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Black-Jewish Relations on Trial

Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South

Jeffrey Melnick
Copyright Date: 2000
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  • Book Info
    Black-Jewish Relations on Trial
    Book Description:

    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 novelThe Old Religionin 1997, and Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown's musicalParadein 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 Trialis 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 ofA Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-595-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Leo Frank, the Musical
    (pp. 3-29)

    In 1998 a musical about the Leo Frank case opened in New York City, with a story by Alfred Uhry (ofDriving Miss Daisyfame) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, a relative unknown. When it came time to release the soundtrack forParadein 1999, Brown was feeling flushed with success: in the notes to the compact disc, Brown recounts in a breathless rush some of the experiences he had while preparing the show. He remembers the “deafening applause” at the final dress rehearsal, and the gratitude he felt when Harold Prince, the legendary producer of the...

  5. “The Negro and the Jew Were Both in This” Leo Frank and Jim Conley in Atlanta
    (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 issues under debate in that courthouse all revolved around the question of whether industrialization and urbanization could be made to fit into the established system of racial and sexual power in Atlanta. Those enormous social questions were channeled by powerful white Atlantans through two main...

  6. “Frank on His Knees” Capitalism and Perversion in the New South
    (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 often uncomfortable and certainly unacknowledged differences in the ways Jews and African Americans have been objectified. Similarly, it will suggest one approach for understanding the complicated nature of Jewish/African American relatedness at this eminently plausible point of origin. It is with the perversion charges made against Frank that we can see most clearly how an insistence upon a...

  7. “The Night Witch Did It” Narrating Villainy in the Frank Case
    (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 or an African American was more likely to have committed this crime. Again, the enormity of a conspiracy of equals was rarely suggested as an answer to the mystery, and the either/or construct was a first principle for those interested in the question only as a parlor game, and for those who were privately...

  8. “A Roman Holiday” Making Leo Frank Signify
    (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 back of three decades of mass immigration to the United States and the influx of industrial capitalism into the South, not to mention a passel of other epoch-making innovations in the American scene.

    What has not been sufficiently appreciated is how charged the entire atmosphere around the affair had been made by the fact that it upset...

  9. Epilogue Reading Trials, Writing Trials
    (pp. 131-136)

    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 the early 1990s, which produced at least two martyrs, the “Jew” Yankel Rosenbaum and the “Black” Gavin Cato) taken together point to the central dilemma of Black-Jewish relations: are African Americans and Jews best understood as oppressed partners or oppressed rivals? That question structures the rise-and-fall narrative that has dominated studies of Black-Jewish...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 137-148)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 149-158)
  12. Index
    (pp. 159-165)