For those of us keeping count, today marks the 105th anniversary of Leo Frank’s lynching in Atlanta. A 31-year-old New York Jew turned manager of an Atlanta pencil factory, he had spent two years in prison for the murder of Mary Phagan, a twelve-year old employee of the factory, before 28 men referring to themselves as the “Knights of Mary Phagan”—including Mary’s uncle and a former Georgia governor—abducted Frank from his prison cell and took him to Phagan’s small hometown near Marietta, where they lynched him.
History ultimately exonerated Frank of his crimes, and he received a posthumous pardon in 1986. Despite incriminating evidence against the factory’s watchman and janitor, police remained convinced that Frank, denounced for his identity as a Jew, a Northerner, and an industrialist, was the killer. No one, unfortunately, was ever charged for his lynching.
The injustice apparent in Frank’s trial in 1913 and his death in 1915 clearly illustrated that America carried the same potential for antisemitic rhetoric and violence that had characterized European life for centuries. Such a palpable threat galvanized much of the American Jewry, inspiring them to act in concert to protect the interests of the American Jewish community. Organizations such as the nascent Anti-Defamation League committed themselves toward identifying and combatting antisemitic activity, a task that, regrettably, remains more relevant today than in decades past.
As antisemitic propaganda and violence begin to grow in earnest in the United States for the first time in decades, the American Jewish community finds itself more divided than ever before, having been drawn into the sectarian politics that have divided the country. In the wake of Leo Frank’s lynching, the American Jewish community came together to lead America toward greater understanding and acceptance. What will it take for us to do so once again?