“Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant south. The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh. 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 the tree to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
What became one of the most iconic images depicting the horrors of lynching in America had its origin in an incident that occurred on a sweltering night in A ugust 1930 when a crowd gathered outside a jailhouse in Indiana–a photograph of what the all-White mob wrought that frightful evening was captured for posterity through the lens of town photographer, Lawrence Beitler.
It was the searing images captured in Beitler’s photograph that inspired song-writer and poet Abel Meeropol to pen the word’s to “Strange Fruit” which Billie Holiday interpreted with such mournful passion.
And, it was this same image I recalled when I learned last week that African American Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) had joined forces and led their senate peers in the unanimous passage of the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act.
Although the senate passed a similar measure during last year’s session, it was never taken up in the House. This year, with Nancy Pelosi leading the House of Representatives supporters of the measure are hopeful. If it passes the House and is successfully signed into law by the president, lynching will finally become a federal crime.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative there were more than 4,000 lynchings during the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet, despite continued acts of this racist form of terrorism, between the years 1882 and 1986, congress attempted and failed to pass anti-lynching legislation more than 200 times.
Last week’s progress on this important legislation seemed aptly appropriate during Black History month.
For 80 years, the haunting lyrics penned by Meeropol as sung by Holiday, has evoked profound images of the terror and intimidation of lynching that hung like a pall over the nation’s African American community.
Holiday also proved how the power of contemporary music like jazz, etc. could be used to tell the stories of racism. She courageously showed how protest songs–which had played a covert role during the dark years of slavery—would, from that time forward, play a prominent and overt role in the civil rights movement and beyond.
The story behind the iconic image captured by Meeropol in August 1930, is forever frozen in time as are the lyrics to Strange Fruit, the song it so palpably inspired. It is also equally as important, we never forget the lives of the young men whose ghastly deaths—as captured in image, poetry and music—is remembered but whose names are rarely mentioned.
That fateful night in August 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, and their friend, 16-year-old James Cameron, were arrested and charged with the armed robbery and murder of a White factory worker, and the rape of his female companion. A large White mob gathered outside the jail that same night. They allegedly broke in with sledge hammers and crowbars, pulled the men from their cells, and lynched them.
Cameron, who somehow survived the incident recounted to NPR in 1994, how the mob first grabbed Shipp and Smith before coming back for him and placing a noose around his neck.
“After 15 or 20 minutes of having their pictures taken and everything,” Cameron continued, “They came back to get me. Just then the sheriff, and he was sweating like somebody had throwed a bucket of water in his face, 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.”
Cameron then recounted how some people said a local citizen stood on the hood of his car and shouted, “He’s innocent, he didn’t do it.” For whatever reason, the crowd did not lynch him that night.
Cameron said he was moved out of town, convicted as an accessory to the murder, and served four years in jail. He later became an anti-lynching advocate. Years later, the woman involved stated she was never raped.
In his autobiography, “A Time of Terror”, Cameron wrote how he believed that the voice that came from the crowd to save him that night was the voice of an angel.
As we celebrate Black History month 2019, and the successful movement toward passage of the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, let us remember Shipp, Smith, Cameron and the thousands of other Black men, women, and children, brutalized to death or scarred by the memories of lynching.