Strange Fruit meets Jesus' Crucifixion

Photographer Lawrence Beitler captured the Marion lynching so he could sell postcards of the event.

The lyrics of "Strange Fruit," the song that turns 75 this year, illustrate in no uncertain terms the truth of white America's historical heathenism:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves

and blood at the root,

Black body 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 magnolia sweet and fresh,

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

The lyrics of the song, penned by Abel Meeropol, a New York City schoolteacher, had originally been published as a poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in 1936. Meeropol wrote the verse as a reaction to one of the most startling photographs of a crime scene ever shot, the hanging of two black men from a tree in the center of Marion, Ind. on Aug. 7, 1930.

A cold, hard look at Indiana history will serve as a centerpiece in this year's Holy Week Celebration at Christian Theological Seminary with "Strange Fruit: Encountering the Mystery of the Cross Through the Arts."

At 7 p.m. on April 14 and 15, CTS will host programs using music, dance, spoken word, and film to meditate on the connections between "Strange Fruit" and the legacy of Jesus' crucifixion.

The 12-minute film "Strange Fruit" is the brainchild of CTS faculty member Frank Thomas. Thomas drew his inspiration from the work of another theologian, an author from Union Theological Seminary named James Cone.

A Cone lecture, which eventually became the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree "created a ripple effect that really gave birth to a conversation about how American history and our struggles in terms of race relations, in terms of slavery, in terms of bigotry, in terms of violence can and should be understood," said CTS President Matthew Boulton. "... Christianity for centuries has tried to uncover questions about violence, guilt and forgiveness.

"Thomas put together — with a colleague of his — a sermon on film, a short film honoring the 75th anniversary of Strange Fruit ... his interpretation really drew on not only James Cone but a deeper history of Christian interpretation in order to honor the song but also this chapter in Indiana history."

The film, produced with help from local public television station WFYI, has already been shown to various congregations around Central Indiana. "It's getting a really powerful reaction ... many people are totally unaware of the whole narrative [of] these lynchings in Marion," Boulton said.

Writing under the name Lewis Allan, Meeropol cast the photo as an artifact of Depression-era Dixie although the shot had been taken in Indiana, a state regarded then and now as "Northern." He was overcome with revulsion at the cavalier attitudes expressed by the white faces in the crowd: Some are old, some are young, some are nonplussed, some are grinning broadly. One man points toward the two dead, bruised and bloody African-American men hanging from the tree behind him. The pointing man gazes toward the camera confidently.

None of the faces of the living appear to express remorse.

After Meeropol added a melody to "Strange Fruit" and published the composition, he played it for a New York nightclub owner who soon passed the number to Billie Holiday. She and her pianist, Sonny White, arranged the music for vocals and keyboard. According to NPR Music's "Take Five: A Jazz Sampler":

"Billie Holiday introduced the song at Greenwich Village's Cafe Society in 1939; the tiny basement club in Sheridan Square was the scene of unprecedented racial mixing. 'Strange Fruit' always came at the very end of Holiday's set. ... The waiters would suspend service so the room was quiet. Holiday was lit with a small pin light on her face, which went dark at the song's conclusion. There were no curtain calls, no encores."

The song was interpreted by dozens of other artists, eventually finding a place in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress and being recognized by TIME Magazine as "The Song of the Century" in 1999.

The photograph of the lynching that inspired the song was originally taken to be reprinted as a souvenir. Lawrence Beitler was a local studio photographer in Marion who surely saw money in the shot; photos documenting lynchings were turned into postcards meant to inspire fear in the black community while marking the event for the attendees. Beitler reportedly sold thousands upon thousands of copies of the image after the hangings, working day and night for over a week to meet demand for the grisly visage.

Of the estimated 4,479 lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968 — a count taken by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama — the Marion mob scene, preserved in a heartbreaking photograph and an equally moving song, may be the most famous example of a vigilante murder.

The two men who were killed that August night in1930 in Marion were teenagers: Thomas Shipp was 18 and Abram Smith was 19. James Cameron, then 16, was spared by the mob after someone in the crowd shouted that Cameron was innocent of any crime.

The three suspects had been jailed after being accused of the rape of a white woman, Mary Ball, and the shooting death of a white man, Claude Deeter. After Deeter perished from his wounds, Grant County Sheriff Jake Campbell took Deeter's bloody shirt and hung it in the window of the county courthouse.

The town was already on edge: a series of union-busting bombings had gone unsolved, and many Marion residents were familiar with newspaper statistics about the high rate of dismissals in Grant County. Over 60 percent of those tried for crime in and around Marion got off, and the public perceived local cops and detectives as completely inept. Additionally, the entire state had been consumed by the rise of Ku Klux Klan activity, influence and control in the decade prior — in the '20s, over half of the members of the state legislature were dues-paying Klansmen.

As crowds began to gather around Marion's town square, Sheriff Campbell ordered his men to keep their weapons holstered — the mob included women and kids. The throng grew rapidly as news of the killing and the rape spread, and onlookers streamed into Marion from surrounding towns. By nightfall, somewhere between 10 and 15,000 Hoosiers stood outside the Grant County jail, howling for the blood of the three black teenagers inside. (Marion's total population in 1930 stood at about 23,000.)

Whether Campbell was complicit in the murders is unclear, but the crowd that had gathered clearly outnumbered law enforcement officials that night. Using sledgehammers, several men began pounding away at the masonry around the prison's iron door. When the first barricade gave way, the mob found the interior doors unlocked, and began the assault.

Shipp and Smith were brutally beaten, then dragged to the tree where their bodies were hung. Shipp was by all accounts already dead from the assault when the rope was placed around his neck.

Lawrence Beitler was summoned to take a picture marking the day when the residents of Grant County ensured that there'd be no trial for the accused; no chance they'd ever be set free.

The acting head of the NAACP, Walter White, investigated the lynchings, and found the Sheriff and his men either incompetent or criminally negligent. Amid rumors that a group of blacks were planning to march into Marion and seek retribution, Grant County Prosecutor Harley Hardin determined he wouldn't prosecute, claiming his actions would only incite more violence.

None of the members of the mob who lynched Shipp and Smith ever served time, although indictments were brought by Indiana Attorney General James Ogden. Whites in Marion, enraged by the indictments, no doubt swayed the jury in the trial of two of the alleged vigilantes, and after the first acquittals, the remaining indictments were dropped.

Mary Ball eventually admitted that she hadn't been raped. Speculation remains that she may have, at one time, dated Smith or Shipp.

Billie Holiday's 1939 recording of the song "Strange Fruit" and the manner in which she performed it live helped cement the terrible event in the American consciousness; additionally, photographic souvenirs of lynchings did as much to inspire civil rights activists as they did to instill terror.

The CTS program that honors the legacy of Holiday's song is part of an observance of the Christian faith's Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter Sunday. In addition to the film — and an open discussion about the events that inspired the song and the video — the program will include vocalist Keirsten Hodgens (Ball State University); dancer Mariel Greenlee (Dance Kaleidoscope); cellist Eric Edberg (DePauw University); pianist R. Kent Cook (Illinois Wesleyan University); and, oboist Roger Roe (Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra & Indiana University). The filmmaker who worked with Frank Thomas, Elizabeth Myer of the Salt Project, will also be in attendance.