This Saturday (October 3, 2020) will be the 25th anniversary of when O.J. Simpson was acquitted for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
And whether or not O.J. did do it, the trial put race relations in the spotlight back then just as several tragic incidents have done so this year.
In the aftermath of the trial, several African-Americans expressed their opinions that although they believed O.J. Simpson was guilty, he should not be punished because of past racial injustices (e.g. blacks being lynched). Here are a couple of quotes:
- “I think he did it. But I don’t think he’s guilty. There is an unpaid debt in
black history, and we pulled for O.J. because of past injustices to blacks.”
- “So many black men have been hung, lynched, and killed for things they
didn’t do, that it’s time for a black man to get off for something he did do.”
It is likely that there have been cases in American history of black men being acquitted when they were guilty of committing crimes. But there is one murder trial in which a black man (who was the likely killer) get did away with it- the murder of Mary Phagan.
Mary Phagan was a thirteen-year-old girl working at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913. On April 26, she went to the factory to collect her pay.
The following day, a night watchman named Newt Lee at the factory found her body in the basement. She had been beaten, raped, and strangled. Lee called the police, and was arrested as a suspect during the course of the investigation. He was later released.
The other suspects in the case consisted of James “Jim” Conley (an African-American who worked as a janitor at the factory) and Leo Frank (the superintendent of the factory and president of the Atlanta Chapter of the B’Nai B’rith- a Jewish fraternal organization).
Conley would convince the authorities that Frank had raped and murdered Phagan, and told him to dispose of the body. So Frank was arrested and brought to trial based on Conley’s testimony.
Frank’s trial is ironic since the testimony of a black man was used to convict a Jew for a crime that blacks were lynched. And during the course of the trial, crowds had gathered outside the courthouse and called for Frank’s conviction. Some of the people even chanted “hang the Jew.” Thus, the trial had set off a wave of Anti-Semitism throughout Atlanta (as well as the rest of Georgia).
Frank was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. All appeals by his attorneys were unsuccessful. However, Georgia Governor John Slaton reviewed the case and commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment (thus ending his political career). Nearly two months after Frank’s sentence was commuted, a lynch mob broke into the prison where he was held, kidnapped him, drove him to Marietta (Mary Phagan’s hometown), and hanged him.
Thus, the story was tragic. Mary Phagan had been murdered, Leo Frank had been lynched, and those who lynched him were never brought to justice.
The story was also ironic given Conley’s testimony, not to mention that Conley was almost certainly the killer. And if that was the case, then a black man did get away with a crime he had committed.
Alfred Uhry (a Jewish-American playwright whose scripts included the film Driving Miss Daisy) believes that Conley was probably the killer.
Perhaps Morgan Freeman (who had starred in Driving Miss Daisy) should do a documentary on the murder of Mary Phagan.