Recently, we’ve been talking about young people who took action out of a sense of personal responsibility. People like Claudette Colvin who, at age 15, decided she could no longer abide the segregationist rules on public buses. As an African American, she would not give up her seat to a white passenger because she said, “It’s my constitutional right.” And the courts eventually proved her right—confirming what she believed all along. The four young African Americans who began the first Sit-In in Greensboro, N.C., also believed they belonged at a public lunch counter in a Woolworth drugstore. They, too, had the law on their side.
But what if, like most people, you did not speak and act from your conscience? And what if keeping that truth to yourself meant that an innocent man may have been convicted of a capital crime? Or what if, wishing to step into the spotlight, you fabricated details you knew nothing about? Those are the questions that plague at least one teen who was working in the pencil factory where 13-year-old Mary Phagan was murdered in An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank. Without passing judgment, author Elaine Marie Alphin presents a number of factors that may have contributed to the behavior of Mary Phagan’s teenage coworkers and friends.
It’s so much easier to blend into the background, or to say, “My actions don’t matter,” than it is to do the soul-searching necessary to go against your peers or the authorities or sometimes your own family to do what you believe is right. Leo Frank’s case raises searching questions about our responsibilities as citizens and as conscientious members of our neighborhoods and towns.
Here Elaine Marie Alphin talks about why she believes this case will be important to young people and why it continues to haunt her.