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“Strange Fruit” in the American Democracy

  • James H. Madison

Abstract

The death of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith at the hands of a lynch mob was not a unique event. Such bloody tragedies had frequently played on the American stage. So well rehearsed was the nation’s drama of lynching that members of the Grant County mob surely knew they were actors standing in a long tradition. Without studying a script they knew their lines and stage movements: crowds of angry citizens shout their outrage and epithets at the beginning of the spectacle; a knotted rope appears; the mob forcefully removes the victim from the jail; some beat and mutilate him; fire ignites to burn a dead body; the body remains hanging as symbol; souvenir hunters grab pieces of rope and clothing and in some instances even body parts; a photographer captures the scene of victim, mob, and spectators. The play is ended. Civilization is redeemed.1

Keywords

White Woman Saturday Evening Sunday Afternoon Newspaper Reporter Black Victim 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    For a good overview of lynching scholarship see W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., “Introduction,” to Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997), 1–20.Google Scholar
  2. In addition to the essays in the Brundage collection, see also W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Urbana, Ill., 1993);Google Scholar
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  7. Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington, Ind., 1984);Google Scholar
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  16. Visual evidence is provided in James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, N.M., 2000).Google Scholar
  17. For a vivid fictional account see Theodore Dreiser’s “Nigger Jeff,” in The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser (New York, 1956), 157–82.Google Scholar
  18. 2.
    For challenges of counting and the changing definition of lynching see Christopher Waldrep, “War of Words: The Controversy over the Definition of Lynching, 1899–1940,” Journal of Southern History 66 (February 2000), 75–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 3.
    Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (New York, 1892), 14.Google Scholar
  20. 5.
    Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942 (New York, 1977), 41–69;Google Scholar
  21. David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Philadelphia, 2000), 20.Google Scholar
  22. Japanese cartoons during World War II, for example, found in lynching useful images to present to Asians. Lewis A. Erenbergand Susan E. Hirsch, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II (Chicago, 1996), 192.Google Scholar
  23. 7.
    Dennis B. Downey and Raymond M. Hyser, No Crooked Death: Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and the Lynching of Zachariah Walker (Urbana, ill., 1991);Google Scholar
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  25. Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., The Lynching of Cleo Wright (Lexington, Ky., 1998).Google Scholar
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    Bernard W. Sheehan, “The Famous Hair Buyer General’: Henry Hamilton, George Rogers Clark, and the American Indian,” Lndiana Magazine of History 79 (March 1983), 20–21;Google Scholar
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  28. 9.
    Brian M. Doerr, “The Massacre at Deer Lick Creek, Madison County, Indiana, 1824,” Lndiana Magazine of History 93 (March 1997), 19–47, quote on 37.Google Scholar
  29. See also George Chalou, “Massacre on Fall Creek,” Prologue (summer 1972), 109–14.Google Scholar
  30. For a fictional account see Jessamyn West, The Fall Creek Massacre (New York, 1974).Google Scholar
  31. 10.
    The discussion of lynching in Indiana draws from the pioneering work of Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Lndiana: A Study of a Minority (Indianapolis, 1957), 276–87.Google Scholar
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    Darrel E. Bigham, We Ask Only a Fair Trial: A History of the Black Community of Evansville, Indiana (Bloomington, 1987), 104–07.Google Scholar
  35. 12.
    Winfield T. Durbin, “The Mob and the Law,” Independent 55 (July 30, 1903), 1790–93.Google Scholar
  36. For Durbin’s counterpart in Illinois, see Stacy Pratt McDermott, “‘An Outrageous Proceeding’: A Northern Lynching and the Enforcement of Anti-Lynching Legislation in Illinois, 1905–1910,” Journal of Negro History 84 (winter 1999), 61–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Gail Williams O’Brien, The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War II South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© James H. Madison 2001

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  • James H. Madison

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