Anti-Defamation League Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The wrongful murder conviction of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman, led to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, a major organization with the mission of working against anti-Semitism and racial discrimination of all kinds.

Summary of Event

The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith was founded in September, 1913, with the express purposes of disseminating positive messages about Jews and Jewishness, combating negative stereotypes of Jews, and exerting pressure on public libraries, schools, organizations, and companies to improve the image of Jewish people in the United States. The origins of the Anti-Defamation League lie generally in the need to combat the racist and anti-immigrant feelings prevalent in the United States in the early twentieth century and specifically in the conviction of a Jewish businessman, Leo Frank, for the murder of a little girl in Atlanta, Georgia, in August of 1913. Anti-Defamation League[Antidefamation League] Jews;organizations B’nai B’rith, Anti-Defamation League[Bnai Brith, Antidefamation League] Anti-Semitism[Antisemitism] [kw]Anti-Defamation League Is Founded (Sept., 1913)[Anti Defamation League Is Founded (Sept., 1913)] Anti-Defamation League[Antidefamation League] Jews;organizations B’nai B’rith, Anti-Defamation League[Bnai Brith, Antidefamation League] Anti-Semitism[Antisemitism] [g]United States;Sept., 1913: Anti-Defamation League Is Founded[03440] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept., 1913: Anti-Defamation League Is Founded[03440] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept., 1913: Anti-Defamation League Is Founded[03440] Frank, Leo Kraus, Adolf Watson, Thomas Edward

In the early twentieth century, attitudes toward new immigrants were becoming increasingly unfriendly in the United States, for several reasons. First, many of the immigrants who arrived after 1880 came from areas of the world that had not traditionally provided large groups of immigrants to the United States: southern and eastern Europe. By the 1890’s, 72 percent of new immigrants came from these areas, and Jews fleeing pogroms and other forms of persecution made up more than two million of them. In addition to the negative response caused by their sheer numbers, the Jewish immigrants were often derided or feared because few outsiders understood their cultural traditions and beliefs. Finally, labor strife and recurring fears for the stability of U.S. jobs after the depression of the 1880’s encouraged the working populace in the United States to fear this highly literate, socially stable, and upwardly mobile group of immigrants.

The federal government repeatedly took steps to check immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and members of the Jewish middle class became increasingly worried about incidents of persecution, synagogue desecration, and other indignities. The final incident leading to the foundation of the Anti-Defamation League was the wrongful conviction of a Jewish man for murder.

Leo Frank was born in Texas and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Cornell University and graduated with an engineering degree. In 1907, he agreed to go to Atlanta, Georgia, to help his uncle, Moses Frank, run his company, the National Pencil Factory. Married to Lucile Frank in 1911, Leo Frank became prominent in Atlanta Jewish circles and was elected president of the local chapter of the Jewish service fraternity, B’nai B’rith, in 1912.

Frank was unknown to the general public until April 27, 1913, when the night watchman at the pencil factory found the mutilated body of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan in the factory basement. Frank, the superintendent of the factory, had seen Phagan on Saturday, April 26, 1913, when she came to pick up her wages at his office. After two days of investigation, the Atlanta police arrested Frank on April 29 and charged him with Phagan’s murder.

Immediately the case became a rallying point for anti-Semitic feeling in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, and around the world. Thomas Edward Watson of Augusta, Georgia, publisher of two anti-Semitic periodicals—a weekly newspaper called The Jeffersonian and the monthly Watson’s Magazine—immediately seized on the Frank case and began calling for Frank’s conviction in his opinion columns. Circulation of the newspaper and magazine greatly increased, so Watson continued his attacks against Frank and Jews in general, which further incited public opinion against Frank.

The investigation procedure used by the Atlanta police was highly suspect from the beginning. The single witness against Frank was Jim Conley, a janitor at the pencil factory who was the only other suspect. Local feelings were further aroused by the fact that workers in Georgia’s city factories were among the most poorly treated in the country, as well as the lowest paid. Mary Phagan, originally from the small, outlying town of Marietta, Georgia, became a symbol of the economic exploitation of formerly rural people in the city factories. In such a climate, the expensive dress and cultured manners of Frank and his family at the trial served only to inflame the passions of the local people against him. Throughout the trial, mobs surrounded the Fulton County courthouse and could be heard shouting through the open windows, “Hang the Jew!” This atmosphere all but ensured that the jury would return a guilty verdict, and in August, 1913, after four weeks of trial, that verdict was pronounced.

Frank obtained the services of a new lawyer, William M. Howard of Augusta, Georgia, who persuaded the governor, John Slaton, that Frank was innocent of the crime based on the physical evidence at the scene. The day before his term in office expired, Governor Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison, convinced that eventually a pardon would be issued when all the facts became known. Watson used his newspaper to cry for action, and a mob of five thousand people encircled Slaton’s house and threatened to kill him; the next day he left the state. On August 15, 1915, a mob of twenty-five men removed Frank from the jail where he was being held and lynched him near Marietta, Mary Phagan’s hometown. This same group of men later joined together to form the modern version of the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia.

In September, 1913, four weeks after Frank’s trial ended, the Anti-Defamation League was founded. Such an organization had been discussed for years among the membership of the B’nai B’rith, the oldest and largest Jewish fraternal organization in the United States, but the Frank case was the immediate and deciding factor in its establishment. Adolf Kraus, who was national president of B’nai B’rith at the time, specifically referred to the Frank case and its abuses in the founding statement of the Anti-Defamation League. The aims of the league, according to a 1915 statement of policy, were to encourage libraries to purchase books on Jewish subjects that were factual in nature, to enlist prominent public lecturers on Jewish subjects, to remove anti-Semitic texts from schoolrooms, to stop newspapers from publishing the religious affiliations of known or suspected criminals, to demand retractions of scurrilous anti-Jewish articles, to monitor plays and movies for unfair and untrue depictions of Jews and Jewishness, and to stop hostelries, apartments, and housing developments from discriminating against Jews or advertising that they did so.


Throughout World War I and the interwar period, the Anti-Defamation League achieved many of its stated goals. During World War II, the league was particularly important in responding to Nazi propaganda in both Europe and the United States. After World War II, the Anti-Defamation League continued to reply to anti-Jewish propaganda with corrective information and broadened its scope to include condemnations of all forms of racism, including extensive work for the passage of civil rights legislation for African Americans and other underrepresented groups.

In the 1980’s, the Anti-Defamation League requested that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole issue a posthumous pardon for Leo Frank based on new data and ample evidence that the initial conviction was prompted largely by a fear of violence from the anti-Jewish mobs outside the courthouse. Although the board initially turned down the request, on March 11, 1986, an official full pardon was issued at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, close to the courthouse in which Frank was originally tried.

In the twenty-first century, the league continues to work for racial justice and the fulfillment of its stated mission to “strengthen interreligious understanding and cooperation, to improve relations between the races, and above all to protect the status and rights of Jews.” In addition to identifying and challenging anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League is concerned with issues ranging from interfaith dialogue and preservation of religious freedom to foreign policy concerns relating to the state of Israel and terrorism. The Anti-Defamation League continues to point out examples of anti-Semitism in the United States and to agitate not only for an end to anti-Jewish propaganda and misinformation but also for a cessation of racism and racist speech everywhere. Anti-Defamation League[Antidefamation League] Jews;organizations B’nai B’rith, Anti-Defamation League[Bnai Brith, Antidefamation League] Anti-Semitism[Antisemitism]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dinnerstein, Leonard. The Leo Frank Case. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. An evenhanded, factual overview of the Frank case, including excerpts of testimony, diagrams of the murder scene, and subsequent information from sources not presented at the trial.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Golden, Harry. A Little Girl Is Dead. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1965. An exhaustive recounting of the Phagan case for the general reader. Describes in simple terms the climate of anti-Semitism in which the trial took place.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grayzel, Solomon. A History of the Contemporary Jews from 1900 to the Present. 4th ed. New York: Atheneum, 1977. Describes the history of anti-Semitism in the United States, particularly actions against immigrants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mendes-Flohr, Paul R., and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Reprints many documents relating to the history of Jewish organizations, including the 1915 mission statement of the Anti-Defamation League.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oney, Steve. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. One of the few full-length accounts of the Phagan murder case and its aftermath. Vividly describes the context in which the investigation and trial of Frank took place.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, C. Vann. Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Provides the best account of Watson’s career as a politician and publisher and details his involvement in the Frank case.

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Categories: History