Leo Frank, Kanye West, and
Saying No to Hate in Our States

By Myra Clark-Siegel, Director, AJC Westchester/Fairfield

 

The story of Leo Frank is as important today as when it took place in 1913, the day of the Confederate Memorial Day Parade, a popular event in much of the American South. That same day, 13-year-old Mary Phagan went to the Atlanta, GA pencil factory where she worked to collect her paycheck and was brutally murdered in the factory. 

 

Leo Frank, a transplanted Jew from Brooklyn, N.Y., quickly was framed, because the prosecutor was looking for an easy political win – what better way in the South than to convict a Jew and transplanted Northerner. 

The antisemitic kangaroo court and the flimsy case, coupled with a fundamentalist newspaper publisher and sensationalist reporter, all saw an easy opportunity to fan the flames of hatred and score easy political points and headlines. The trial, sensationalized by the media, aroused antisemitic tensions in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Crowds outside the courtroom chanted “Hang the Jew.” 

 

Eventually, the Jewish community, and people from other faiths became involved, with university presidents and government officials across the country noting the miscarriage of justice and how Leo Frank was framed as a Jew. 

 

Ultimately, Leo Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison by the outgoing governor after careful review of 10,000 pages of testimony and multiple problems with the trial. Frank was transferred to a countryside work-prison, but a group of community leaders (including two former judges and a preacher) seized and lynched him, while townspeople watched and celebrated.

 

Fast forward to today. Kanye West, or “Ye” as he is now called, actually experienced a dramatic increase of online media followers after a series of antisemitic posts that referenced common antisemitic tropes. 

Just days after, Brooklyn Nets basketball player Kyrie Irving posted a link to a film with hateful claims about Jews. When given the opportunity to correct the situation, Irving demurred, ultimately resulting in suspending by the franchise. The film’s false and outlandish claims about Jews include the assertion that the Holocaust never happened. 

 

Unlike during Leo Frank’s time, today, the Jewish community is strong, and engaged both publicly and politically. We are “Jewish and Proud”, and we call out hatred against all publicly and immediately. 

And yet, all too often, others don’t see hate against Jews on the same level as other minorities. That is partly because of a notion—exampled in Kanye’s tweet—that Jews are privileged and powerful and not in need of protections afforded other minorities. 

 

But the numbers don’t lie: AJC’s 2021 State of Antisemitism in America report revealed that 90% of Jewish respondents believe antisemitism is a problem in the U.S. Four in ten American Jews changed their behavior out of fear of antisemitism. When societies cannot protect their Jewish populations, they often fail to protect their democracy as well. AJC has launched a Call to Action Against Antisemitism in America that provides U.S. leadership in all sectors of society with the knowledge and tools to understand, respond to, and prevent antisemitism.

 

Myra Clark-Siegel is AJC Westchester/Fairfield regional director. Join us to stand against all forms of hate as a Community of Conscience at westchester@ajc.org. Together, we can make our voices heard.