BOSTON — Few Americans know that Memorial Day evolved from the vanquished southern states’ own “Confederate Memorial Day,” launched in 1866. Even fewer Americans remember what happened in Atlanta on Confederate Memorial Day in 1913, when a young woman’s murder led to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League and reinvigorated its nemesis, the Ku Klux Klan.
Thirteen-year old Mary Phagan was beaten and strangled in the basement of her former place of employment, an Atlanta pencil factory, on April 26, 1913. The factory was managed by 29-year-old Leo Frank, a Jew raised in Brooklyn and educated at Cornell University. After becoming investigators’ top suspect in two days, Frank submitted to a murder trial brimming with anti-Semitic vitriol, hearsay testimony and conflicting statements.
In an American version of the Dreyfuss Affair, shouts of “hang the Jew!” echoed through the courthouse during the trial. The jury pronounced Frank guilty and he was sentenced to death on August 25, 1913. After a national outcry, Georgia governor John Slaton determined Frank had not received a fair trial, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
The commutation set off another outcry, with Slaton hung in effigy and the boycott of Jewish businesses in Atlanta. Particularly outraged were some of Georgia’s top political and civic leaders, one of whom coined the phrase, “Lynch law is better than no law at all.” Some of these men were more public than others about their bigotry, but all were outraged by the governor’s decision and what they viewed as the threat posed by Georgia’s 3,000 Jews.
Determined to enact their own verdict on Leo Frank, the leaders convened technicians and strongmen to craft a plan. Calling itself “The Knights of Mary Phagan,” the well-to-do mob kidnapped Frank from the state prison in Milledgeville and drove him to a farm outside Marietta. After hanging their victim from an oak tree, mob participants snapped photographs and took pieces of Frank’s effects to sell as souvenirs. Several children, brought to witness the lynching, can be seen clutching parents’ hands in the photos.
Half of the state’s Jews fled Georgia following the lynching, and the hanging photographs were turned into postcards for sale at local stores. Anti-Semitic media outlets contributed to the fray, including the Columbia State newspaper, which claimed: “The heroic Marietta lynchers are too modest to give their photographs to the newspapers.”
Georgia’s government covered up the Frank lynching for the better part of a century, refusing to prosecute the perpetrators or posthumously pardon Frank until 1986, years after new evidence had exonerated him. Only in 2000 were members of the lynch mob publicly named – by a private citizen, of course.
Among the ring-leaders were a former Georgia governor, several mayors, and a slew of judges and sheriffs. Incredibly, some of their faces appear in the lynch mob photographs, belying the decades-old claim that no perpetrators could be identified.
It was not evident at the time, but this elite gathering of Georgia’s most prominent bigots to hang a Jew marked the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
The Klan was started by Confederate war veterans after the Civil War to prevent freed slaves from obtaining rights. It has been called the first true terrorist group founded on American soil. Though the US government managed to dismantle the so-called First Klan, its mission remained alive in the minds of racist whites committed to overturning an unjust order.
The Leo Frank case inspired Klan-sympathizing racists to expand the parameters of hate by including Jews, who they viewed as dishonest and alien to white society. A cross-burning ceremony attended by some of Frank’s murderers in 1917 marked the official launch of the Second Klan. Future US Senator Tom Watson helped reignite Klan activities through incitement in southern newspapers.
However racists and anti-Semites weren’t the only ones to draw conclusions from the Leo Frank trial and refocus on organizational structures.
Immediately after Frank’s wrongful conviction in 1913, the B’nai B’rith Jewish service organization founded the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Frank had been the Atlanta chapter president of B’nai B’rith before his trial, so the ADL’s creation within this network was more than appropriate.
“The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people,” said the League’s 1913 charter. “Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.”
Founded in Chicago, the ADL currently operates 27 regional US offices and one in Israel. Its mandate to prevent defamation of Jews has greatly expanded since 1913, highlighted by decades of work to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) in 2009. In recent years, the ADL ramped up efforts to protect Israel from numerous worldwide detractors.
Following Leo Frank’s lynching, the Ku Klux Klan also learned the value of coalitions and clarity of purpose, adopting modern business practices to grow membership.
Klan recruiters – called “Kleagles” – were allowed to keep half of initiation fees, while standardized costumes and rituals consolidated the system.
D.W. Griffith’s February 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” rolled out First Klan iconography still familiar around the world, including burning crosses and those bulky white robes. Two decades before “Triumph of the Will” and Hitler’s fire-strewn rallies, the Klan nailed down the indoctrination genre much closer to home.
Preaching “One Hundred Percent Americanism,” at its peak the Klan claimed to include more than four-million men as supporters. Klan leader William J. Simmons developed new terminology for his brethren, including Kloran (ritual book), Klavern (local organization), and Klectoken (initiation fee).
This Second Klan ceased activity during World War II, only to reappear in the 1950s as the current Third Klan. More lethal than ever, the civil rights-era KKK murdered African American leaders and their white allies, in addition to bombing blacks’ homes and churches. The Klan continued to receive support from prominent leaders, including when Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor allowed Klan members fifteen minutes to attack “Freedom Riders” in 1961.
Despite downsizing and the alleged victory of pluralism, the Ku Klux Klan is by no means a relic of the past.
Experts estimate there to be 5,000 active Klan members today, most of them in the American South and Midwest
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) continues to monitor at least 100 Klan chapters, including in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. Recent years have seen the formation of Klan chapters in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, proving the power of bigotry to break down national barriers. Experts estimate there to be 5,000 active Klan members today, most of them in the American South and Midwest.
Though modern Klan chapters remain decentralized to prevent infiltration, it’s clear the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 fueled membership across the board. Klan leaders have also formed recent alliances with Neo-Nazi groups to fight against illegal immigration and same-sex civil marriage. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has provided – to some observers’ frustration – ongoing support for Klan members’ rights to hold rallies and run for public office.
The epic struggle between the ADL and the KKK’s conflicting worldviews has entered pop culture, including the 1999 musical “Parade,” based on the Leo Frank trial and its aftermath. A Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) special in 2009 signaled a broad approach through its title, “The People v. Leo Frank: Anti-Semitism in the USA.” And shedding light on Atlanta society circa 1913 and the justice system’s deadly breakdown was the 2003 book, “And the Dead Shall Rise,” by Steve Oney.
Leo Frank’s body was buried on August 20, 1915, in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, New York. Before his mutilated remains were transferred north, a crowd of 15,000 Atlanta citizens – some carrying bricks – surrounded the undertaker’s parlor and demanded to see the body. The most prominent lynching of an American Jew had occurred, giving simultaneous impetus to both Jewish self-defense and the country’s most notorious group of hatemongers.