Friday, August 6, 2010

6 August 1930 "Literally Waving the Bloody Shirt": from incitement to commemoration of a lynching

Far more moving and disturbing than all the Hiroshima coverage was a stunning but understated piece on NPR. It told the story behind what it calls "the most iconic photograph of lynching in America":
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. (read the rest)
Drawing upon interviews with historian James Madison, Cameron, and eyewitnesses, this 13-minute entry from Radio Diaries is gripping and unforgettable. Listeners will no doubt be impressed to learn how Cameron coped with this tribulation and what he made of his life.  That is as it should be.  But they should also be warned: the striving to find an "uplifting" message in a tale of atrocity is the mark of a philistine.  There should be nothing consoling here.  All the silver linings in the world are as nothing when weighed against the alternative of never having suffered the storm clouds in the first place.

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