Traditions of the South Upset; White Man’s Life Hangs on Negro’s Word

Another in our series of new transcriptions of contemporary articles on the Leo Frank case.

Atlanta Georgian
August 5th, 1913


Sinister as a cloud, as raven as a night unaided by moon, planet or satellite, Jim Conley is to-day the most talked-of man in Georgia.

His black skin has not been whitened by the emancipation proclamation. The record of his race for regarding an oath as it regards a drink of gin, something to be swallowed, remains unattacked.

But Georgia is to-day listening to the words of Jim Conley with breathless interest. His every syllable has ten thousand of eager interpreters. His facial expression is watched as keenly as he answers the questions of Luther Rosser as would be the physiognomy of the President of the United States be watched as he signed a declaration of war against Japan.

Jim Conley has upset traditions of the South, even as the Phagan case has upset traditions that have lived for years through the length and breadth of the country.

The South Listens.

A white man is on trial. His life hangs on the words of a negro. And the South listens to the negro’s words.

Had Jim Conley happened to be a negro of the new type, now so frequently seen in Dixie, a negro with education enough to halt his racial tendency to lying under fire; had he happened to be a negro of the old type, the type the South best loves and venerates, the [o]ld slave that is faithful to the family he belonged to as a dog is to his master, tradition would still exist.

But Conley has wrecked tradition. He is a negro of the type that the South has been trying since reconstruction to destroy, the meagerly educated, shiftless, gin-guzzling, half-anthropoid black that any nation could well be rid of.

But they are listening to Conley.

The South has not thus suddenly forgotten the fact that negro evidence is as slight as tissue paper. The South has not forgotten that when white man’s word is brought in combat against negro’s word, there is no question as to the winner.

Topsy Turvy Case.

Here’s the answer. The entire Phagan case has been as topsy turvy as the greatest creation of a Coney Island artist.

“White people believing a negro!” you say and laugh.

Why shouldn’t they, when a little factory girl can go into the innermost circles of the life of Peachtree street or Pace’s Ferry Road?

She’s thore. Mary Phagan alive could have approached three mansions of Atlanta’s aristocracy an hundred times in her plain little calico dress, and each time she would have been told to go to the back door.

But Mary Phagan, dead, is to-day in every home in Atlanta where lares et penates are set up, be those household gods, simply a family Bible or the gem-encrusted wedding crown which the wife of the household wore when society fought to witness her wedding and hoi polloi struggled to catch a glimpse of her beauty as she walked through the church chancel.

A Theme for a Sermon.

Mary Phagan in her lifetime never made much more than $5 a week. The laws of labor made that amount her portion. Twenty-five cents taken from her salary would have probably caused the absence from the family table of the cabbage and biscuit that are playing such an important part in these cases.

Now the State of Georgia is paying out hundreds, yes, thousands of dollars to discover and punish her slayer. The Frank family is expending as much or more to prove to the world that he is guiltless of the crime.

A sermon could be written on the subject.

Mary Phagan, alive, was a protoplasm in the life of Atlanta; dead, she stands out in a bas relief that is as striking as the great torch which the Goddess of Liberty holds aloft in New York Harbor.

Her name will always be remembered.

In noted criminal cases, it has always been the defendant for whom the trial was named. The word “Thaw” will be remembered when the name of Stanford White has passed into oblivion, and Stanford White did more with one stroke of a pen than Harry Thaw accomplished in his entire life.

There are few people who can recall to-day the name of Caesar Young, but there are few that forget the name of Nan Patterson.

Caleb Powers was charged with killing a Governor of Kentucky. The average man would have to seek references to remember his name.

But Mary Phagan died, and the case remains the Phagan case. Frank’s name will be carried with it a few years, and then will be forgotten.

The little factory girl will be remembered as long as law exists in Atlanta.

It is an awful shaft to erect. But it is more enduring than marble; it means more than man’s words have ever expressed.

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Atlanta Georgian, August 5th 1913, “Traditions of the South Upset; White Man’s Life Hangs on Negro’s Word,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)