Thursday, October 6, 2011
The Lynching of Young Blacks
Lawrence Beitler took this iconic photograph on August 7, 1930. It showed the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two young black men from the John Robinson show circus accused by a teenager of raping his white girlfriend (This accusation was subsequently found to be a lie). A mob of 10,000 whites took sledgehammers to the county jailhouse doors to get these men; the girl’s uncle saved the life of a third by proclaiming the man’s innocence. Lynching photos were made into postcards to show off civic pride and white supremacy, but the tortured bodies and grotesquely happy crowds ended up angering and revolting as many as they scared. The photo sold thousands of copies, which Beitler stayed up for 10 days and nights printing them.
Ironically, this photo which had become iconic image of lynchings was taken at Marion, Indiana, whereas most of the nearly 5,000 lynchings documented between Reconstruction and the late 1960s were perpetrated in the South. (Hangings, beatings and mutilations were called the sentence of “Judge Lynch.”) The photo was so iconic that it has been the inspiration for many poems, books and songs down the years, “Strange Fruit” by the Jewish poet Abel Meeropol (later sung by Billie Holiday) being the best example. Every time you hear Bob Dylan’s somewhat hard-to-listen-to Desolation Row, the first line you heard is “They’re selling postcards of the hanging”, inspired by the above photo.
The primary source for these events is A Time of Terror, which is an eyewitness account by James Cameron, the third black youth who was saved.