Lessons across a century

The observance of Leo Frank’s murder should lead Georgians to reflect upon events and prejudices that afflict us today, even in a society that has come a long way toward more-just treatment for all.

A full century has now passed since Leo Frank was abducted from the flimsy confines of a Milledgeville prison farm, driven across the state under the hood of darkness and lynched the following morning in a wooded corner of Cobb County on land owned by a former county sheriff.

Much as there is no statute of limitations on prosecuting homicide, Frank’s murder continues to shock today — even as the toll of decades has ensured that his killers now lie in their own graves.

The flow of 100 years has likewise failed to obliterate a jagged, at times bloody line of history stretching from then to now. It remains worthy of consideration. Good and evil. Apathy versus action. Respect for law against mob rule. Prejudice or virtue. Each pair measured along a sliding scale of distance that widens or narrows across time.

The 18th century British legal scholar Sir William Blackstone famously expressed the natural human yearning for justice by noting that “the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer.”

That principle, and the legal system built around it, failed miserably in the Leo Frank case.

Even those who reflexively argue “state’s rights” as the solution to most any policy issue should recoil still at the actions of the long-ago mob that made a mockery of due process, humanity and the judicial system.

The gathering of thugs who killed Frank was not comprised solely of ordinary rabble susceptible to murderously acting out on wild-eyed, misguided passions stirred by those who should have known better. Rather, leaders of the day were counted among the lynch mob. A published account put the likes of Cobb’s sheriff and Marietta’s mayor at the scene of Frank’s hanging.

Worse yet, the lynching gang may well have killed a man innocent of the barbarous murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan. The trial judge and a courageous Georgia governor who commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment were among those disturbed by his trial and conviction during a tumultuous time stained with anti-Semitism. Left unsaid is that the actual killer may well have escaped justice entirely.

An Atlanta Constitution editorial, “Georgia’s Shame,” squarely summed up the crime perpetrated by Frank’s killers. “In that act the sovereignty of the state of Georgia has been assaulted, desecrated, raped. No word in the language is too strong to apply to the deliberate and carefully conspired deed of the mob.”

The state would not fully absorb that lesson for decades. Aside from the rustling of a brook, an unsettling silence still broods over the bridge at Moore’s Ford in rural Walton County, above the spot where four African-Americans were lined up and shot dead a year after the guns of WWII had fallen silent. Barely a decade later, a dynamite blast shattered The Temple on Peachtree Street. Mob action and terror still had a foothold here then.

A contemplative, nagging thought from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” helps knit together these disparate threads hanging across time: “What’s past is prologue.” That saying has merit when considering history through the often-foggy window that is the present.

As in, what will tomorrow’s historians make of our behavior today? That question should give pause to us all, and terrify the unrepentant, prejudiced few still lingering in our midst. Further, what do today’s leaders tolerate, incite, wink at, or purposely ignore that will be viewed with derision a generation or more into the future? The list of possibilities does not grow shorter with the progression of time, which should worry us.

The past year or so has seen activists decry killings of unarmed African-American men (and even a white woman) by police, so-called neighborhood watchmen and the like. A century after Leo Frank’s death, the Anti-Defamation League and others decry a rise in anti-Semitism around the world.

Most infamously, earlier this summer, a gunman seated himself on a pew of an historic Charleston church during Bible study. He took in the surrounding scene, then drew a gun and murdered nine parishioners. The suspected murderer’s background shows he had wrapped himself tightly in a cocoon of white supremacy.

The killer’s actions thrust him into the pantheon of criminals – of all colors – whose behavior warrants due process and certain punishment upon conviction under the rules of law.

To help address future violent crimes occurring at the intersection of misguided passion and outright prejudice, the Georgia General Assembly should give due consideration next year to ending this state’s status as one of five states lacking a hate crime law.

And Gov. Nathan Deal should re-think his stance of last week and urge the state pardons board to reconsider the Frank case, with an eye toward granting a full and final pardon.

It is too easy, and convenient, to draw a direct path between the Charleston massacre and other horrific crimes of history. The parallels are imperfect – and not least because of how the South and the nation have responded to recent tragedies.

During an Editorial Board meeting last week with officers of the Anti-Defamation League, Deborah M. Lauter, the group’s national civil rights director, said that, “What’s different today is that when these things happen, good people stand up. That wasn’t the case with Leo Frank.” That, indeed, is an important, encouraging distinction between then and now.

In some powerful respects, we are a much-improved, more-just society than that of a century ago. We should continue along that path toward perfecting humanity’s potential.

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