Tale of lynching, miracles, ghosts


WASHINGTON -- Seventy-six years ago, thousands of people came to lynch James Cameron.

In this, he was not unique. An estimated 4,700 Americans - the vast majority of them black men - suffered that fate in the years between the Civil War and the civil rights movement. Here's what makes Mr. Cameron different: He survived. The rope around his neck and the mob howling for his blood, but he survived. He is believed to be the only person ever to do so.

James Cameron died last Sunday at 92 after years of failing health.

I met him in 1994 when I went to Milwaukee to do a story on his book, A Time of Terror, and he told me about that awful night in August 1930. How police arrested him for a crime he had not committed: the murder of a white man.

How they literally stomped him into signing a confession he was not allowed to read. How the dead man's bloody shirt was hoisted to a flagpole outside the jailhouse, and all day long a mob gathered beneath. How a false rumor spread that Mr. Cameron and two others had raped the dead man's girlfriend. How the mob attacked the jail after dark, taking sledgehammers to the door until their hands were dripping blood. How they beat one man, Thomas Shipp, to death. How they rammed a crowbar through another, Abram Smith. How they wrapped Mr. Shipp's body in a Klan robe and strung both corpses up in a tree. How they came for Mr. Cameron, beat him senseless and snugged a rope around his neck.

How he was delivered by a miracle.

Mr. Cameron says a voice - it has never been independently identified, but he always said it was God - told the crowd he had committed no crime. And just like that, they let him go.

After the interview, I drove down to Marion, the tiny north-central Indiana town where it happened. At that point, the lynching was 64 years past. Yet people changed when you brought it up. Eyes turned inward. Hands trembled. Old people snapped at you. The crime haunted that place like ghosts, hung over it like smoke. As 93-year-old Jack Edwards, who was mayor in 1930, told me, "We're ashamed of it. It'll never be erased."

In 1988, Mr. Cameron founded what he called America's Black Holocaust Museum - a Milwaukee institution dedicated to commemorating the years of racial violence. An obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says the museum has never attracted the number of visitors Mr. Cameron had hoped. Small wonder. Black or white, these are passages we find too raw and painful and "close" for remembering. Easier to turn away, spare our delicate sensibilities.

As it happens, I had intended to use today's column to respond to remarks from some of my readers about a different hate crime. Recently, I wrote about the case of a white man in New York City who had beaten a black man with a baseball bat while yelling racial slurs. Because of the slurs, prosecutors argued the white man should face enhanced penalties under hate crime statutes.

Some of you had a problem with that and, indeed, with the entire concept of hate crimes. You argued that a beating is a beating is a beating and the penalties ought not differ based on who is beaten or why.

I can appreciate why that reasoning seems to make sense. But it's built upon a fallacy: that a hate crime is just like any other crime except for motivation. James Cameron's life and near-death tell us differently. Your average crime victimizes only the victim and his or her family and friends. A hate crime terrorizes an entire people. An entire place.

So you can't tell me that what happened to Mr. Shipp and Mr. Smith was only murder. Or that what happened to Mr. Cameron was only assault. Or that the person who burns a cross on a lawn is guilty only of trespass, or the one who spray paints swastikas on a synagogue wall has committed only vandalism.

For 76 years, James Cameron told us otherwise. The ghosts of Marion still do.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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