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Black-Jewish Relations on Trial

Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South

Jeffrey Melnick

Publication Year: 2000

An analysis of the Leo Frank case as a measure of the complexities characterizing the relationship between African Americans and Jews in America

In 1915 Leo Frank, a Northern Jew, was lynched in Georgia. He had been convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan, a young white woman who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory managed by Frank. In a tumultuous trial in 1913 Frank's main accuser was Jim Conley, an African American employee in the factory. Was Frank guilty?

In our time a martyr's aura falls over Frank as a victim of religious and regional bigotry. The unending controversy has inspired debates, movies, books, songs, and theatrical productions. Among the creative works focused on the case are a ballad by Fiddlin' John Carson, David Mamet's novel The Old Religion in 1997, and Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown's musical Parade in 1998.

Indeed, the Frank case has become a touchstone in the history of black-Jewish cultural relations. How- ever, for too long the trial has been oversimplified as the moment when Jews recognized their vulnerability in America and began to make common cause with African Americans.

This study has a different tale to tell. It casts off old political and cultural baggage in order to assess the cultural context of Frank's trial, and to examine the stress placed on the relationship of African Americans and Jews by it. The interpretation offered here is based on deep archival research, analyses of the court records, and study of various artistic creations inspired by the case. It suggests that the case should be understood as providing conclusive early evidence of the deep mutual distrust between African Americans and Jews, a distrust that has been skillfully and cynically manipulated by powerful white people.

Black-Jewish Relations on Trial is concerned less with what actually happened in the National Pencil Company factory than with how Frank's trial, conviction, and lynching have been used as an occasion to explore black-Jewish relations and the New South. Just as with the O. J. Simpson trial, the Frank trial requires that Americans make a profound examination of their essential beliefs about race, sexuality, and power.

Jeffrey Melnick is an assistant professor of American studies at Babson College and the author of A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xiii

This book uses the example of the Leo Frank case to address the central question of Black-Jewish relations: how have African Americans and Jews been paired—as partners or competitors or some blend thereof—within the controlling American racial system of Black and white...

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Leo Frank, the Musical

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pp. 3-29

In 1998 a musical about the Leo Frank case opened in New York City, with a story by Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, a relative unknown. When it came time to release the soundtrack for Parade in 1999, Brown was feeling flushed with...

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"The Negro and the Jew were both in this": Leo Frank and Jim Conley in Atlanta

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pp. 30-46

It is impossible to offer a brief list of everything that was on trial during 1913 when Leo Frank sat in an Atlanta courtroom charged as Mary Phagan's killer. But it is clear that the ritual of the trial was meant to solve much larger mysteries than the one about Mary Phagan's demise. The main...

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"Frank on his knees": Capitalism and Perversion in the New South

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pp. 47-87

The perversion charge merits special attention because it formed the emotional core of the prosecution's case against Frank, and also became the most important constituent in public feeling against him. The issue of Frank's "perversion" also extends an opportunity to explore the...

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"The Night Watch Did It": Narrating Villainy in the Frank Case

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pp. 88-108

Comparison of Leo Frank and Jim Conley as racial representatives was undertaken most frequently on a very general level: what kind of person could be responsible for all of this? The question that most contemporary commentators on the case wanted to answer was whether a Jew...

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"A Roman Holiday": Making Leo Frank Signify

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pp. 109-130

After listening to this confusion of voices and trying to untangle all the inconsistencies and contradictions in interpretations of the Frank affair, we discover at the end that it was about confusion, inconsistency, and contradiction. The year of Frank's lynching, 1915, came in...

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Epilogue: Reading Trials, Writing Trials

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pp. 131-135

The history of Black-Jewish relations in the twentieth century can be fairly summed up by the two pieces of newspaper shorthand above, the first an imaginary headline, the second a real pull-quote. These two scenarios (the second written in the wake of the Crown Heights strife of...


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pp. 137-147

Works Cited

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pp. 149-158


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pp. 159-165

E-ISBN-13: 9781604735956
E-ISBN-10: 157806287X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578062874

Publication Year: 2000