Friday, August 17, 2007

August 17

Today is the anniversary of what was arguably the most famous lynching in US history.

On August 17, 1915, Leo Frank -- a Jewish pencil store manager from Atlanta -- was kidnapped from a Georgia prison farm and driven 150 miles to a spot just outside Marietta, where the 31-year-old man was strung from a tree. Frank had been convicted the previous year of a murder that he almost certainly did not commit; originally sentenced to die for the rape and strangulation of a young factory employee named Mary Phagan, Frank successfully appealed to Governor John M. Slaton for a commutation. Enraged (as many white Georgians were) by the commutation, a group of roughly 30 men who called themselves the Knights of Mary Phegan took matters into their own hands.

The crime, trial and subsequent lynching were seminal moments in the history of the New South. Frank’s trial had been a disgusting, racist spectacle, as the undisguised anti-Semitism of the prosecution was matched beat for beat by the insinuations of the defense lawyers, who insisted that only a black man would have been capable of such a brutal crime against the flower of white womanhood. After Slaton issued his commutation, Tom Watson -- Georgia’s most famous racist demagogue -- explicitly called for Frank’s extrajudicial killing. In a deranged rant published in his magazine, the Jeffersonian, Watson wrote that:
Our grand old Empire State HAS BEEN RAPED!

We have been violated, AND WE ARE ASHAMED! . . . .

The great Seal of the State has gone, LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, to do for an unscrupulous law firm, a deed of darkness which dared not bask in the light of the sun.

We have been betrayed! The breath of some leprous monster has passed over us, and we feel like crying out, in horror and despair,

Unclean! UNCLEAN!
Watson concluded that “Jew money has debased us, bought us, and sold us -- and laughs at us.” Agreeing with Watson that “lynch law” is “better than no law at all,” the Knights of Mary Phagan -- which included a former governor, a state legislator, the former and current mayors of Marietta, as well as other prominent lawyers and businessmen -- cleansed their “Empire” by administering the only form of law they truly respected.

Among other things, the lynching of Leo Frank -- which took place the same year as the release of Birth of a Nation -- helped inspire the rejuvenation of the Ku Klux Klan.

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