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January 27, 1984 - Image 26

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-01-27

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26 Friday, January 21, 1984


Leo Frank, Tom Watson and Justice Today

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Seventy years ago, in as un-
forgettable a blot on Ameri-
can justice as the lynching
of Joseph Smith, Jr., Leo
Frank was lynched in At-
lanta, Ga. A few weeks ago,
the Georgia State Board of
Pardons and Paroles dou-
bled the injustice in the Leo
Frank case by denying the
mob victim a posthumous
Joseph Smith, Jr. was the
Mormon prophet, the leader
of a despised "sect." He was
murdered in 1844, twice 70
years ago, by a mob in
Carthage, Ill. Leo Frank —
a Jew — was one of a people
that has suffered the con-
tempt and violence of Chris-
tendom for centuries. Even
the existence of the First
Amendment has not pre-
vented violence from rising
from time to time against
those who are numbered
among despised minorities.
The Georgia Pardon
Board, forgetting the Com-
mon Law standard, stated
in its recent decision that it
had not seen evidence pro-
ving "beyond any shadow of
a doubt" that Leo Frank was
innocent. The true question
is, of course, whether his
guilt was proved "beyond
any shadow of a doubt."
That there was ample
doubt even at the time
(1913) is signalized by,
among other things, the
fact that Georgia's Gov-
ernor John Slayton sac-
rificed his political
career by commuting the
death sentence the mob
and its demagogues suc-
cessfully demanded of
the intimidated trial
court. Slayton tried to
move Frank to safer cus-
tody, but- the mob kid-
napped him and lynched
Coming so soon after the
Beiliss case in Kiev (1911),
the Leo Frank case was
especially frightening to
Jews who had recently im-
migrated from persecution
in Russia. One positive con-
sequence was the organiza-
tion of the Anti-Defamation
League, a defense agency
which exists because even
in America — and even
under the U.S. Constitution
— our liberties are only as
secure as our citizens' in-
itiatives are vigorous.
The case of Leo Frank was
raised recently when an im-
portant witness, growing
old and facing the end of his
life, came forward to pre-
sent in a sworn affidavit
important evidence of
Frank's innocence. He
stated that, a 14-year-old at
the time, he had been si-
lenced by a death threat by
Jim Conley, the black
janitor whom the state used
to convict Frank.
Even at the time there
was evidence that Conley
himself was the murderer of
Mary Phagan, and the re-
cent testimony by Alonzo
Mann strengthens that
The lynching of Leo
Frank was but one vio-
lent expression of the at-
mosphere of Georgia
politics in 1913. Nor was
1913 the end of it, for in
1959 and 1960 another

Georgia governor — Les-
ter Maddox, a man far
less worthy than Gover-
nor Slayton — was pass-
ing out axe handles and
threatening massive re-
taliation against any per-
sons, black or white, who
should support the law of
the land concerning the
rights of black citizens.
With the remarkable
progress — social, economic
and political — made in At-
lanta in the last quarter-
century, we are apt to forget
how close to the jungle we
have been, and how re-
cently. And not just in
Georgia! Indiana and sev-
eral other northern states
were infiltrated and cor-
rupted by the Ku Klux
Klan, the terrorist move-
ment that played such a
large role in thwarting jus-
tice in the Leo Frank case.
The best book I know on
Georgia politics in 1913 was
written by C. Vann Wood-
ward: "Tom Watson: Aga-
rian Rebel" (1938). Wood-
ward's is a carefully
documented and splendidly
written study of the career
of Tom Watson, Georgia's'
populist politician, some-
time governor and senator.
Watson's story is an Ameri-
can tragedy, set in the
steamy jungle of bitter and
unyielding post-Civil War
Confederate politics.
As a young man, still
idealistic, he was part of
that significant populist
movement which — fight-
ing the exhorbitant rates of
the banks and the railroads
— produced in the South
and Midwest William Jen-
nings Bryan and other
champions of "the people"
against "Wall Street."
Tom Watson began by
organizing poor whites
and poor blacks —
sharecroppers, in the
main — in rural Georgia.
But every time he ran for
office the money of the es-
tablishment, aided by
KKK terrorism, defeated
him. Frustrated and am-
bitious, he turned to ra-
cist slogans and de-
magoguery and
downplayed his earlier
attacks on "the vested
Few have even equalled
him in the viciousness of his
attacks on blacks, Jews and
Roman Catholics. With the
shift, he went on to the gov-
ernorship, the U.S. Senate,
and to run for President on
the Populist ticket.
Tom Watson was Geor-
gia's most influential politi-
cian at the time of the Leo
Frank case, and he led the
pack in howling for Jewish
blood. He helped ruin Gov.
Slayton. His statue still
stands in front of the Geor-
gia state capitol.
The most readable ac-
count of the Leo Frank case
was published in 1965 by
Harry Golden of the
Carolina Israelite, in his
day one of the liveliest or-
gans of democratic opinion
in the region. "A Little Girl
is Dead" conveys the
passions of the hour and
supplies the evidence of Leo
Frank's innocence. And this
was, to any reasonable per-

son, the way things stood
until Alonzo Mann stepped
forward and clinched the
What then is the prob-
lem with Georgia and its
present government?
Why was the Parole
Board unable to arrive at
a just decision? The KKK
is no longer that influen-
tial. The unforgiving and
unforgetting de-
magogues are dead or re-
legated to the wings or —
like George Wallace in
Alabama — they now
float with the prevailing
currents of change.
The basic problem in
Georgia is the same as that
of any people who know
guilt and shame, and cannot
master them. How does the
government of Poland today
deal with the country's
centuries-old anti-
Semitism? How does it con-
front the Holocaust? By de-
nying it.
How does the government
of the USSR deal with the
record of the Stalin years?
After a flurry of truth-
telling begun at the 20th
Party Congress, it represses
the memory. There is now a
Kremlin-inspired effort to
rehabilitate Stalin's repu-
How does America deal
with the matter of our per-
mitting Japanese-
American citizens to be rob-
bed of their homes and gar-
dens and be incarcerated in
concentration camps during
World War II? How was
My-Lai handled by higher
commanders? By stone-
walling, and finally by an
easy pardon from the
(shortly to need an easy
pardon for criminality him-
Georgia and its institu-
tions are, in the present
refusal to repent and
convert, an unpleasant
mirror of us all. Can we
expect that state to re-
move the statue of Tom
Watson, unworthy ste-
ward of the public inter-
The recent effort to do jus-
tice to the memory of Leo
Frank foundered on the an-
xieties which arose when
the larger questions bobbed
to the surface. None of us
who excuse great wicked-
ness "for reasons of state"
escape those anxieties.
Leo Frank is innocent.
Georgia is guilty. And all of
us, are diminished as

Israel Bonds
Receipts Down

The Israel Bonds Organiza-
tion raised over $475 mil-
lion for Israel's economic
development in 1983, down
from $502 million in 1982,
campaign chairman David
Hermelin of Detroit an-
nounced Jan. 12. Last year's
results brought total pro-
ceeds since the Organiza-
tion's foundation in 1951 to
more than $6.5 billion.

Experience is a good
school, but the fees are high.

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