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Est. April 5, 2002

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What should have dominated the news cycle of January 6, 2021 as the most stunning set of political victories in the history of Senate elections - Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia - was eclipsed by the most violent insurrection and assault on the Capitol since the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, infamously known as the Burning of Washington. This recent invasion was domestic in origin, and one branded with symbols of hate, among them, the Confederate flag, a noose, and clothing reminiscent of the concentration camps of Auschwitz. Though the elections were obscured by the insurrection, make no mistake about it, what happened in Georgia was serious - history book serious.

Warnock, an African American, and Ossoff, a Jew, are the racial and ethnic descendants of two groups with intertwined histories whose shared experiences with racism and anti-Semitism overlap, while unfolding and illuminating two of the ugliest chapters in the history of Georgia and America. This was an election of redemption for Georgia, shaped by the demographic cul-de-sac mobilized by architect Stacey Abrams, bringing new political meaning to the term “New South,’’ first coined in the late 19th century by Henry Grady, editor of The Atlanta Constitution. It called for a modernization of southern society, prescribing an economic future based on the model of the industrial revolution rather than the antebellum slave-based economy. Despite the wide acclaim of the term, it did not envision any political role for Blacks in Georgia. It was grounded in white supremacy. “The superiority of the white race of the South must be maintained forever,” wrote Grady, “because the white race is the superior race.”

Jewish people were a small percentage of the New South in 1913 when Leo Frank, a Jew, was arrested in Atlanta for the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old white factory worker, where Frank was employed as a superintendant. He was sentenced to death by hanging following a sensational trial. There were numerous unsuccessful appeals, including to the U.S. Supreme Court, before Georgia’s Governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

This happened against a backdrop of intolerance and bigotry, when books, plays, and especially newspapers routinely depicted Jews with vulgar and gross stereotypes. For example, prominent Georgian, Tom Watson, publisher of The Jeffersonian, saw his paper’s circulation soar when editorializing with anti-Semitic rhetoric that Jews were not white people, while lending his support for the guilty verdict. As an ironic and baffling indicator of the low status and hatred of Jews, Frank had been found guilty by an all white jury based on the testimony of a Black man, whom evidence suggested may have himself committed the crime.

Because the white Georgia press and public were incensed by the Governor’s commutation decision, Frank was abducted from prison by a mob in Milledgeville on August 16, 1915 and driven 175 miles to Marietta, near the home of Mary Phagan. The next morning he was savagely brutalized and lynched in front of a menacing and approving crowd of thousands. Members of the mob and on-lookers demonstrated excitement in a carnival-like atmosphere, taking photographs of the corpse, tearing pieces of his clothing as souvenirs, and taking a vote to determine whether his body would be returned to his family or cut to pieces.

No one was arrested. Georgia’s leaders and leading newpapers which, during this period, also considered Jews to be a non-white racial group, argued that justice had prevailed. Outside of the South the lynching was uniformly condemned, receiving more news coverage and expressions of outrage than Black lynchings, which were more common occurrences, though Blacks, too, through their newspapers, leaders and new organizations such as the NAACP joined the chorus in railing against all lynchings.

Half of the Jewish population of roughly 3,000 fled the state after the event, while others exercised safety precautions by concealing their Jewish identity. Since that time, the Frank lynching has anchored the Jewish commitment to eliminating hate crimes. Largely because of the heinous nature of the crime, and the anti-Semitism surrounding it, and in response to widening attacks of violence on Jews, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was founded in late September of 1913 by B’nai B’rith. The conviction of Frank was mentioned by Adolph Kraus when he announced its creation.

Between 1877 and 1950, the NAACP conservatively documented that there were 4,000 victims of lynchings in America. A new report in 2015 from the Equal Justice Initiative documented more than 4,400 lynchings that took place during that same period. But none was as gruesome or grotesque as the last Georgia lynchings which took place in Walton County Georgia, a small farming community near Atlanta, in the summer of 1946, known as the Moore’s Ford Lynchings.

Roger Malcolm, a black sharecropper, was jailed in Monroe, after stabbing a white man during an argument. On July 25, Loy Harrison, the white farmer for whom he worked, drove to the jail with Malcolm’s wife, Dorothy, who was 7 months pregnant, to post his bail. Riding with them was a Black couple, George and Mae Dorsey. On the way back, a mob of whites blocked the path of the car, abducted the 2 couples and drove to a location near the Moore’s Ford Bridge where they were shot more than 60 times at close range and lynched, some reporting the unborn child being cut from the womb and stomped to death.

No one was arrested. When Harrison was asked by the FBI if he could identify any of the lynch mob, he insisted that he could not. What worried Harrison more was not the loss of the lives of four adult human beings and an unborn child, it was the loss of farm labor. “Why I’m as mad as anybody,” he complained, “the way they killed my niggers. I need all of the nigger hands I can get.” President Harry S. Truman was so outraged by the lynchings that he established a Committee on Civil Rights, an incredibly courageous initiative which incensed the Solid South - the Democrats of his own political party, ultimately causing a break in the party and giving rise to the segregationist political party, the Dixiecrats of 1948.

Coming in the wake of WWII and the revelations of the Holocaust, the atmosphere for the Jews in Georgia was chilling, prompting the Atlanta branch of the ADL to publish resolutions condemning the barbarity. No other non-Black Georgia organization openly condemned the lynchings. In Atlanta, a 17-year-old Morehouse College student, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a letter to Ralph McGill, the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, then one of the few white newspapers to take a stand against segregation, expressing his views on the immorality and racism of lynch mobs. He was deeply disturbed by what he felt was a lack of indignation among whites over the Moore’s Ford lynchings, and the violence inflicted on Blacks for exercising their right to vote.

Weeks earlier, Maceo Snipes, a WWII veteran had been fatally shot after being the first Black to summon the braveness to vote in the Georgia Democratic primary in Taylor County. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., would later say this was the initial “intimation of [his son’s] developing greatness.” A generation later, Stacey Abrams reflected to The Washington Post that the Snipes’ murder was “one of those stories about oppression and about Jim Crow that those of us who focus on these issues, especially in this region, you learn about early.”

Against this painful and abominable backdrop, the Georgia elections for the U.S. Senate are best appreciated and fully grasped. It is the thread of history that connects the past with the present. History remains the best standard for the measurement of progress and the affirmation of faith, truth, and the continuity of struggles for social justice.

The historic elections of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are about change the once unimaginable in Georgia, and it seems almost providential that, in tandem, an African American and a Jew would be the agents of that change. The transformative significance of this singular change of power in Congress should not be obscured or lost in the madness of the insurrection and violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol. It is a consolation of redemption for what Blacks and Jews have endured in Georgia and the South, and may point to a Newer South of diversity, inclusion and one distanced from the social and political traditions that still define and mirror too many of the values and beliefs of the Confederacy, the Old South and the New South of Henry Grady.

The victories of Warnock and Ossoff have allowed us to envision a new political map, one untethered to restrictions on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and zip codes, or to schemes of voter suppression. Both owe a debt of gratitude and reverence to the Civil Rights Movement which has positioned them - and many others who preceded and currently serve with them in Georgia politics - for this opportunity to serve. In many ways it is the political equivalent of the moon landing: one large step for Georgia; one giant leap for America.

Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore is the author of Bad Nigger! The National Impact of Jack Johnson, and is Distinguished Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association. His most recent book is A More Perfect Union : The Merger of the South Carolina Education Association and the Palmetto Education Association. His books, essays, reviews and articles appear widely. He is a frequent contributor to The Black Commentator. Contact Dr. Gilmore and BC.

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