While serving a life sentence for murder based on paper-thin evidence, Frank was kidnapped from his Atlanta prison by a mob and lynched on August 17, 1915.
His killing, and what is by many considered his wrongful conviction, has widely been attributed to anti-Semitism, and served as a rallying call for the Jewish community, leading in part to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, established a year after his trial.
While elected officials at the ceremony acknowledged the strides that had been made since Frank’s murder, they stressed how much more needed to be done towards promoting tolerance, especially in the wake of a slew of hate crimes that have gripped the city in recent months.
Hate crimes are up 9 percent this year over last, with anti-Semitic hate crimes specifically up 29 percent.
“Hate and bigotry ultimately took Leo Frank’s life, and this still happens today, 100 years later,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. “Whether it’s the color of your skin or the religion you practice, here in New York, across America, and all around the world, people are still killed for who they believe in or who they are.
“We’re here to remember a good man, and remember that we need to educate more, and need to fight these injustices to make this world a better place,” she added.
One of countless lynchings that gripped the deep South in the decades after the Civil War, Councilman Rory Lancman said it was important to utilize Frank’s story to reflect on intolerance against all people.
“Frank wasn’t the only American lynched in Georgia in 1950, we can be sure of that,” he said. “He is fortunate that he has a gravestone. Most didn’t even get that. So when we remember Frank, we must have in our minds every single victim of anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, sexist injustice.”
Public Advocate Letitia James said it was important never to forget America’s bloody past, no matter how painful.
“Lynching unfortunately is a tragic part of our American history, but we nevertheless must tell the story of Leo Frank,” she said. “It’s important we keep Leo’s story alive, because despite the progress we’ve made, me know anti-Semitism and bigotry are alive and well today.”
Born in Texas but raised primarily in Brooklyn, Frank moved to Atlanta in 1907 to take a position as superintendent of the National Pencil Company. In April of 1912, a young female worker in the factory was found raped and murdered, and the following year a jury convicted Frank of the murder, primarily based on the testimony of a night janitor who researchers now widely believe to have been the actual murderer.
Many historians say that Frank’s faith, and his status as a Northerner, was largely the reason for his conviction.
Initially sentenced to death, his sentence was later commuted to life in prison in May 1915, but two months later a mob overtook his Atlanta prison, kidnapping and lynching him that night in Marietta, Georgia.
Catherine Smithline, Leo Frank’s grandniece, said his death was still a source of pain for her family, however she hoped his enduring memory would serve to further tolerance of all people.
“The story of Leo Frank will be remembered in the history books,” she said. “It amazes me how many times I’ve been contacted over the years. It was a deeply tragic event for my family and the country, but my consolation is that Leo Frank’s memory continues to serve as a catalyst for tolerance and understanding.”