The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Neo-Nazis protest outside Broadway show about lynching of Jewish man

The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre is seen in Manhattan on Aug. 29, 2020. (JEENAH MOON/For The Washington Post )
4 min

In a scene that mirrored history, spectators waiting to watch a Broadway musical about one of the most infamous antisemitic incidents in U.S. history were heckled outside the theater — by neo-Nazi protesters.

The show, “Parade,” is a dramatization of the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory director in Atlanta who was convicted of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1913. He was abducted from prison and lynched by an angry mob two years later, and the case remains a lightning rod for the far-right.

Protesters showed up outside the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Tuesday as spectators waited to see a preview of the Tony Award-winning musical.

“You want the truth about who you’re going to see tonight? You’re paying $300 to go worship a pedophile,” one masked protester could be heard saying, using an expletive, in a clip shared by Jake Wasserman, an editor for the Jewish American publication, the Forward.

In the same footage, protesters can be seen holding a banner with a link to the website of the National Socialist Movement, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as “the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States.”

One Twitter user shared a photo of the fliers handed out by the protesters, which included a web address for a video platform operated by a group that the ADL describes as “a loose network of individuals connected by their virulent antisemitism” and Nazi SS logos.

Leo Frank was lynched for a murder he didn’t commit. Now neo-Nazis are trying to rewrite history.

Ben Platt, who plays Frank, said in an Instagram video that he heard about the protest after the show. “It was definitely very ugly and scary, but a wonderful reminder of why we’re telling this particular story and how special and powerful art and particularly theater can be,” he said. “And it made me feel extra, extra grateful to be the one that gets to tell this particular story and to carry on the legacy of Leo."

“Are you really doing the real work of an artist if you aren’t be protested by Neo Nazi’s?” wrote Prentiss Mouton, another performer in the play, sharing footage of the protesters outside the theater in an Instagram story. “If I wasn’t proud enough to be a part of this production it was solidified today.”

Frank’s case was significant due to the extensive antisemitic tropes used in protests and even some of the media reporting at the time. The Washington Post reported in 1983 that jurors in his murder trial heard shouts of “Hang the Jew” outside the courthouse, and members of the Jewish community, fearing for their safety, left Atlanta after Frank’s lynching.

The killing was meticulously planned, The Post reported in 2017 — from the cutting of the prison phone lines to the draining of the gas from police vehicles to help the attackers escape. But no convictions were ever made for Frank’s killing.

There were appeals against Frank’s sentence over the years, with a former office boy from the pencil factory coming forward in the 1980s to say that he saw the key witness in the trial — a Black janitor, named Jim Conley — carrying the victim’s lifeless body. The witness, by then in his 80s, said Conley threatened him and his parents told him not to speak out. It did not overturn Frank’s sentence, but Conley was later convicted as an accessory in the case and would go on to serve sentences for violence against women.

Later, in 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles posthumously pardoned Frank, but only on the basis of its failure to ensure his safety while in custody, and not on his innocence.

Survey finds ‘classical fascist’ antisemitic views widespread in U.S.

Frank’s story remains significant for other reasons: The ADL was established in the same year as his conviction, with the aim of stopping “the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” And just a month after Frank’s killing in 1915, a group of men — including some of those who took part in the lynching — revived the Ku Klux Klan.

“The trial and lynching of Leo Frank was one of the most virulent anti-Semitic episodes in American history,” ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman said in 2013 on the 100th anniversary of Frank’s conviction. That same year, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that neo-Nazi groups were creating propaganda websites about the case

Interest in Frank’s case continues, and so, too, does the antisemitism that colored his trial and killing. In January, an ADL survey found that 85 percent of Americans believe at least one anti-Jewish trope — a significant increase from the figure of 61 percent in 2019.