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Rabbi to NFL: Censure Falcons Owner

September 8, 2000

ATLANTA (AP) _ A rabbi has asked the NFL to censure a part-owner of the Atlanta Falcons for remarks about the notorious 1915 lynching of Leo Frank. He said Friday that if he gets no response he will complain to the team’s corporate sponsors.

``What I intend to do is take it up with the sponsors of the Falcons, which include Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Delta Air Lines,″ Rabbi Steven Lebow said.

Tom Watson Brown, who owns 6 percent of the Falcons, contends that Frank, a Jew, was properly convicted of killing 13-year-old Mary Phagan and was lynched because his supporters bought off the governor to get his sentence commuted.

Brown’s great-grandfather was an editorialist and later U.S. Sen. Tom Watson, whose writings were blamed for whipping up anti-Semitism before the lynching. Brown recently was quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying, ``Maybe the Frank people should apologize for bribing the governor.″

Lebow, who leads Temple Kol Emeth in suburban Marietta about two miles from the site where Frank was lynched, said Brown’s words perpetuate the stereotype of ``rich Jews″ controlling the system and slanders Jews.

Brown has said he will not retract his statements. He did not return phone calls Friday.

Frank was sentenced to death for the killing of Phagan, whose body was dumped in the Atlanta pencil factory Frank managed. His trial, colored by bigotry and questionable evidence, took place as hundreds of spectators standing outside the courthouse chanting, ``Hang the Jew.″

Frank was sentenced to death. Gov. John M. Slaton, a law partner of Frank’s lawyer, changed his sentence to life in prison. But an angry mob abducted Frank from jail and lynched him. The case became a rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan and was key in the formation of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

The Frank case came to the cultural fore again recently when Atlanta-area theaters staged two productions based on the story.

Brown claims that the governor, because he was a partner with the law firm that defended Frank, shared in a promised bonus if it won a commutation.

Steve Oney, a writer who has spent 13 years researching and writing a book on the case, said there is no evidence the governor was bribed into the action that ruined his political career.

``I think Slaton made a decision of conscience,″ he said. ``That said, there was a clear and troubling appearance of a conflict of interest.″

John Phagan, Mary Phagan’s great nephew who still lives in suburban Atlanta, said those who believe Frank was guilty don’t get fair treatment in the media.

``It seems free speech is there for everybody but the Phagans and the Browns,″ he said.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue will respond when he receives Lebow’s letter, spokesman Greg Aiello said. Falcons spokesman Aaron Salkin said the team would not respond to Lebow’s complaints because Watson is only an investor in the team.

``It sounds like Tom Watson Brown is talking about his grandfather and defending his grandfather,″ Salkin said. ``When it’s time to speak about the Atlanta Falcons, that’s up to Taylor Smith, who is team president, and his family.″

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