One hundred years ago this week, on Aug. 17, 1915, a lynching took place in Georgia that was no more or less horrible than any other. It was unusual because the victim, Leo Frank, was a white Jew convicted and condemned to hang based on the testimony of a black man. When the death sentence was commuted to life in prison, he was taken forcibly from jail and lynched.


Frank's friends and neighbors stopped advocating for him once he was convicted. The Frank case reminds us that, in addition to the easy task of denouncing those who participate in acts of bigotry and vigilantism, we also need to take a critical look at those who remain silent. We often make a statement by not speaking. This was true 100 years ago and is even truer today, when it is so easy to actively participate in public debate via social media.

Frank was the superintendent of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta. On April 27, 1913, night watchman Newt Lee was on his way to the "Negro toilet" when he found the body of a 13-year-old girl who worked at the factory. Her name was Mary Phagan and she had picked up her paycheck from Frank the previous day. Frank was convicted and sentenced to hang on the basis of testimony given by James Conley, a black sweeper now believed to have been the murderer, who was imprisoned and interrogated for weeks until his story finally "agreed" with the police that Frank was the killer. After appeals were exhausted, the outgoing former governor of Georgia, John Slaton, found too many inconsistencies in Frank's prosecution to justify hanging and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Five days later, on Aug. 16, 1915, a mob overpowered the guards, took Frank from the infirmary where he was recovering from a knife wound, and hanged him near Phagan's home. The state of Georgia posthumously pardoned him in 1986.

Initially, Atlanta's Jewish community openly supported Frank. In a letter to the Atlanta Journal, he was described as having "the kindest of heart." Rabbi David Marx of Atlanta's largest temple went to New York City to consult with the recently established American Jewish Committee. However, once the verdict was in, and perhaps fearing anti-Semitic retaliation, the Atlantans who had previously supported Frank became strangely quiet.

Under what circumstance, if any, can we justify standing by — rather than standing up — when we witness injustice? The power of outspokenness was demonstrated just prior to the Frank case, when a vocal Jewish community and Emile Zola sparked the pardoning of Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer wrongly convicted of treason based entirely on perjury and anti-Semitism. The power of turn-of-the century Americans to address injustice was demonstrated by the abilities of the then-newly minted NAACP and National Urban League to raise national consciousness regarding the far more common hate crimes against blacks.

We need to remember the costs of silence now. The Internet and social media provide us with extraordinary abilities to document bigotry and injustice and to raise a ruckus to fight them. If there was little justification for silence a century ago, there is none today.

In the cases of Freddie Gray, James Price, Eric Garner and many others, people have used this new power to participate in politics via social media. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has kept racist brutality in the public eye. Its members have met with Hillary Clinton and brought key issues regarding black America to the attention of other presidential candidates, such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson. The perceived power of silence and its potential for misuse are evident in a recent Drexel University study identifying politicians and industrialists who have spent over $1 billion to suppress scientific evidence around global warming.

To be sure, Frank was only one of approximately 4,000 lynchings in America that occurred between 1877 and 1950 in the South. The fear to speak out against lynching can be seen in President Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 failure to support an anti-lynching bill, the Costigan-Wagner Act, ostensibly for reasons of political exigency. I have trouble supporting Roosevelt's silence or the quietness of the Atlanta Jewish community, but I can only read about the social pressures of those times. There is no uncertainty regarding those who wish to ignore or suppress our past and present difficulties in this millennium. Albert Einstein's statement that "If I were to remain silent, I would be guilty of complicity," still applies.

Leo Frank, along with many others, was a victim of his community's fear of using its First Amendment right to speak out against injustice. The mob psychology and legal chicanery that led to his death is immoral. The 100-year anniversary of Frank's lynching reminds us that the more subtle, and more insidious, power of silence is just as dangerous.

Rosenbaum is a professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, a graduate of the Columbia Op-Ed Project and a former lay leader of the Stephen Free Synagogue Religious School in New York City.