NPR

Strange Fruit: Anniversary Of A Lynching

In 2005, James Cameron spoke at a press conference held by Senate members who passed a historic resolution apologizing for the body's failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation during the first half of the 20th century. (Getty Images)

Eighty years ago, two young African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched in the town center of Marion, Ind. The night before, on Aug. 6, 1930, they had been arrested and charged with the armed robbery and murder of a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and the rape of his companion, Mary Ball.

That evening, local police were unable to stop a mob of thousands from breaking into the jail with sledgehammers and crowbars to pull the young men out of their cells and lynch them.

News of the lynching spread across the world. Local photographer Lawrence Beitler took what would become the most iconic photograph of lynching in America. The photograph shows two bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a crowd of ordinary citizens, including women and children. Thousands of copies were made and sold. The photograph helped inspire the poem and song "Strange Fruit" written by Abel Meeropol -- and performed around the world by Billie Holiday.

But there was a third person, 16-year-old James Cameron, who narrowly survived the lynching.

The mob grabbed Shipp and Smith first -- and then came back for Cameron. He had a noose around his neck when he made an improbable escape.

They got me up to the tree and they got a rope and they put it around my neck. And they began to push me under the tree. And that's when I prayed to God. I said, 'Lord have mercy, forgive me my sins.' I was ready to die.
James Cameron

"After 15 or 20 minutes of having their pictures taken and everything, they came back to get me," Cameron told NPR in 1994. "Just then the sheriff, and he was sweating like somebody had throwed a bucket of water in his face. He told the mob leader: 'Get the hell out of here, you already hung two of 'em so that ought to satisfy ya.' Then they began to yell for me like a favorite basketball or football player. They said: 'We want Cameron, we want Cameron, we want Cameron.'

"And I looked over to the faces of the people as they were beating me along the way to the tree. I was pleading for some kind of mercy, looking for a kind face. But I could find none. They got me up to the tree and they got a rope and they put it around my neck. And they began to push me under the tree. And that's when I prayed to God. I said, 'Lord have mercy, forgive me my sins.' I was ready to die."

That's when some people say a local Marion citizen stood on the hood of his car and shouted, "He's innocent, he didn't do it."

Whatever the cause, the mob decided not to lynch Cameron and he was taken back to the jail.

Cameron was moved out of town, convicted as an accessory to the murder and served four years in jail.

But the case was never solved.

"We know that three young black men were at the scene of the crime. We know there was also a young white woman at the scene of the crime. Who pulled the trigger, who shot Claude Deeter is not known. And I don't think really can be known," says historian Jim Madison at Indiana University.

After the lynching, Cameron became a very devout man and vividly describes this day in his autobiographical account, A Time of Terror.

He believed that the voice that came from the crowd to save him was the voice of an angel.

He also went on to found three chapters of the NAACP, served as Indiana's State Director of the Office of Civil Liberties and founded America's Black Holocaust Museum.

In 1993, the governor of Indiana, Evan Bayh, formally pardoned Cameron.

"When a traumatic event happens like that, it makes an indelible imprint on the mind," Cameron said. "But I told him, since Indiana had forgiven me, I, in turn, forgive Indiana."

Cameron died on June 11, 2006, at the age of 92. He is survived by his wife Virginia; three children, Virgil, Walter and Dolores Cameron; and numerous grandchildren.

Produced by Joe Richman and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Radio Diaries with help from Deborah George, Ben Shapiro, Samara Freemark and Annie Baer. Special thanks to James Madison, author of A Lynching in the Heartland; Virgil Cameron, son of the late James Cameron; the Indiana University-Purdue University archive; Wisconsin Public Television; and WHYY's Fresh Air for use of their 1994 interview with James Cameron.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for a tree to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Poet and songwriter Abel Meeropol wrote that lament after seeing a photograph of two black teenagers hanging from a tree. "Strange Fruit" was later made famous by singer Billie Holiday.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (singer): (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit...

BLOCK: The lynching occurred 80 years ago this weekend in Marion, Indiana. In addition to the two young men who were killed, a third boy, James Cameron, had a noose put around his neck but his life was spared.

Decades later, a box of recordings was found in a basement. They contained the recollections of people who witnessed or took part in the events of that day.

Joe Richmond and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Radio Diaries produced this story of one of the most iconic lynchings in American history.

A word of warning: It contains language and descriptions of violence that some listeners may find disturbing.

Unidentified Man #1: It was the night of August the 7th, 1930. And if was after dark and I knew something was going to happen.

Unidentified Woman #1: It was a smothering day in summer when you just couldn't get your breath, hardly. And all over town you felt like something was wrong.

Unidentified Man #1: We heard about the shooting and the sort of dangerous condition of the mob gathering down there, you know.

Unidentified Woman #2: And there had never been anything like this. It come unexpected to the whole town.

Unidentified Man #2: We didn't think anything would develop up here, because those things just don't up North. You know, you get mixed up in a feeling you couldn't control.

Professor JIM MADISON (Historian, Indiana University; Author, "A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America"): My name is Jim Madison. I'm a historian at Indiana University. I'm the author of "A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America."

On the night of August the 6th of 1930, Claude Deeter who was aged 24, a local factory worker in Marion, Indiana was shot. We know that three young black men were at the scene of the crime. We know that there was also a young white woman who was at the scene of the crime. Who pulled the trigger, who shot Claude Deeter is not known and I don't think really can be known.

Unidentified Man #2: The sheriff, Jake Campbell, he had been looking for the three colored boys and they went out to the home of Shipp, Smith and Cameron.

Prof. MADISON: Tom Shipp who was 19, Abe Smith who was 18, James Cameron who was 16. James Cameron, especially, was very slight in stature. He looked like he was 12 or 13, not even 16.

Mr. JAMES CAMERON (Former State Director, Office of Civil Liberties, Indiana/Founder, America's Black Holocaust Museum): My name is James Cameron. I can never forget that night. When they put me in this jail, I was in there about three hours when daylight approached. And they were gathering in small knots of people - eight to 10 people at a time - and shaking fists up at the jail. And the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger all during the day.

Unidentified Woman: #2: I came down from the office and Grindell(ph) said, where are you going, kiddo? And I said, well, I'm going home. I said I've finished my day's work. And he said, well, you better stick around. And I said, well, what's going on? I said I haven't heard anything. And he said, well, they're going to lynch the niggers. And I said, oh, Grindell, you're kidding. And he said, no, I'm not. And he said you better stick around, said there's going to be some excitement.

So we went down to Marion and then drove in on the square, just for curiosity.

Prof. MADISON: People from all over town, from all over the county, get in their cars and drive to the courthouse square. Hundreds of cars blocking the streets, parked at all kinds of crazy angles like spilled matchsticks. There were some estimates by newspaper reporters that as many as 10,000 people were at the scene in this little Indiana town by early evening, as the sun was setting.

Unidentified Woman #2: It was something like 7:00 or 7:30, and it just seemed like things were just normal. And then all at once, why, things just broke loose and started to happen.

Prof. MADISON: Claude Deeter died in the Marion hospital. And as news of his death spread, people became more and more incensed. The police removed Deeter's bloody shirt and hung it from the front window of the police station.

Mr. CAMERON: The white man who had been shot, his bloody shirt was hanging on the flagpole of police headquarters there in Marion, Indiana, for the whole city to see. Waving a red flag in front of a bull, that's what you might call it.

Unidentified Man #1: And this mob, a lot of them were good citizens. But they had been whipped up to an edge where they were ready for anything. And they got that rope out of one of the hardware stores here. The rope that they used was new rope, about three-eighths inch. I used to have a piece of it.

And this mob just started for the jail, and as it went it got bigger all the way.

Prof. MADISON: Benjamin Franklin said that a lynch mob is a beast of many hands and no brains. But there were brains in this lynch mob standing in front of that jail: Leaders who knew what they were doing.

Unidentified Man #2: That jail wall was that thick and they had sledges and crowbars.

Unidentified Man #1: And the sheriff, Jake Campbell, they started to pound on the doors and old Jake wouldn't open up. He would not do it.

Mr. CAMERON: The sheriff had plenty of police officers there to stop the action of the mob. But the sheriff gave orders not to shoot out into the crowd, because there were women and children out there. So when the mob heard that some big men - four or five of them - asked for a sledgehammer and they began to pound around the front door of the jail, which was ironclad. And finally, they busted a hole in this iron door and then the jail was theirs.

They took Tommy out of his jail cell block. They beat Tommy first.

Unidentified Man #2: And they come dragging one of the boys out of the jail. They take him right down the sidewalk, everybody was kicking, hitting him and everything else.

Mr. CAMERON: We knew that Tommy was dead when the dragged him out sight because someone had ran a crowbar through him several times. And then they dragged him through the streets like a dead horse.

Unidentified Woman #1: People were beating on him with anything they had in their hand and screaming and carry - it was just out of this world. It was terrible.

Prof. MADISON: The mob then returned to the jail and pulled out Abe Smith, 18 years old, carrying him a block and a half from the Grant County Jail to a maple tree on the courthouse square. He was alive all the way. And there, with another noose, they threw over the limb of that tree and pulled the body up.

Unidentified Woman #1: And he reached up to get hold of the rope to keep from choking him. So they let him down and broke his arms so he couldn't hang on to the rope. And they pulled him up again.

Prof. MADISON: The town photographer, Beidler, set up his cumbersome equipment, his big powder flash and took a photograph of the bodies and the crowd. Someone wrote at the time that it looked just like people gathering at a county fair: men and women, old and young, a couple holding hands, a pregnant woman, a man in working clothes, a man with a coat and tie - ordinary average Americans attracted to the spectacle of lynching.

Mr. CAMERON: So after 15 or 20 minutes of having their pictures taken and everything, they came back to get me. And just then the sheriff came in, and he was sweating like somebody had thrown a bucket of water in his face. He told the mob leader, said, get the hell out of here, say, you've already hung two of them so that ought to satisfy you.

And then they began to yell for me like a favorite basketball or football player. They said: We want Cameron, we want Cameron, we want Cameron.

And I looked over into the faces of the people as they were beating me along the way up to the tree. I was pleading for some kind of mercy, looking for a kind face. But I could find none. They got me up to the tree and they got a rope and they put it around my neck. And they began to push me under the tree. And that's when I prayed to God. I said, Lord have mercy and forgive me my sins.

Prof. MADISON: This is the point where we don't know exactly what happened. Some people say that a man stood up on the top of a car roof and shouted out: He's innocent, he didn't do it. Whatever was said, whoever said it, whatever the cause, the mob decided at the last minute not to lynch James Cameron.

I suspect that Cameron was spared because he had the good luck of being the third, not the first or second, because he looked so young. Whatever the causes, James Cameron was taken back to the jail and his life was spared.

Unidentified Woman #1: Why? After it happened, I wished a thousand times I hadn't been so inquisitive, then, you know, both those trees died after that.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Prof. MADISON: And so at the end of the day, the town photographer, he took the photograph, went back to his studio and stayed up through the night, making copies, which were sold on the courthouse square in Marion, Indiana, the next morning, at 50 cents a piece - souvenir postcards of that Marion lynching.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Unidentified Man #2: I have one of the original pictures. And in that picture, I could pick out Big Steve(ph), who run the Marion Flyer. I could pick out Harry Lennon(ph), who was the brother-in-law later on of Karl Minor(ph), who beat me for mayor. I could pick out Happy Ansell(ph). I could pick out Happy Ansell's mother-in-law. I could pick out...

Mr. CAMERON: That's what makes that photograph the most famous lynching picture. If you cover the people up, you just got a lynching of two blacks hanging on a tree. But when you remove your hand and you see the expressions on their faces, that's what adds the importance to the picture because of the people in it.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees...

Prof. MADISON: And that photograph was one of the instigators of Meeropol writing this wonderful, wonderful song called "Strange Fruit," made all the more wonderful because Billie Holiday sang it.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Prof. MADISON: James Cameron was eventually convicted and served four years in jail. Much, much later on, the governor of Indiana, in 1993, issued an official pardon for James Cameron.

Mr. CAMERON: When a traumatic event happens like that, it makes an indelible imprint on the mind. But I told him, since Indiana had forgiven me, I, in turn, forgive Indiana.

(Soundbite of song, "Strange Fruit")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Here is a strange and bitter crop.

NORRIS: James Cameron went on to write a book about his experience. It was called "A Time of Terror." He died in 2006 at the age of 92.

BLOCK: Our story was produced by Joe Richman and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes of Radio Diaries with Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Samara Freemark. Special thanks to FRESH AIR and to the Indiana Purdue University Archives.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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