Leo Frank and Bigotry in the South

Leo Frank and Bigotry in the South

A Jewish man in Georgia is jailed and lynched for a crime everyone knows he didn’t commit.


His lynching lays bare Southern anti-Semitism.

The election of Thomas E. Watson of Georgia to the Senate necessarily calls attention to the growing menace of racial and religious intolerance in the United States. Race hatred and prejudice have long festered in our body politic, and made mockery of some of our most cherished and highly vaunted professions. Bigots there have been in important public offices and even in the Senate, but never before has so conspicuous, so violent, so flaming an apostle of every variety of race hatred been invested with the power and dignity of the Senatorial Toga. Watson’s election, while due to a variety of circumstances and a combination of issues, is essentially the victory of a Fifth Estate, of the sinister forces of intolerance, superstition, prejudice, religious jingoism, and mobbism. It may be thought that Watson rode into office on the tide of revulsion against Wilsonism and the League of Nations, for he bitterly opposed the war, fought conscription tooth and nail; and was both prosecuted and persecuted for it. His opposition to the League of Nations has been as violent as his antagonism to the war, but his attacks on the League and the Treaty were neither those of an intelligent seeker after peace nor of an ordinary political dissenter. Watson proclaimed and induced thousands of his credulous followers to believe that the League was an agency through which the Vatican seeks to impress a Romanist and Jesuit super-government upon the world. President Wilson, he painted as the tool of the Pope whose political agent, according to Mr. Watson, is Mr. Joseph P. Tumulty, the President’s secretary. The reaction from the war and against Wilsonism undoubtedly played their part in electing Watson, but it was a small part. For years he has been a powerful figure in Georgia politics, his violence and his intransigeance gaining him the role of fearless prophet and leader.

The World War has of course left in its wake a rising tide of every kind of tribal hate, an intensification of every primitive human passion, but anti-Catholicism is not a new phenomenon in the Southern States. Men are swept to Congress on it, men ride into executive mansions on it, and whole legislatures and county and city administrations are elected on that single issue. It stands second only to the hatred of the Negro as the moving passion of entire Southern communities. Already the waves of hatred whipped up by Watson and his fellow mobbists have resulted in the midnight burning of a Catholic church and school building and in several unsuccessful attempts at similar outrages. Permitted a steady development we might some day expect to see the burning of Catholics at the stake and such other of the monstrous delights of inflamed ignorance as are now practiced on the Negro population. At Watson’s door, for instance, can be chiefly laid the responsibility for the orgy of anti-Semitism that culminated in the ghastly lynching of Leo Frank, of whose complete innocence of the murder charged to him there is not the slightest doubt. In his long campaign of journalistic frightfulness against Frank and against all Jews at the time, Watson convinced Southerners by the thousands that the Jewish faith condoned and encouraged atrocious crimes against the children of Christians. As a result of Watson’s carnival of falsehood against Frank, which led to Frank’s legal, and later to his actual, lynching, the belief became widespread in Georgia that one of the Hebraic rituals is the drawing of the blood of children and the drinking of it by adults. The lives of Jews were unsafe in Atlanta during the height of Watson’s campaign, conducted through his newspaper, the Jeffersonian. Since that paper was suppressed for alleged disloyalty during the war, Mr. Watson speaks through the Columbia Sentinel.

But the anti-Semitism developed through the Frank case to improve Watson’s political strength and enhance the Jeffersonian’s circulation has, generally considered, been mild in comparison with the anti-Catholic madness of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. The city of Birmingham, Alabama, has but 10,000 Catholics out of 200,000 population. Nevertheless, the good people of Birmingham have been led to believe that Catholics are plotting control of the city, state, and national governments in the name of the Pope, that they seek the destruction of the public schools, and that they are a menace to the existence of the home as the basic unit of organized society. So firmly do the great majority of inhabitants believe these things that they go to the polls and elect men to public office on the single issue of protecting the Government and the community from Popery. Thus, the present Governor of Alabama, Thomas E. Kilby, was elected because he induced the voters to believe him a stauncher foe of Catholicism than his opponents. One of the rash pledges he made in his campaign, but has failed to redeem, was a promise to find legal means to compel priests to marry. One pledge that he has kept, was for the enactment of a “Convent Inspection Law.” It is now in force. In its original form it directed sheriffs, upon written application of twenty-five citizens, at any time of day or night, to proceed to the convent named in the application, thoroughly to inspect the place, and to inquire from every woman there if she was held against her will. There were objections to the form of the bill as presented originally and a compromise was effected. The bill adopted and signed by the Governor establishes a State Commission to inspect the institutions at regular intervals. In Florida, where the grotesque Governor Sidney J. Catts sailed into office on a wave of anti-Catholic and anti-Negro prejudice, a similar law has been adopted. The delusion inspiring this rare statute—that convents are polygamous institutions maintained for the Catholic clergy—is general wherever Watson and his associates have carried their campaigns.

The anti-Catholic prejudice is thoroughly organized. In Birmingham, for instance, if you don’t belong to the “T. A’s” you are suspect. “T. A’s” means True Americans, a vast and rapidly growing secret organization having the extermination of Catholicism as its sole object. “No Catholics in public office” is its watchword. The present county administration of Jefferson County, which embraces Birmingham, was elected on an issue confined to the dismissal of a Catholic young woman stenographer in the county treasurer’s office. The “T. A’s” had ordered the former treasurer to dismiss her. He refused. The issue was joined. The treasurer and those who stood with him were defeated, and the young woman was promptly dismissed. The present city administration of Birmingham was elected because the “T. A’s” supported it. When it took office all Catholics, save two policemen, were dismissed.

In 1916 two public school buildings were mysteriously burned in Birmingham. The city became inflamed against the Catholics, agitators charging that they had burned the schools in retaliation for the midnight destruction of a Catholic church and school building at Pratt City, near Birmingham, two years before. Federal agents warned the pastors of the two Catholic churches in Birmingham that a plot was under way to destroy their churches and schools and on their advice armed guards were employed. On two occasions parties in automobiles were driven from the church properties in the small hours of the morning. The Birmingham anti-Catholics are convinced the Catholics burned the public schools, just as the Catholics believe the “T. A’s” burned the church and school at Pratt City. The city editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald, Mr. McKinley, when the writer asked him, said he believed the Irish Catholics burned the public schools. The newspapers themselves are not above prejudice. A reporter now employed on an Atlanta paper was summarily dismissed from a Birmingham daily because he openly expressed his opinion that the “T. A’s” were “low-down.” The Birmingham Age-Herald and the Birmingham News, which control the field, not only tolerate, but by editorial silence and frank news-column recognition of anti-Catholic activities actually encourage the prejudice in the community. The efforts to dislodge Catholics from their jobs was carried out systematically and with considerable success, numbers of merchants fearing ruin at the hands of the “T. A’s” and other secret and fraternal societies which are parties to the prejudice. Each employer was visited by a vigilance committee, which demanded dismissal of Catholic workers under penalty of a boycott. It must be said for most of the Jewish merchants that they invited the committee to leave their stores and defied the threat of boycott. Birmingham, as well as other cities and towns, abounds in anti-Catholic literature. At newsstands one buys Watson’s paper, or the Menace, or any one of a number of lesser organs of prejudice, and is given free a booklet bearing Abraham Lincoln’s likeness on the cover and containing inside the information that Catholics assassinated all of our martyred presidents, and quoting Lincoln in an incredibly violent and bitter attack on Roman Catholics, concluding with an expression of Lincoln’s conviction that Catholics must not be permitted to enjoy political freedom in the United States. It so happens that Robert T. Lincoln has on several occasions branded this entire quotation as a sheer invention, but hundreds of thousands of Southerners believe it and are moved by every word of it. The back cover of the booklet comprises an application blank for membership, apparently in the “T. A’s,” although the name of the organization does not appear, nor does the name of the printer, or the union label or any other mark by which the circulators of the libel on Lincoln can readily be identified.

It has become a matter of almost routine necessity in Alabama for candidates for public office to make announcement of their stand against Catholicism. The following is part of the platform of M. B. Grace, candidate for Congress, as printed in the Birmingham papers last April 14.


There is said to be in this country a designing and militant force which is inimical to our Government and American institutions, which force is dominated by a foreign ecclesiastical power. Church and state must forever be kept separate. This is not a religious issue, it is a political issue. I stand solidly for the Constitution of the United States of America, and I am against that which is gnawing at the vitals of our American civilization undermining the hope of universal democracy and piling up inflammable material for the torch of terrorism and anarchy. The citizens of this American Republic must always be free to exercise their political rights as they desire, to belong to the church of their preference, and to worship their God according to the dictates of their conscience … I am a member of the First Methodist Church of Birmingham, Knights of Pythias, Elks, and Odd Fellows.

Governor Catts, of Florida, is responsible, along with Watson, for the widespread belief that the Pope has planned an invasion of Florida, there to set up the Vatican which “is soon to be driven from Italy by the anti-Catholics.” On the subject of Catholicism, Catts has made statements that can scarcely be attributed to a sane person. As an illustration of his qualities of statesmanship on issues other than the religious, the following excerpt from a news article in the Fort Myers (Fla.) Press is of interest:

Governor Catts, in the course of a speech delivered in the court-house of Lee County at Fort Myers today sought to arouse the ire of his hearers against the League of Nations by declaring that if the United States joined the international family of the world, nine men, one of them a thick-lipped gazabo from Liberia, would run everything over here.

“Why feller citizens,” he enthusiastically declared, “if we had a League of Nations those foreigners would take Judge Whitehurst off this bench here and what would they do? I’ll tell you what they’d do. They’d go to your homes here in Fort Myers, and look at your washing hung on the line in the back yard; they’d glance into your garbage pails; they’d pry into your kitchens, and they’d peer into your bureau drawers. And they wouldn’t stop there. What else would they do? These foreigners would peer into your wife’s closets and examine her clothes—her intimate wearing apparel. And you know what would happen, don’t you? I’ll tell you. There’d be black eyes and broken bones next morning. That’s what those foreigners would get.”

Fraternalism is the machinery employed for organizing the anti-Catholic prejudice. The Masonic lodges, American Mechanics, Knights of Pythias, Modern Woodmen of the World, Odd Fellows, Junior Order American Mechanics, are everywhere in evidence, and, besides the “T. A’s,” there have grown up a number of other societies devoted exclusively and actively to anti-Catholicism, among them the Guardians of Liberty, the Sons and Daughters of Washington, and the Ku Klux Klan. “These cities and towns are cursed with fraternalism,” said a newspaper man in Charlotte. “If you don’t belong to one of those orders you might as well be on your way. I joined the Elks but refused to join any other club or society. The boss thinks I’m a friend of the Catholics, whereas I merely refused to take part in organized hatred of Catholics or anybody else. The result is I’m in wrong.”

All the while Watson and his associates are ranting about safeguarding liberty and American institutions they are largely responsible for the widespread belief existing in the South today that lynch law is God’s law—if the party to be lynched is black of face, goes to confession, or reads the Talmud! Intolerance when it joins so many citizens in a common hatred, and dominates the politics of whole American States, is a proper and immediate subject for serious reflection by the whole people, for freedom of conscience and of action are menaced while it continues to advance.

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