Blog on the Run: Reloaded

“The Value of the American Family Today,” July 18, 2004

The Value of the American Family Today
Hooper (“Lex”) Alexander IV
50th Peden Family Reunion
Fairview Presbyterian Church
Fountain Inn, South Carolina
Sunday, July 18, 2004

Good morning. I’d like to thank the president of our clan, James Rodgers, for inviting me to speak to you today, not only because this is such a large and distinguished audience but also because I’m privileged to stand in the same place and speak on the same occasion as did my great-grandfather, the first Hooper Alexander, 105 years ago – you’ll be hearing a little more about him in a minute — and my father, Hooper Alexander III, five years ago. Perhaps one day my daughter, Victoria, or my son, Hooper Alexander V, also will receive this privilege. I think Victoria is sufficiently advanced that she could speak today if it were needed. But I think we can wait a while for my son, however; otherwise, today’s talk would be not so much about family and all about trucks … BEEEG trucks.

When Mr. Rodgers invited me to speak, I asked him whether he wanted me to speak on any particular topic. He ran this question past the chief of our clan, John Calvin Peden, who suggested today’s topic: “The Value of the American Family Today.” Now, being a journalist at a fine newspaper with a wealth of resources, I did what any trained professional in those circumstances would do to begin researching my topic: I Googled it. In less than a second, Google, the world’s finest search engine, perused the World Wide Web, the greatest collection of knowledge in human history, and concluded that the Web had absolutely nothing to say about the value of the American family today. I figured there was a metaphor in there somewhere – being a writer, I figure there’s a metaphor almost everywhere — but I didn’t have time to worry about that right then.

What I do worry about is that we live in a time of extraordinary pressure on the American family.

First and foremost, although the situation has improved since the beginning of the year, not enough people are able to find work they enjoy and for which they are qualified. It was my misfortune to graduate from college and start looking for work in 1982, when unemployment was 10%. I do not ever want my children to have to go through that experience, and I can only imagine what it must have been like in the Depression, when unemployment was far higher. We all know that the most important ingredient in reducing the rates of crime, illegitimacy, substance abuse and divorce is an economy that supplies most people’s basic needs and provides a little extra to spend on their wants or to put aside toward their dreams.

Of course, even the best job doesn’t help unless a person has the will to live within his means. Unfortunately, the high and growing level of material consumption our culture presents to us as, quote, normal, is as great a danger to the family as the more obvious threats, such as immoral behavior, we so often see our culture depict. Take for example the long-running NBC sitcom “Friends,” in which six young people share spacious apartments with great views on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I know from having lived in New York that in real life, such apartments sell for millions, yet this setting is presented as entirely normal. Multiply this by almost all the TV shows, music videos, movies and other forms of visual entertainment to which our families are routinely exposed, and the distortion of one’s material expectations becomes almost inevitable. And unmet expectations have never made anyone healthier, happier or easier to get along with. Just the opposite: They make us vulnerable to all manner of temptations we could resist otherwise.

And when the American family becomes so vulnerable, something tremendously important is in grave danger of being lost. Of course, you are almost literally the last people in America to whom I need to say this; practically any one of you could say this as well as I, or better. But today, I’m going let one of our relatives do it for us, a member of the Peden clan now dead these 70 years: my great-grandfather Hooper Alexander Sr., the same man who spoke here at the first Peden reunion in 1899. Some words he wrote almost 90 years ago still clearly speak volumes today about the value of the American family. Here’s how I found them.

For purposes unrelated to this reunion, I have been attempting to research Hooper Alexander Sr.’s role in the case of Leo Frank, a man who was lynched almost a century ago in Georgia for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. At the time, most lynchings in the South involved a black victim being tortured and murdered by working-class whites who were themselves, socially and financially, only slightly removed from their victims. But the case of Leo Frank involved corruption of some of the most highly developed instruments of state government and law to be found anywhere at the time. Moreover, the lynching was carried out by some of that area’s most prominent and respected citizens, some of whom already enjoyed, or went on to enjoy, distinguished political careers. Many of their descendants still live in the area, and as a 1998 Washington Post article reported, they are still, after all these years, reluctant to discuss the role their ancestors played in the case. And well they should be.

To summarize the case briefly: In 1913, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan who worked in an Atlanta pencil factory was murdered. The man charged with the crime was Leo Frank, the factory manager, who had the misfortune to be a Northern-born Jew at a time when being a Jew in the South was pretty much as bad as being black. After a two-year trial, which many Northern newspapers covered in great detail, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. Because of the circumstantial nature of the evidence and the changing stories of the prosecution’s main witness, a black janitor at the plant named Jim Conley who almost certainly was the real killer, a few people, including my great-grandfather, prevailed upon the governor to commute Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. That decision caused such community outrage that a few weeks afterward, a lynch mob broke into the prison, took Frank out and hanged him.

At the time, Hooper Alexander Sr. was the United States Attorney – that is, the federal government’s chief prosecutor — for the Northern Judicial District of Georgia. Of course, this was a state case, not a federal one, and my great-grandfather sought the commutation not in his official capacity but as a private citizen and close friend of the governor. At the time, he had served several terms in the state legislature. He was well-known for his efforts against child labor and on behalf of Prohibition. (Hey, no one’s perfect.) He was widely considered a likely future governor of Georgia.

A lot of books have been written about the case, but the most recent, and almost certainly the most thorough, was published just last year. It was called And the Dead Shall Rise and was written by a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution named Steve Oney. It mentioned my great-grandfather only in passing. But I figured that if Mr. Oney was the kind of journalist I am, he probably had gathered a lot more material for the book than he would have room to use. So I e-mailed him to see whether he could point me toward any original source material that might shed more light on Hooper Alexander’s role.

Perhaps his most important source of information was a front-page article published on May 30, 1915, in the Atlanta Georgian, at the time the only one of Atlanta’s three daily newspapers not locally owned. So far as is known, the only remaining copy of the paper exists on microfilm at the University of Georgia, and I had to work through a research librarian in Greensboro to obtain a copy. The article reported as news the fact that Hooper Alexander Sr. had appealed to the state prison commission to commute Leo Frank’s death sentence. It also reprinted that appeal verbatim.

The appeal starts on page 1 and continues on two full inside pages of the newspaper. As you would expect it offers fascinating insights into the issues of fact and law in the case. But I think it is more important, from a historical perspective and for our purposes here today, for the things it hints at and implies, things that were neither case fact nor case law but affected the case just as strongly as the gravitational pull of the moon affects our ocean tides. My great-grandfather’s responses to those issues illustrate an essential characteristic that I would argue can best be instilled, and in some cases can only be instilled, in the crucible of the American family. Fortunately for those of you who are probably terrified that I’m about to stand up here and read two full pages of very small newspaper type to you, these issues can be gleaned from just the first five paragraphs, which read:

Gentlemen – Knowing of my conviction that Mary Phagan was murdered by James Conley and that Leo Frank is absolutely innocent of the crime, and doubtless in the hope that an expression from some citizen of Georgia who is in no way connected with the case or with any of the parties may be more convincing than the argument of those who are professionally employed in it, some members of the bar, who are themselves wholly disconnected with the case, have asked me to state my reasons for that belief.

The case is now completely out of court, and there is no hope for Frank except in an earnest study of the case by those who are invested with the discretion to show or deny him mercy. The matter being now out of court and no longer a judicial question, I can not refuse the service. A fellow being of whose absolute innocence I am deeply convinced is in imminent peril, and the one whom I believe to be guilty of an atrocious crime is likely to go entirely free.

Surely some citizen should give utterance to an opinion that is shared by a very respectable number of people on the subject, who look with distress upon the situation as it stands.

I shall undertake the task in no other hope than that I may simplify and shorten your labors; except that hope that I may discharge it in the language of candor and moderation. The labor of preparation has been onerous, but it has been performed without the slightest hope of reward. I am not indifferent to the opinion of my fellow man, but, as I am not moved by any sordid interest, I hope I shall not be deterred by any apprehension.

The only request I have to make on my own behalf is that you and such other persons as may read what I have to say will take the pains to give earnest and impartial thought to the view which I promise candidly to express.

The first paragraph alone tells us these things:

  • It tells us that Hooper Alexander Sr., by virtue of his position the most prominent criminal lawyer in northern Georgia and a man whose job it was to put people in prison, not keep them out of it, believed that the wrong man was in prison and needed to be freed.
  • It tells us that lots of other people thought so, too – including fellow lawyers with the expertise to determine the weaknesses of the case against Leo Frank.
  • It tells us that he was willing to say publicly what he believed, although he had no professional obligation to do so.
  • It tells us further that many of those professionals who agreed with him were not willing to say publicly what they believed, although they were happy to have him take the heat for their beliefs. As I mentioned earlier, some of those who ultimately would take part in the lynching were among the area’s most prominent citizens. Publicly opposing them might be hazardous to more than just one’s career.
  • And finally, it tells us that he wanted the prison commission to be on notice that the system wasn’t working, that he knew the system wasn’t working, that he knew that they knew the system wasn’t working, and that he expected them to do something about it.

That’s a heckuva shot to fire across anyone’s bow.

In the second paragraph, my great-grandfather says, “The matter being out of court and no longer a judicial question, I can not refuse the service.” This sentence tells us a couple of things. It underlines how strongly he feels about the matter. But it also tells us he was well aware of his professional responsibilities, particularly his ethical obligations. If the case had somehow become a federal matter, he might have had a professional role to play. Only when that scenario was no longer possible did he speak up; fortunately, there was still time for him to affect the outcome.

The final sentence of this second paragraph – “A fellow being of whose absolute innocence I am deeply convinced is in imminent peril, and the one whom I believe to be guilty of an atrocious crime is likely to go entirely free.” — reiterates the issues and the stakes. One crime already has been committed, he is saying, and two more are imminent: executing an innocent man and sparing a murderer.

But just two words of this sentence also cut through one of the most powerful and malignant issues surrounding the case, the xenophobia and anti-Semitism of the early-20th-century American South. As the saying goes, Leo Frank wasn’t from around here. He was a Yankee, and 50 years after the end of the Civil War, Yankees were still reviled in the South, particularly in Atlanta, which had suffered special horrors at the hands of Sherman’s troops. Worse for him, he was a Jew, and if you think all the paranoid Zionist conspiracy theories now circulating on the Internet are bad, you should know that they were almost as widely circulated 90 years ago and probably only slightly less widely believed than the book of Genesis. In fact, this case created an almost unprecedented scenario in which a Southern justice system was not just willing but apparently eager to take the word of a black man over a white one. Jews were widely viewed as somehow subhuman. Yet with just two words – “fellow being” – Hooper Alexander rebutted the anti-Semitic propaganda and reminded his audience and the public of something of which they desperately needed reminding: that Leo Frank was no less a creation of God than he or they.

“Surely,” he says in his third paragraph, “some citizen should give utterance to an opinion that is shared by a very respectable number of people on the subject, who look with distress upon the situation as it stands.” Any reasonably compassionate human being would say the same thing under those circumstances. But I also interpret this sentence as a rebuke to all the people who believed as he did but were unwilling to join him in speaking up. He would do their work for them even if he had to do it alone, he was saying, but he wanted them to know that he, at least, knew them for cowards. It’s not a gracious sentiment, but it’s a perfectly human one, and in the context of all the other moral issues raised by this case, it pales into insignificance.

The fourth paragraph both challenges the prison commission and warns any would-be challengers. It begins: “I shall undertake the task in no other hope than that I may simplify and shorten your labors, except the hope that I may discharge it in the language of candor and moderation.” I may be guilty here of reading 1915 text with 2004 eyes, but he appears here to be politely warning the prison commission and the larger audience he knew the appeal would reach not only that the evidence against Frank’s guilt rose far above the standard of reasonable doubt, but also that Jim Conley’s guilt was almost unquestionable. His lone concession to the obstacles he faces is that he might have to make his case in quote, moderation, unquote: in other words, less bluntly than he would prefer.

He concludes the fourth paragraph with two remarkable sentences: “The labor of preparation has been onerous, but it has been performed without the slightest hope of reward. I am not indifferent to the opinion of my fellow man, but, as I am not moved by any sordid interest, I hope I shall not be deterred by any apprehension.” In fewer than 50 words, he encompasses these points:

He has done some hard work. He has done it because he thought it had to be done and because no one else was doing it, not because doing it is going to do him any good. Moreover, those who have refused to do the work have been motivated in many cases by a, quote, sordid interest, unquote, in particular the most vicious kind of anti-Semitism.

Finally, in those two sentences, he acknowledges that doing what he has done will damage him in the eyes of many people, some of them quite influential, and that he has prepared for that eventuality. Nineteen hundred years before, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ phrased it as, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” In today’s more macho, less reverent culture, we might phrase it as, “Bring it on.”

He sustains that challenge in the final paragraph of the introduction of his appeal: “The only request I have to make on my own behalf is that you and such other persons as may read what I have to say will take the pains to give earnest and impartial thought to the view which I promise candidly to express.” He’s telling the prison commission: Do your job. And with the reference to “such other persons as may read what I have to say,” he is telling both the prison commission and the unnamed others whose malfeasance has brought things to this pass, “We’re watching you.”

The problem is, they were watching him, too. And while I can’t yet document it as fact, it’s common belief in our family that Hooper Alexander’s advocacy role in the Leo Frank case ended his political career. I do know that he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 1920. A college friend of mine stumbled across a campaign finance report of his in the DeKalb County Courthouse a few years back and mailed me a copy, and even after adjustment for three quarters of a century of inflation and the grossly metastasizing expenses of political campaigns, the amount of money he had been able to raise was pitiful. Meanwhile, someone who did win election in 1920 was Tom Watson, the man whose local weekly newspaper, the Jeffersonian, had been instrumental in stirring popular feeling against Leo Frank. Watson became a United States senator.

Now, what do we learn about Hooper Alexander from this very public advocacy on behalf of the rule of law, and of a man and an issue with almost no popular backing? He put his good name and career on the line and paid a terrible financial and personal price, and for that we might call him courageous except that his behavior raises a question, one to which I have no answer and by which I mean absolutely no offense to my ancestor: Is it courageous to do something you don’t think you have a choice but to do? I don’t think he felt he had a choice. I think he felt as Martin Luther was reputed to have felt when he, too, led a revolt against a corrupt order: Here I stand; I can do no other.

Whether or not to act in such a way is courageous, one thing is clear: Today, the inculcation of such moral conviction in Americans takes place almost nowhere except within our families. Our schools, by and large, simply aren’t set up to do it. Our popular culture, and for that matter much of our politics, is predicated solely on using mindless diversion – or, at best, the language of virtue without its substance — to sell us things we don’t need or that are even bad for us. Even the military, which one might think would rely heavily upon such virtues, in fact seeks to instill related but quite different virtues, primarily and most importantly the desire not to let one’s comrades down under fire. Hooper Alexander, in contrast, stood alone; he had no comrades under fire. Some of our religious institutions might seek to instill this virtue, and properly so, and in some cases they do a fine job. But in some cases, they’re spending more time worrying about ultimately trivial issues of dogma than about helping people become the kind of people Hooper Alexander turned out to be, which is the same kind of person I believe Christ intended for us to be. And in other cases, they’re simply defending the indefensible.

No, I think in the end, the kind of values that led Hooper Alexander to put his name, career and fortune on the line against a corrupt system on behalf of an innocent but thoroughly despised man are most often and most effectively conveyed and inculcated through the American family.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. The great broadcaster and journalist Edward R. Murrow, who grew up near the city where I now live, once put it this way: “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular.”

So how valuable is the American family today? More valuable than ever … because the need for people willing to defend right but unpopular causes is greater today than ever. Indeed, our country’s future depends on such people, and I pray that by virtue of the character exhibited by Hooper Alexander, strong families such as ours will be able to nurture the same character in our descendants, and thus to deliver our country to the brighter future for which we all hope.

Peden Clan president James Rodgers, Dad and me, Fairview Presbyterian Church, Fountain Inn, SC, July 18, 2004

Peden Clan president James Rodgers, Dad and me, Fairview Presbyterian Church, Fountain Inn, SC, July 18, 2004

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