By: David Whyman
First thing in the morning (after a hearty breakfast) we went to the spot in Atlanta where Leo Frank’s pencil factory used to be and learned his story. Leo Frank, we learned, was a Jew from Brooklyn who married into a prominent Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1913, when a girl was murdered in his pencil factory, rapacious journalists took advantage of Southerners’ prejudice against Jews and Northerners to manufacture misleading news stories presenting Leo Frank as the culprit, stirring the passions of the masses against him. Even though all of the forensic evidence proved him innocent, Leo Frank was convicted of a murder most think he didn’t commit, sentenced to life imprisonment, and later lynched by an angry mob. We learned that Jewish lawyers in Chicago responded to this gross miscarriage of justice by founding the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). I was surprised less so by the historic blatant bigotry of white southerners in 1913…more so, I was astounded that today, in 2016, the state of Georgia refused to acknowledge Leo Frank’s innocence and only said his civil rights had been violated, and that his factory, instead of being turned into a museum, was gentrified into luxury apartments inhabited by people ignorant of Leo Frank’s story. One cannot underestimate the persistence of the forces of bigotry across time.
After lunch, we visited the headquarters of the Names Project, which sounded the call to help AIDS sufferers at a time when no one wanted to listen. We learned how the Names Project traveled the country during the 1980s compiling an AIDS quilt, with each quilt square made to memorialize a deceased victim of AIDS. We met with Julie Rhodes, the Executive Director of the Quilt and Ritchie Crownfield. I was astounded by their testimonies that popular politicians and celebrities had said things like, “these gays living deviant lifestyles deserve to die of AIDS.” Being gay myself, I was struck by the callous disregard with which American society had treated AIDS sufferers. But the heroic activists of the Names Project sought to create compassion in a climate of prejudice and brought 44,000 squares to the National Mall made by the sisters, mothers, and grandmothers of deceased AIDS victims. This act made heard thousands of LGBT voices that had been drowned out by intolerance. Walking through the warehouse where the AIDS quilt was stored, I gazed at aisle after aisle filled with quilt squares stacked on top of each other. “Why are all the quilt squares the same size?” one girl asked. “Each quilt square is 3 feet by 6 feet, in order to approximate the size of a coffin,” Julie answered. I was struck by the realization that for each of the thousands of quilts that surrounded me in that room, there was a person who had died a horrific death. I was struck by the magnitude of the pain inflicted on the gay community and the magnitude of the injustice that still continues today. We live in a world where an HIV-positive single mother often must choose between buying her medication and paying the rent, where school boards erase the suffering and activism of the gay community from history textbooks, where medication to prevent fetuses from contracting the HIV of pregnant mothers is not covered by Medicaid, and where schools in the Bible Belt don’t teach safe sex practices that could prevent thousands of HIV infections every year.
At the end of the day, we met with Reverend Williams, a civil rights icon.Earlier we had visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father and grandfather preached and which he attended as a child.
Reverend Williams spoke with incredible passion, and his powerful voice captivated my attention immediately. He recounted his years staging desegregation sit-ins and participating in civil rights marches alongside Dr. King. His aged body warped over the podium, the Reverend shook with emotion as he told us about a young woman who met her end marching next to him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge when a white supremacist’s brick shattered her skull. “I have been mistreated, jailed, my life threatened…” Tears came to his eyes as he cried out in despair, “How could human beings treat other human beings this way? How could the white man forget that we too are children of God?” I was struck by both the deep anguish over injustice and relentless dedication to civil rights that were audible in his booming voice as he recounted the horrors of bigotry he had endured. Reverend Williams also left us with a valuable message, urging us to go out into the world and make something of ourselves, but not only for ourselves––rather, for the benefit of the community. In two months, I will go to college in Chicago. I do not yet know what I am going to do with my life, and although I could never hope to equal the legacy of such a towering figure as Reverend Williams, I hope that I will make a positive difference in the community, some way, somehow.