Centennial of the lynching of Leo Frank

. . . and the struggle over the meaning of freedom

by Ken Sehested

            In August 1913 the body of 14-year-old laborer Mary Phagan was found in the basement of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta. The company’s Jewish-American superintendent, Leo Frank, was eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to death by hanging. Two years later a last-minute commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment sent Frank to a prison farm. On the night of 16 August 1915 a group of men from Marietta, Georgia (Phagan’s hometown) abducted Frank and drove him to Marietta for a public lynching. Though identities of the lynch mob were well-known—including a former governor, a mayor, and several current and former sheriffs—none were charged. Half of the state’s Jewish population fled following the lynching.

            Three things endure.

            First, the memory of this trauma has been long forgotten, except within the Jewish community.

            Second, the fuel of rage triggering this violence included the exploitation of industrialism’s slave-wagery—this was the economic engine that overwhelmed and eventually displaced the South’s industrial-agrarian slave system. The human rights promise of the Civil War’s slavery abolition morphed into another form of bondage.

            Third, the formerly populist Georgia politician and newspaper editor Thomas Watson, who previously supported African American voter rights and opposed the death penalty, was by now a white supremacist. Two weeks after Frank’s lynching, Watson wrote that "the voice of the people is the voice of God."

            Five other things also endure.

            First, prosperity creates social amnesia. Prosperity has demanded a white washing of our history. It is no accident that we are, as a nation, unfamiliar not just with Leo Frank’s lynching but also with the lynching of thousands of African Americans and others judged unworthy of breath.

            Second, part of the white washing of our history falsely elevates the influence of the abolitionist movement’s bright vision of human rights for all. (Which in no way diminishes the debt we still owe to its courageous profile. As with the modern civil rights movement, its supporters were few until the gains were later consolidated and baptized as social consensus.) While slavery was certainly the cause of the Civil War, that bloody conflict was not primarily between competing visions of human rights. Rather it was about competing requirements of industrial manufacturing’s slave-wage system over against the needs of industrial agrarianism’s slave-labor system.

            Third, in the prophetic words of Bryan Stevenson, slavery didn’t die. It merely evolved, into the current pattern of mass incarceration, especially of African Americans but also of the poor more generally, to create what Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”

            Fourth, Thomas Watson’s statement that “the voice of the people is the voice of God” remains the most challenging theological counterclaim to the consistent witness of Scripture. Critics of religious faith are exactly right in their diagnosis of the human propensity to create gods who look and act like us.

            If prosperity creates social amnesia, it also creates theological stupor. Proper remembrance was and remains the key to those whose ancestors were instructed at Mt. Sinai about the shape of post-Pharaohic freedom—particularly its Sabbath (Jubilee) provisions (see especially Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, and Jesus’ urgent petition for the “year of the Lord’s favor” in Luke 4:19) which included care for the poor, for the migrant, and for the land itself and, at the Last Supper, where Jesus urged his followers to “do this in remembrance of me” in fidelity to his cruciform life.

            The peculiar shape of this kind of freedom is urgently needed in a culture where:

            •Political “freedom” means unlimited contributions to those who aspire to public office, literally creating the best elections money can buy.

            •Economic “freedom” means the “free” market’s justification for penetrating and commandeering the economies of other nations.

            •Military “freedom” rests on the explicit policy warrant of preemptive war.

            •Ecclesial “freedom” in churches means “don’t ask me to make commitments.”

            Chiseled on the wall of the Central Intelligence Agency’s lobby is the King James rendition of John 8:32, "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." It stands as cover for that agency’s practice of torture under the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” People of faith cannot escape this massive ideological struggle over the use and abuse of freedom language. We need reminding of the novelist Flannery O’Connor’s paraphrase of that same line: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.”

            Finally, among the most stubborn facts we must face is this: Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case. And if we are to rightly interpret our condition, we must take seriously the whole story. If we long to be exceptional, the only way forward is to read our history rightly, repent our hard-heartedness, and repair the resulting damage. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org