unsettled as well as unsettling.
In 1913, Frank was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl, Mary Phagan, who worked for 10 cents an hour in his Atlanta factory. The case, charged with race, religion, sex and class, exploded in a national media frenzy, cementing a North-South divide and exposing the resentments of economic upheaval. When Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s death sentence, citizens took matters in their own hands.
The case established the Anti-Defamation League as the country’s most outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism, while helping fuel rebirth of what had been a dormant Ku Klux Klan, months after the lynching.
Until ADL lawyers pressed officials to posthumously pardon Frank in the 1980s, the case was hushed in Atlanta’s synagogues, the homes of Old Marietta, and among Phagan’s descendants.
The pardon, though granted, was less than conclusive. Now, in a summer that has already seen Southerners wrangle with the best-known symbol of the region’s embattled past, Lebow and others want to reopen a painful chapter some would prefer to let be.
But their effort to right history, as they see it, has renewed charges that, in doing so, they are unfairly trying to rewrite it.
Soon After Dan Cox turned an abandoned Civil War-era hotel off the downtown square into the Marietta Museum of History more than two decades ago, he knocked on the door of a 96-year-old resident. She regaled him with stories until Cox asked about Leo Frank.
“You could see the iron curtain fall,” says Cox, who’s 76. “I said, ‘Why won’t you tell me?’ But she said, ‘We were told not to talk about it,’ and they never did.”
Even so, actors and academics, reporters and playwrights, have repeatedly delved into the story.
Frank, raised in New York, ran a factory in industrializing Atlanta, where he married into a prosperous Jewish family. In 1913, Phagan, her hair in bows, stopped to collect her pay from the factory, where she ran a machine that inserted rubber erasers into pencils. She was on the way to the city’s Confederate Memorial Day parade.
That night, a watchman found her bloodied body in the basement. Prosecutors alleged she’d been raped. Police arrested several men before settling on Frank, who proclaimed his innocence. His conviction rested on the testimony of a custodian, Jim Conley, a rare case of a black man’s word used against a white defendant.
Frank’s lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that a climate of anti-Semitism had resulted in an unfair trial. The court upheld the verdict, 7-2. In 1915, Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life, and a furious crowd hanged the politician in effigy.
“Jew money has debased us, bought us and sold us,” wrote Thomas Watson, who used his Jeffersonian newspaper to attack Frank. “In the name of God, what are the people to do?”
Months later, a group of men from Marietta, the Phagan family’s hometown, took Frank from the state prison. As the sun rose that Aug. 17, they hanged him in a grove outside town. Nobody was ever charged.
“The Frank case was like a lightning strike,” says Steve Oney, an Atlanta native whose 17 years researching the case produced the book, “And the Dead Shall Rise.” “Everything in the South stood briefly in relief and then it was dark again.”
Substantial evidence points to Frank’s innocence, Oney says, but “there are imponderables that are always going to be imponderables.”
When Oney’s book was published in 2002, Cox says he thought it would air old questions and vanquish stereotypes of a county whose synagogues, taquerias and six-fold population increase since 1960 testify to change.
But calls to the museum about Frank kept coming, even as the sites of nearly 4,000 lynchings of black men throughout the South mostly remain unmarked.
The ADL is marking the anniversary with a push for Georgia to pass a hate-crime law. The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in nearby Kennesaw opens a Frank exhibit. A musical about the case, “Parade,” is being re-staged in Atlanta. The Georgia Historical Society is bringing Oney to Marietta to talk about a case that white supremacist websites continue to pore over.
And on Aug. 16, Lebow will lead a memorial service at which he and some current and former Georgia Supreme Court justices plan to call on state lawmakers to declare Frank’s exoneration.
“This is a story that won’t go away,” Cox says. He leads the way through exhibits detailing Cobb County’s past _ Cherokees banished on the Trail of Tears, Confederates and their Unionist neighbors, and more. The only nod to the Frank case is a single placard and an old historical marker, soon to be returned to storage.
“I don’t want to minimize the event, not at all,” Cox says. “But it needs to be put away, like the flag, in its proper place.”
Dale Schwartz was 11 when his parents took over a department store in a small north Georgia town, where they became the only Jewish family. When they hired a black couple, a group of white women confronted his mother.
“Wait, they raise your children and give them milk from their breasts and they can’t sell you a dress?” his mother said. “They stormed out,” Schwartz says, chuckling at the memory.
Soon, though, crosses were set afire on the Schwartz’s lawn. The living room window was shot out while young Dale lay on the sofa. The family called the ADL.
More than 60 years later, Schwartz is a lawyer who keeps a print of Don Quixote in his office lobby. And his story is by way of explaining why, when an ADL official called in the early 1980s, he agreed to pursue a pardon for Frank.
The effort was prompted by the words of Alonzo Mann, the office boy for Frank, who, 69 years after Phagan’s murder, told the Nashville Tennessean he’d caught Conley with the girl’s body, but stayed silent because he was threatened with death.
The state Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected the first request.
“It was like Atlanta didn’t want to revisit that story,” Schwartz says, recalling a packed meeting at a Jewish center. “These old people got up to the microphone and they begged us not to do it. They said it was too big a wound.”
But in 1986, officials granted a pardon, recognizing the state’s failure to protect Frank, “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence.”
The ADL deemed the pardon closure of its “oldest case.” Schwartz calls it one of his proudest moments, while acknowledging it was a compromise. To challenge it now and fail “would cast a shadow over what we’ve already got,” he said. And yet, as the 100th anniversary of Frank’s death approaches, the recent mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., is on his mind.
“Somehow the juxtaposition of these events keeps popping up in my head,” he says. “There is still some element of society that thinks that hate is OK.”
When Roy Barnes came home after losing re-election as Georgia’s governor, he renovated an abandoned church in downtown Marietta as a law office, commissioning a huge stained glass window of Lady Justice, lit up at night. Settled in an armchair in what used to be the sanctuary, the Democrat reflected on a fascination with the Frank case.
Barnes, who is 67 and was raised on a Cobb County farm, recalls the hush around Frank’s name when he was a boy, and how, as a legislator, he borrowed books on the case from the state library to pass time when debate dragged. As details surfaced, he learned the lynching party included Cicero Dobbs — grandfather of Barnes’ wife, Marie.
Dobbs owned businesses including a taxi company that provided transport that fateful night. Other lynchers included a judge, a former mayor turned state prosecutor, a leading lawyer and the scion of one of Marietta’s wealthiest families. They’re all long gone, with many descendants who openly acknowledge what happened.
But Barnes says some people tell him that, while they agree Frank didn’t get a fair trial, he was still guilty.
Barnes is certain that’s wrong and should be corrected. The Frank story needs to be talked about, “to remind people here that we’re only one step away from mob rule, even from the leaders in our community, and we need to be told that and study so that we never let that happen again,” he says.
Reminded that he lost the governorship in no small part because he pushed to eliminate the Confederate battle flag from the state banner, Barnes paraphrases the words of Martin Luther King Jr.
“You know, the arc of history does bend toward justice,” Barnes says. “And for Leo Frank, justice hasn’t been given yet.”
Just off a gravel road tucked into North Georgia’s hills, Mary Phagan Kean ushers a visitor into a moss-green room filled with scrapbooks, family photos and files detailing the life and death of a 13-year-old girl a century ago.
“She’s my family. She’s my history. History is what makes you who you are,” she says.
Phagan Kean was 13, herself, when a teacher asked if she was related to the girl murdered at the National Pencil Co.
Her father confirmed that she was the victim’s great niece and namesake. Phagan Kean began years of research that produced a book and confirmed her certainty of Frank’s guilt.
When the ADL sought Frank’s exoneration, Phagan Kean recalls telling her family that it was time to speak up. Her protest saw the pardon limited.
When a historic marker was proposed for Phagan’s grave, she asked for wording making clear the pardon was based on the state’s failure to protect him, “not Frank’s innocence.” That is the marker now retired to the Marietta museum, replaced by one Lebow lobbied for, noting simply that Frank was pardoned.
Phagan Kean bought the empty plot just below Phagan’s a few years ago. If Lebow and others keep pushing, she says, she’ll erect her own marker, reminding visitors of the verdict.
“They’re not telling the truth. They’re swaying the truth their way,” says Phagan Kean, a retired teacher who acknowledges that anti-Semitism played a role, but only in the lynching.
In thoughtful, but separate, conversations, she and Lebow voice frustration over each other’s repeated insistence.
Southerners, Phagan Kean says, should not have to apologize for history. Lebow, who recently posted a picture of Frank on Facebook, followed soon after by a photo of Cobb County’s first Jewish same-sex wedding, says acknowledging mistakes of history is the only route toward a “newer South.”
Each speaks of a responsibility.
Phagan Kean, noting that for years she’s dismissed inquiries from white supremacists seeking to use the case for their own purposes, says she acts as a voice for the murdered girl because “there’s nobody to protect her but me.”
And Lebow, noting that time has taught Jews the danger of forgetting the past, recalls hearing about the case at a Kiwanis meeting years ago and realizing he had, by accident, become Leo Frank’s rabbi.
“We’ve got to be the memory of this guy,” he says, “because no one else wants to be.”