Centennial of a Lynching

One weekend a little over ten years ago I devoted a post at what was then my New Donkey blog to a sort of rambling review of a book entitled And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. Aside from summarizing the book and the very prominent place in Georgia history the Frank lynching occupied, I mentioned some personal connections, such as my one-time residence near the lynching site and a song my grandmother used to sing that was a protest against the commutation of Frank’s sentence (which led to the lynching). I subsequently received a nice note from the author of the book, Steve Oney, who spent 17 years researching and writing And the Dead Shall Rise, which was actually published a couple of years before I ran across a used copy in a New Orleans bookstore and read it in a frenzy over a couple of days. We still owe each other beers.

I mention all this because today is the centennial of the Frank lynching, and TNR has published a recap by Oney of the entire incident and the tangled racial, religious and economic conflicts it exposed. One large historical subplot was the aged populist demagogue Tom Watson’s role in instigating the lynching–reflecting not just Watson’s late-career bigotry, but his typecasting of Frank as a (relatively) wealthy capitalist supposedly preying on a poor working-class girl. Another involved the competition of Atlanta newspapers to fan the flames, and the central role of the New York Times in defending Frank and excoriating his Cracker tormenters.

Talk about a polarizing episode! As Oney suggests, there are continuing tremors and echoes even now:

The societal reverberations were many—and less tidy. Three months after the lynching, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged from a 45-year quiescence to conduct its first twentieth-century cross burning atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Simultaneously, the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in 1913, began to fight anti-Semitism aggressively. There could be no greater opposites than the KKK and the ADL, but they are just two of the divisions that arose from the Frank case. The South was guilty of a horrific moral wrong and in the aftermath closed its eyes to the lynching. There was only a mock investigation, and five years later Watson was elected to the U.S. Senate. The North, however, was guilty of imperiousness. Frank’s mainstays were less interested in being effective than in being right. The Times, far from persuading opponents of the Jewish industrialist that he was the wrong man, only reinforced their worst instincts. Ten decades on, amidst resurgent debates in journalistic echo chambers about the unfinished business of Southern history, it all feels worrisomely familiar.

O ye August vacationers looking for a book to read: Put And the Dead Shall Rise at the top of your list.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.