Southwestern Michigan College’s spring musical, “Parade,” by Jason Robert Brown, dramatizes real events which transpired in Atlanta in 1913.
The South, still reeling from the Civil War, struggled to shed a legacy of bigotry and xenophobia.
“It had been a little less than 50 years since the Civil War,” Dr. Jeffrey Dennis, SMC history instructor, said. “Atlanta was one of the principal theatres of that war. Troops under (Union Gen. William) Tecumseh Sherman came down to Atlanta, the railroad hub, and, if you’ve seen ‘Gone with the Wind,’ destroyed it.
“They marched to the sea and cut a swath of 40 to 50 miles of destruction. People in the South described the Civil War as a lost cause. They saw it as a war for freedom and a second American Revolution. They framed it very differently, obviously, than people in the North. There were generations of anger, frustration and self-doubt.”
Dennis said Leo Frank, a Jew born in Texas in 1884, but raised in Brooklyn and a 1906 Cornell University graduate, “committed several crimes before he even came to Atlanta —being from the North, being a well-educated capitalist and being Jewish, all of which raised suspicion and ire.”
“Very damaging, aggressive assumptions happened to Frank in this trial,” Dennis said. “This trial reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta,” in 1915. “I actually lived there a year, but never visited because I knew what it was associated with.
“The Klan in its second incarnation was much larger than its first. It wasn’t just targeting African-Americans. It was associated with Nativism. Anyone from outside the United States was suspect — especially Jews. The Klan in the 1920s had a following estimated at 5 million people. (On Aug. 8) 1925, they had a 40,000-man march down Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol.”
The Klan was said to be stronger in the Midwest than the South.
A 2009 PBS documentary, “The People vs. Leo Frank,” recounts that before dawn on April 27, 1913, the pencil factory night watchman made a grisly discovery of a white girl, 13, who had been beaten, strangled and possibly raped.
Frank, the last person to admit to seeing Mary Phagan alive, wasn’t the only arrest. Jim Conley, a black janitor, was also, but Frank’s nervous demeanor moved him up Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey’s suspect list.
In a fourth and final statement, Conley confessed to helping hide her body, but maintained Frank alone killed her.
Spectators crammed the sweltering courtroom throughout a month-long trial. Hundreds more lingered outside proceedings teeming with racial stereotypes, hearsay testimony and witness stand contradictions.
Despite Conley’s inconsistencies, an all-white jury readily accepted the word of the Southern black janitor over the Northern Jewish factory superintendent and found Frank guilty. He received a death sentence.
While Atlantans cheered the verdict, court-watchers around the country considered it a mockery. Editorials from New York to San Francisco sought a new trial.
Frank’s lawyers were rebuffed at every turn appealing his conviction, so petitioned Gov. John Slaton, who agreed Frank failed to receive a fair trial and commuted his sentence to life in prison.
Influential Georgians, including a sitting judge and former governor, felt thwarted by politics and decided to impose their own punishment.
Leo and Lucille spent their last afternoon together on Aug. 16, 1915.
That sweltering summer afternoon, 25 men piled into seven vehicles for a caravan to the Milledgeville state penitentiary.
Without firing a shot or breaking a lock, the brazen vigilantes strode into the prison undisguised and snatched Frank from his cell.
They drove more than 100 miles over red clay roads to “Little Mary’s” hometown, Marietta, and an oak grove facing her home.
They hung him from a tree respectfully, even honoring his request that his ring be delivered to Lucille.
Hundreds gathered to gawk at his corpse dangling from the rope eventually cut into small segments and sold.
In fact, the hardware store sold out of rope which opportunists sectioned into more macabre souvenirs.
Frank’s body was removed to a funeral home in Atlanta, where 15,000 filed by at the viewing. Phagan became a folk figure about whom minstrels sang.
The solicitor general convened a grand jury to ostensibly hold someone accountable, but a planner of the hanging led the inquest. Six other participants sat on the panel.
No one was charged with the most famous lynching of a white man in America, leaving two legacies.
“The Knights of Mary Phagan” linked them in their own minds with the Ku Klux Klan.
Three from Frank’s lynch mob met on Stone Mountain to consecrate the new KKK.
While the original Klan targeted blacks, its successor vowed to protect society from Catholics, Jews and foreigners of any kind.
Frank’s fate galvanized the Anti-Defamation League to become a defender of civil rights and social justice for all.
The ADL promoted an anti-mask bill to prohibit Klan members from wearing hoods in public and a law forbidding intimidation by symbolic cross burnings.
In 1982, Alonzo Mann, a 14-year-old office boy in 1913, testified he saw Conley carry Phagan’s body through the lobby alone. Conley threatened to kill Mann if he told. Mann passed a lie detector test.
Georgia granted Frank a posthumous pardon in 1986.
For ticket information, visit swmich.edu/parade.