Georgia’s New Senators will Write the Next Chapter in Black-Jewish RelationsRoundup
tags: Jewish history, African American history, Georgia, Atlanta, lynching, Leo Frank, Raphael Warnock, Jon Ossoff
Jeff Melnick teaches American studies at UMass Boston and is the author of a number of books, including Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South.
On Wednesday, Democrats gained a majority in the Senate when Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were sworn into office. But the elections of Georgia’s two new senators also produced another historic result. Warnock and Ossoff are the first Jewish and African American senators from the state. Their victories in fiercely contested runoff elections turned a state that was blood Red for much of the recent past Blue. Or, as some online wags have put it — taking note of the identities of the two men — the Peach State has turned Blewish.
In the run-up to the election and its aftermath there has been much ecstatic talk about the Black-Jewish nexus of this electoral victory. And no wonder. There is plenty of reason in our moment — after attempted insurrectionists carrying Confederate flags and wearing “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts stormed the U.S. Capitol — to think about the shared vulnerability of African Americans and Jews. Journalists and historians alike have been celebrating the victory and its particular poignancy for a state where lynching of African Americans was once epidemic and a horrifying anti-Black massacre in Atlanta resulted in dozens of deaths in 1906, and which was also the site of the only recorded lynching of a Jewish American, Leo Frank, in 1915.
But such rhetoric has been organized around a purposeful unwillingness to acknowledge that the glory of Black-Jewish relations has always been more aspirational than achieved: this contemporary appeal to “golden-age” Black-Jewish relations may well have been a good electoral strategy, but the history is more complicated. A review of the Frank case reveals quite a bit of that historical complexity.
Leo Frank was lynched in 1915 after being convicted and sentenced to death in the summer of 1913 for the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old who worked in the National Pencil Company factory he managed. Frank was a Cornell-educated Brooklynite who had moved to Atlanta to take this job. Phagan’s dead body was found in the basement of the factory and Frank was quickly arrested and then convicted — largely on the testimony of the African American janitor, Jim Conley.
Today, consensus has organized around the idea that Frank was certainly innocent and Conley guilty of the crime. The trial and its aftermath represented a zero-sum competition which pit the Jewish factory supervisor against the Black janitor. Frank’s lawyers were relentless in their racist attacks on the barely literate, socially disempowered Conley. They believed their job was to counter the work of the prosecutor whose case was rooted in presenting the Jewish man as alien and dangerous, and the African American man as docile and familiar.
The racialized power dynamics embodied in the case were knotty, to say the least. Before the Frank case, there had been very little overt anti-Semitism in Georgia: Frank was a reform Jew, a member of a synagogue whose rabbi had been working assiduously to coach his congregants on how to assimilate most fully into White Georgia culture. Jews formed a growing part of the owning class in Atlanta and one issue raised by the Frank case was whether they would be able to demonstrate that they understood and could reproduce the city’s racial protocols.