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People vs. Leo Frank film shows maturity of our town

It was a special night in Cobb County.

A confluence of all segments of Atlanta came to witness the preview of the documentary: People vs. Leo Frank.

The movie hit home. It recounted the dramatic story of the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew who worked at the National Pencil Factory. He was convicted of sexually abusing and killing a 13-year-old girl who worked in the factory.

But the film reveals all the questions surrounding the case, the trial and the verdict; and it spotlights the many faces of prejudice against Jews and blacks that existed in 1913, the year of the murder.

It was the impetus for the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization committed to fighting prejudice and hatred in our society.

What made Thursday night so special was all the people who were at the Cobb Energy Center. It was an audience that included members of the prominent Cobb families who had been involved in the lynching.

Also present were relatives of the Frank family. And then there were today’s wide array of metro Atlanta leaders — including Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former Gov. Roy Barnes of Cobb County (who had relatives and their friends who were involved in the lynching).

The documentary was filled all sorts of familiar names in Atlanta, such as the Selig family, the Clay family, the Brumby family, among others.

Barnes rhetorically asked the audience: Who could have imagined in 1915 that in the year 2009 that the chairman of the Cobb County Commission would be Jewish — Sam Olens; and that the president of the United States would be an African-American — Barack Obama.

“How far we’ve come,” Barnes said.

Before the movie, Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, told those present to look around at who was in the auditorium (only a couple of miles away from where Frank was lynched in 1915).

“Look at this audience,” Nigut said. “You are the people we wanted to bring together. This story has a special resonance with us. The audience is extremely diverse. We have representatives of almost every segment of the Atlanta community.”

Nigut said the story of Frank’s lynching was a crime experienced over and over in the African-American community.

“It’s a story about the evil of bigotry and hatred. It’s our Atlanta story,” Nigut said. “But we are not going to beat ourselves up over what happened nearly 100 years ago.”

Director Ben Loeterman said he had been inspired to do the documentary after reading Steve Oney’s book — “And the Dead Shall Rise.”

As a journalist, a history buff and filmmaker, Loeterman said the question sthat still haunt him are: “How did this happen? What can we do to see that it doesn’t happen again? We are supposed to make our communities safer for all of us and make them no fly zones for hate.”

That was the theme of the evening. The Leo Frank case is evidence that hate can be healed with the passing generations, but the forces of prejudice continue to mar communities around the world.

“Unless we remember, unless those of us who are still alive tell our children and grandchildren abougt bigotry and hatred, it will rise again,” Barnes said. “We will never allow it to happen again.”

To learn more about the film, click here.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. mariasaporta May 1, 2009 5:14 pm

    After reading my post about the People vs. Leo Frank, Bill Nigut sent me the following email. He said it would be okay to share it with all of you.

    From Bill Nigut:
    I agree that it really was a special night, and I am still reeling from
    the extraordinary support we got from such a broad range of people
    across metro Atlanta. The final numbers are pretty staggering: over
    2,400 people attended, and almost 100 federal, state and local law
    enforcement officers participated in the Leo frank training course we
    created to run on the say of the premiere! Thanks for writing about the

    I am so glad you were with us. Very few people are as dedicated to the
    story of Atlanta’s past, present and future as you are, and it simply
    would have felt wrong if you had not been there to share the experience.

    Bill Nigut
    ADL Southeast Regional DirectorReport


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