An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind
One day, sometime during your childhood or adolescence, a Negro was lynched in your county or the one next to yours. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. But no one publicly condemned it and always the murderers went free. And afterward, maybe weeks or months or years afterward, you sat casually in the drugstore with one of those murderers and drank the Coke he casually paid for. A “nice white girl” could do that but she would have been run out of town or perhaps killed had she drunk a Coke with the young Negro doctor who was devoting his life in service to his people.
— Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949
I WAS AN ADULT BEFORE I ever saw the picture. But even as a girl I knew there’d been a lynching in Marion. That was my father’s hometown. And on one of many trips to visit my grandparents, I heard the family story: The night it happened back in 1930 someone called the house and spoke to my grandfather, whose shift at the post office began at three in the morning. “Don’t walk through the courthouse square tonight on your way to work,” the caller said. “You might see something you don’t want to see.” There was laughter at the end of the story — which puzzled me. Something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter.
I now know that, in the 1920s, Indiana had more enrolled Ku Klux Klan members than any state in the union, and that my grandfather was one of them. Learning this after he died, I couldn’t assimilate it into the frail grandpa I’d known. Couldn’t really assimilate it and for a long time, didn’t try. He had been an intensely secretive man, and certainly, there’d been other obfuscations. He always said, for example, that he was an orphan, that his parents had died in a wreck when he was three. I accepted this, but the grown-ups knew better. After grandpa’s funeral, my father discovered there’d been a safe-deposit box and hoped at last to find a clue to the family tree. Instead, he unearthed this other secret: a Klan membership card. All my father said was, “I never saw a hooded sheet. He’d go out. We never knew where he was going.”
So much of this story is about shame. My grandfather was a bastard, a fact that someone born in small-town Indiana in 1886 would rather die than discuss. And so he did. But if that particular humiliation seems foreign today, what about the other secret? A lot of us who are white come from… something, and it is not discussed. “That’s in the past,” we like to say, as if that did more than give us another hood to wear.
I remember, for example, when I first saw the picture a few years ago. Two black men in bloody tattered clothing hang from a tree and below them stand the grinning gloating proud and pleased white folks. I remember looking anxiously for my grandfather’s face. But of course, he hadn’t been there. I recalled the family story. There’d been something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter. And as I began to tell people this story, that became the detail I left out, because it shamed me: there was laughter.
FOR YEARS NOW I’ve wondered if I should ever write about these things. Part of me thinks — why my family? I knew my grandfather well enough to feel sure that he was a follower, not a leader, not evil, not really different from other white men of his generation. Would “removing the hood” illuminate anything? Or merely cause pain? I discussed this with my brother, inconclusively, but shortly thereafter he sent a newspaper article he happened to see while visiting my sister. I seized upon these coincidences, made them a sign.
Because there’d been a third man lynched in Marion that night — and he’d survived. He was living in Milwaukee.
Somehow a survivor hadn’t made it into the family story. But the clipping my brother sent said that this man, James Cameron, had opened a museum devoted to the history of lynching. And I know it mentioned that Cameron’s book, A Time of Terror, would soon be reissued by Black Classic Press. I reread the article many times, then lost it at some point along the swing shift of my ambivalence. Even so, I knew I would have to meet this man or regret it for the rest of my life.
James Cameron came so close to dying in Marion’s courthouse square that he had rope burns around his neck from the noose. He’d been dragged from the jail and beaten bloody and carried to the tree where the other two men were already hanging. In those last moments — certain he was about to die — he had a vision. Then, miraculously, he didn’t die. The mob let him go, just let him walk away. He was 16, and he believes he was saved by divine intervention, sent back to us with news — our Ishmael. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
Yet who would hear what he’d come back to tell? For over 45 years, Cameron tried to find a publisher for his story, probably the only written record by a lynching survivor. Finally, in 1982, he mortgaged his house for $7500 and published A Time of Terror himself. Now he’s struggling to renovate his museum building, an old boxing school/fitness center donated by the city of Milwaukee. He doesn’t have a working boiler. He pays electric and phone with his Social Security. He figures he needs $200,000 for renovations, and he’s certain that this — more than the book, even — is the true work for which God saved him. But Cameron is worried. He is about to turn 80, and this time he won’t have 45 years to get it done.
But here I get ahead of myself. First, you must hear the story of the lynching — and the miracle.
IT BEGAN ON THE EVENING of August 6, 1930. Cameron, 16, had been pitching horseshoes with a school friend, Tommy Shipp, 18, and an acquaintance, Abe Smith, 19. The three decided to go out for a joyride in Shipp’s car. As they drove past the Marion city limits and into the countryside, Smith announced that he wanted to rob someone to get money for a new car of his own. Cameron wavered inside; he immediately wanted to get out, yet he didn’t get out. They drove to Lover’s Lane to look for a victim. Spotting one parked car, Smith pulled out a .38-caliber pistol, handed it to Cameron, and ordered him to tell the white man and woman inside to “stick ’em up.” Cameron didn’t even know Smith very well, and later he would tell the sheriff that he didn’t know why he’d followed Smith’s orders. But he did know: once more, he had wavered. While something inside him said “go back, go back” even as he approached the car, he had been pushed forward by someone with a stronger will. And it was a last but fateful moment that this would be true of him.
There he stood, pistol in hand, telling the driver and his girlfriend to get out. And when the driver did so, Cameron realized that he knew this man — Claude Deeter — a regular customer at his shoeshine stand, someone who’d always tipped him, someone who’d always been decent to him. Now he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He handed the gun back to Smith, and ran. A few minutes later, he heard shots, and he wondered what had happened back there, but he never stopped running. As it turned out, Deeter had been mortally wounded.
Cameron arrived home with new eyes, because he saw the gulf that had opened between past and present. He saw his mother differently, feeling sorry for her for the first time in his life, though he lied when she asked him why he was so agitated. He couldn’t sleep. He kept telling himself he hadn’t really done anything wrong; he’d just been foolish. “The trouble was,” he wrote in his memoir, “this was Marion, Indiana, where there was little room for foolish Black boys.” Cameron hadn’t been in bed long when the police arrived — guns drawn, surrounding the house, raking it with searchlights. He could hear his mother getting up from the sofa bed to answer the pounding at the door.
Shipp and Smith had already been locked in separate cells on the first floor of the jail by the time Cameron got there. He remembers the three hours of interrogation, the kicks and punches delivered when it was over, the confession he then signed without even reading it. The officers tossed him into an upstairs cell block with 30 black men arrested for riding a freight train.
By the next morning, rumors were circulating through Marion that the white woman in the car had been raped. She would later testify in court that she hadn’t been touched, but the spark had been lit. Cameron writes that there was no particular “race problem” in the town, just the strictly enforced segregation common to so many towns, just an everyday sense of limits, if you were black. “And once the boundary was crossed, anything might happen to the trespasser.… The realization dawned on me that I had crossed the boundary into the most sacred area of all, the world where white women lived.”
He noticed a crowd of white people gathering outside the jail right after breakfast, some pointing to the windows of the cell, some shaking their fists. He could feel the tension among his older cellmates, who’d abandoned their usual card games to pace. Small groups of white people kept coming up the steps to stare into the cell block. A white prisoner assured Cameron that “people in this part of the country wouldn’t lynch anybody,” but a black prisoner countered that the white guy was “nuts.” Hadn’t Cameron been charged with the rape of a white woman?
The mob outside the jail grew steadily larger. Then, sometime during the afternoon, Deeter died. His bloody shirt was hung from a flagpole. As Cameron learned later, local radio stations announced that a lynching was imminent, and white people began to stream in from surrounding small towns, while entire black families fled Marion. Around 5:30, a reporter from the Marion Chronicle came by to interview Cameron. He told the journalist his story, but he could see that he wasn’t being heard, that the truth didn’t matter. “Ask the girl,” Cameron finally implored him. But the reporter just smirked, “You’ll never get out of this.”
In his book, recalling how he felt as that day built toward its violent climax, Cameron can’t quite fit the dimensions of his fear into words. “At times, even now,” he writes, “I awaken in the middle of the night, reliving that whole day — and night… I can never return to sleep. I suffer headaches all through the night. I just lie there, thinking, praying, saying my rosary, hoping, reassuring myself that it all happened a long, long time ago. I am not the same man. I am somebody else now.”
At dusk of that fateful day, August 7, Cameron could peer out from his second-floor cell block and see white faces for as far as he could look in any direction. He could hear people demanding “those three niggers.” And they began to throw rocks at the windows of the jail. Some carried shotguns. Some carried pistols. Some carried bats, clubs, crowbars, or stones. And among them, Cameron recognized people he knew: customers from his shoeshine stand, boys and girls he’d gone to school with, people whose lawns he’d mowed. He saw Klan members in robes and headgear, faces unmasked, who seemed to be monitoring the crowd. He sensed a carnival air. And there, laughing and talking with them all, were the scores of policemen ostensibly protecting the jail.
The assault on the building began at nightfall. Some men ran into the alley with gasoline cans and doused the brick wall, but they couldn’t get it to burn. Then, for the next hour, men took turns pounding with a sledgehammer on the steel door of the jail and the brick casement around it, while the mob chanted itself into a frenzy, and, as the frame began to give, people pulled bricks out with their bare hands and four men — adrenalized by hatred — lifted the entire door jamb out of the wall. Cameron could hear Sheriff Jacob Campbell ordering, “Don’t shoot! There are women and children out there!”
The ringleaders burst in and pulled Shipp outside first. As Cameron wrote, “I could see the bloodthirsty crowd come to life the moment Tommy’s body was dragged into view. It seemed to me as if all of those 10 to 15 thousand people were trying to hit him all at once.” Clubbed and stoned and then garroted at the bars of a jailhouse window, Shipp was dead long before the hysterical mob ever got him to the tree. So was Smith. Someone rammed a crowbar through his chest, while souvenir hunters cut off Shipp’s pants and distributed the pieces. Shipp was then dressed in a Kluxer’s robe, and the crowd dragged both bodies over to the courthouse square and strung them up. Cameron couldn’t stop watching: the delirium, the sadism, and finally, a weird ecstasy. Over at the tree, “people howled and milled around the lifeless bodies, their voices a mumbo jumbo of insane screams and giggles.” He could see them posing for pictures with the bodies.
And then he could hear the men coming up the steps to get him. Cameron remembers what they carried — ropes, swords, rifles, a submachine gun. He remembers the chanting outside: “We want Cameron!” But when the ringleaders rushed into his cell block, they couldn’t pick him out. At first, none of the other prisoners would identify him either, but the white mobsters threatened to “hang every goddamn one of you niggers,” and Cameron watched in horror as about half of his black cellmates dropped to their knees groveling, “Don’t hurt us, Mister White Folks.” Finally, one old black man pointed him out.
He remembers the white men gripping him viselike, and the chorus of voices yelling “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” as they got him outside. He remembers the bricks and rocks and spit that hit him as they carried him toward the courthouse, and the crowbar glancing across his chest, and the pickax handle hitting his head, and children biting his legs. “Once or twice, I thought I saw a kind face in the press around me. To each of them I called out for some kind of help.… But nothing happened.” Police began clearing a path to the tree where the other two bodies were hanging, and someone called out for the rope. Cameron felt numb, encased in ice, and as someone put the noose around his neck and snaked the other end up over a branch, he remembered what his mother had told him about sinners facing death, about the thief on the cross, and he prayed, “Lord, forgive me my sins. Have mercy on me.” In his mind and body and soul, he was dead at that moment, and he stopped thinking.
Suddenly a woman’s voice called out, sharply and clearly, “Take this boy back! He had nothing to do with any raping or killing!”
A silence fell over the mob, as Cameron remembers it. Or perhaps, it was part of his vision — because he recalls that the people around him were struck dumb, that everyone froze, and that he suddenly felt himself surrounded by what seemed to be a film negative and on it were the images of the people in the crowd, and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.
Then the spell broke. “And hands that had already committed murder, became soft and tender, kind and helpful,” he wrote. “I could feel the hands that had unmercifully beaten me remove the rope from around my neck. Now, they were caressing hands!”
Then the crowd drew back. He saw that many bowed their heads. They couldn’t look at him as he staggered back to the jail.
In the years since the lynching, Cameron has spoken to many white people who were present in the square that night. And no one heard any voice. No one but him. “You were just lucky,” they tell him. But something had stopped the rampage cold, and Cameron knows he didn’t imagine the voice. Sometimes, he can still hear it.
AND AT WHAT POINT in that evening did someone call my grandfather? To tell him there was something out there he didn’t want to see. Perhaps that’s the problem: we don’t want to see. I was thinking about Cameron’s vision. And that’s my term for it, not his. For in this story of signs and wonders, why should there not be a “vision.” I mean that moment of suspended animation when everyone around him froze and became an image, a negative, and he could no longer tell if those people were black or white. But why didn’t this “vision” appear to the white people — who needed to see it? Maybe it was something they didn’t want to see. Or maybe it had to be entrusted to someone whose life depended on it.
In the first hours, days, months following his narrow escape, however, Cameron had a heightened sense of black and white — as the blacks got angrier and the whites got more cruel, or more ashamed.
The four detectives who drove him out of Marion right after the lynching, to a jail in nearby Huntington — they were white. They ordered this beaten and traumatized kid to lie on the floor of the back seat the whole way, for safety, while they cracked jokes like “this nigger back here is as white as a sheet.” Then, in Huntington jail, there was the old man in the facing cell who began apologizing to Cameron — he was white too. He told Cameron he’d had a fight with his own son about going to Marion. The son wanted in on the lynching. “For all I know, he might have been one of the people in the mob. He might have been the one who put that rope around your neck, and caused that rope burn. He had me arrested and put in jail. Told everybody I was crazy. I am sorry, son, sorry to my heart.”
Next day, the white detectives drove him back to Marion. He lay down on the floor beneath a mat while they cruised the courthouse, where part of the lynch mob remained on guard. The cops crowed gleefully that “those niggers are still hanging on the tree” “and look how their necks have stretched.” One detective called out to a newsboy, bought the day’s paper, and pulled the mat back to show Cameron the front page. There he saw for the first time the infamous photograph of his dead companions surrounded by celebrating white people.
Copies of the photo sold briskly to sightseers that day for 50 cents apiece. And the bodies hung in the courthouse square till late afternoon when the state attorney general, a notorious Klan opponent, arrived from Indianapolis and personally cut them down.
Cameron, meanwhile, had been delivered to the state reformatory, where white guards gathered around to laugh at his clothing, shredded during the beating, and to ridicule his ashen complexion. But then Cameron saw another group of white guards come in and stare from a distance, tears running down their cheeks. Sorrowful, immobilized, they were unable to be more than Greek chorus to the tragedy.
Sympathy was apparently in such short supply among white people in the Indiana of 1930 that Cameron has never forgotten those who gave it to him. Like those guards. And the old man in the Huntington jail. “They are etched in my memory, stamped upon my heart,” he would later write. But at the time, tears weren’t enough to ease his growing hatred of all whites. For months, Cameron felt sick with rage and wanted to kill a white man, any white man. His stepfather actually lived this out for him within a week of the lynching, going crazy to “kill some white folks,” and managing to shoot nine policemen (none fatally) during a nightlong battle. (He then spent a year in prison.) Naturally, the lynchers went free. A grand jury ultimately concluded that Marion authorities had acted “in a prudent manner” on the night of August 7. Cameron was never even asked to testify.
Granted a change of venue for his own trial, he moved from the state reformatory to a cell in Anderson, Indiana, a town about 30 miles from Marion. Word soon spread that Klansmen from Marion planned to storm the Anderson jail, lynch Cameron, and “break in” the sheriff who’d just taken office there. But Anderson’s new sheriff, Bernard Bradley, turned out to be the first white person in Cameron’s life to make a positive difference. First, he promised his young prisoner that if those Kluxers showed up, he and his deputies would shoot to kill. Bradley had patrols in the streets every night, for weeks. Rumor had it that he had even armed the town’s black residents. Cameron writes that that clinched it for the Klan leaders, who decided not to try anything.
Once the tension eased, Sheriff Bradley called Cameron to his office and announced that he was going to make him a turnkey trusty, which would allow him to leave jail during the day. The sheriff said he didn’t believe Cameron guilty of any rape or murder. “I want you to treat me like a father,” Bradley told him, “and I’ll treat you like a loving son.” Utterly shocked, Cameron studied the sheriff’s eyes and body language, “because no white man had ever spoken to me like that before.” But he decided that “my concentration, my scrutiny, could detect no deceit or falsity.” He came to love this sheriff, this anomaly who’d grown up in an all-white town near Anderson. Cameron could only conclude in retrospect that Sheriff Bradley must have been “a weird sort of person, because he was mysterious and apparently outside natural law. By his nature, he seemed to have belonged to another world.”
Then, one day while Cameron was out in the town of Anderson, he saw a man on a bicycle, riding with a little blond girl perched on the handlebars — both of them laughing. Suddenly Cameron realized that this was one of the raging men who had grabbed him in the Marion jail and pulled him out into the street. And he felt a flicker of intense anger, but mostly he felt confounded by the purely human mystery of it. How could it be that this “happy-go-lucky man with that equally happy child had been capable of doing the thing I knew he had done”?
I COULDN’T HELP BUT notice that, after the lynching, many of the white people in Cameron’s story were either laughing or crying. As you’ll remember, I’m from the lineage of those who laughed. Though personally, I never got the joke. And when I think of my grandfather, who died when I was 16, I shared Cameron’s sense of bewilderment. I ask myself — how could it be?
Of course, how much can one know about a man who never even told his own family about the circumstances of his birth? All he ever said of his childhood was that he’d seen Buffalo Bill then. He had no family stories, while my grandma told so many. I remember once asking her about his parents, and she said, “We don’t talk about that, because it makes him very sad.”
One day when I was eight or nine, I found his mother’s obituary in a desk drawer. I didn’t know that that’s what it was. Just saw that certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade. Curious, I walked into the living room where everyone was seated, blurting out “Who’s Josie Carr?” No one spoke, but my grandpa got up and took the clipping from my hand. None of us ever saw it again. A search of every little newspaper in and around Marion never turned up another copy. Nor is there a record anywhere of her death. Or for that matter, her life. And certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade.
Now it’s been more than 25 years since I last visited Marion. Months after my grandpa’s death, my father drove us out of the town into farm country to see the little house where my grandpa had been born. Somehow my father had managed to find it again, after visiting once as a child. Sort of. My grandpa hadn’t shared this either, leaving my little dad at the end of a dirt road, telling him, “I want to see that house one more time before I die.” And my father remembered that while he waited, he could see a church in the distance with its graves. Now our car was parked at the foot of a rutted road from which we could see that church, its graves. And we were walking through knee-deep grass. Then we came to the little house. Or shed. Some horses were living in it.
My grandfather had a sixth-grade education. He hated cars, airplanes, speed — modernity. He never learned to drive. There was still a shiny black hitching post out in front of the house. For a hobby, he studied railroad timetables, and knew which trains rode on what tracks all over America. He was always walking to the tracks to watch a train. He named my father after Eugene Debs, the Socialist and trade union man. He did not allow any liquor in the house. He wore a long-sleeved shirt with cuff links every day of his life, and he’d wear the same necktie until it wore out, before he bought another. Always parsimonious, he did the grocery shopping rather than give my grandma any money — buying tongue, green-fried tomatoes, mush, hominy, the fatty cuts of meat. And when he took the family on vacation, it was always the same thing: one day in either Cleveland or Chicago to window-shop and ride the elevated.
He was part of the intolerance in the town, a narrow man. Yet I can also see him joining the Kluxers for the most painfully human reasons. The Klan made him respectable. For awhile there, all the “right people” belonged.
The Klan took over the Indiana Republican Party in 1924 and elected a majority of the state legislature. One open Klansman became governor, another the mayor of Indianapolis. Cameron thinks a prominent lawyer ran the Marion group. I read Kathleen M. Blee’s Women of the Klan, because most of her research focuses on Indiana in the ’20s, where, she concludes, the Klan was an integral part of white Protestant culture: “Far from the popular media image of people with weaknesses of character or temperament or intellect as the Klan’s only adherents, the Klanswomen and Klansmen of the 1920s were more often — and perhaps more frighteningly — normal.” Scholars disagree on the number of enrolled members, but it ranges between a quarter million and half a million at a time when Mississippi (for example) initiated 15,000. The indisputable fact is that in the ’20s Indiana had more Kluxers than any other state, though it was 97 per cent white and Protestant.
The Klan had developed over the years from a raw expression of hate to a more convoluted expression of hate. After the Civil War, it had been a purely terrorist organization. But in the ’20s, the Invisible Empire sold itself as a morality crusade redolent of today’s “traditional values” campaigns. The Klan claimed that Jews, blacks, and Catholics were purveyors of vice and social decay.
Possibly the only white writer to examine what it meant to be white in a segregated society, and this in the ’40s, Lillian Smith analyzed the signs and signifiers of the KKK, pointing out that no one could have dramatized the Return of the Repressed more vividly. These were men dressed in sheets and pillowcases, stalking through the darkness, intent most often on “the symbolic killing of a black male who, according to this paranoid fantasy, has ‘raped’ a ‘sacred’ white woman. It is a complete acting out of the white man’s internal guilt and his hatred of colored man and white woman.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the Invisible Empire in Indiana collapsed in a sex scandal at the end of the ’20s. Apparently, the state’s charismatic Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, had long been notorious among the Klan elite for sexual harassment, attempted rapes, deserted wives, and late-night orgies. But his exploits didn’t become public until 1925, when he was arrested for the rape and murder of a young woman. Once Stephenson was convicted, many Klan members never attended another meeting, and political infighting began to discourage many of those who remained. Again, scholars disagree on an exact figure, but by 1928 membership had declined to somewhere between 4000 and 7000.
The most bizarre stories I found in my research relate to the Indiana Klan’s fixation with Catholics, who were much more of a focus in the Hoosier State than either blacks or Jews. “Escaped nuns” and former “priests” often appeared at Klan rallies to regale their audiences with tales of Romanist sadomasochism, kidnapped white Protestant girls turned sexual slaves, and “abortions forced on nuns by the priests who fathered their babies.” It’s almost funny — these porn fantasies of the rubes, but they are a reminder of another fact: everyday life back then was determined in ways we can’t imagine by phantoms, rumors, and myths. Many Klan members anticipated the imminent invasion of the pope, who, it was believed, already had a papal palace under construction in Washington, D.C. Given their loyalty to the “dago on the Tiber,” Catholics were simply not good Americans. Blee recounts this incredible story from an anonymous informant: “Some Klan leader said that the Pope was coming to take over the country, and he said he might be on the next train that went through.… Just trying to make it specific. So, about a thousand people went out to the train station and stopped the train. It only had one passenger [car] and one passenger on it. They took him off, and he finally convinced them that he wasn’t the Pope. He was a carpet salesman.”
My grandfather had a particular hatred for Catholics. I still remember the worried dinner conversations over the possible election of John F. Kennedy — who would most likely be turning the country over to the pope. Maybe this antipathy helped push him to join his local klavern. I’ll never have an answer to that mystery. When I first learned that he’d been a member, I remembered that his was the only one of my relatives’ homes in which I ever saw black people — women from my grandma’s Sunday school class. And I remembered that my grandma herself was one-quarter Indian. But these are the paradoxes of American racism.
LAST AUGUST I WENT to Milwaukee to meet James Cameron.
It was a way to begin to find what had been hidden from me. At the time, I didn’t analyze it beyond that. Certainly there was nothing I could do about my grandfather’s choices, or about a lynching that took place decades before I was born, but somehow I felt I was still living the wages of that sin. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. Or maybe you knew that someone you loved had even participated in it, or condoned it, or laughed at it. The moment embodied in that infamous Marion photograph was a tragedy for everyone there. And I didn’t see a way to set it right. But I could go to Milwaukee.
When I met Cameron, I would have to acknowledge my own connection to that defining moment in his life, and I considered this with some apprehension. As I drove into the neighborhood near his museum, I realized I must also be near the parochial school where I attended kindergarten and first grade. I was born in Milwaukee, and back then, this area was undergoing “white flight.”
America’s Black Holocaust Museum sits on a quiet street between a public school and a soul food restaurant. Greeting me at the museum’s locked steel door, Cameron is more robust than I expect. He is a soft-spoken man, a down-home Midwesterner who in many ways has lived an ordinary life. He puts in six days a week at the museum, by himself. As we sit in his small makeshift office, I ask him to talk about his life between the lynching and the present.
First came four years in prison, as an accessory before the fact to voluntary manslaughter in the death of Claude Deeter. Ordered to serve his parole outside Indiana, he moved to Detroit, then returned to Anderson, and finally moved to Milwaukee in 1953, working a series of blue-collar jobs. He worked at a shoeshine parlor, the Delco factory, then a cardboard-box factory. Went to night school to learn air conditioning and steam combustion. Worked at a big shopping mall. Retired. Then, went into business for himself as a rug and upholstery cleaner. He attends mass daily. In 1953, he converted to Catholicism, a faith he attributes to the example of Sheriff Bernard Bradley. He’s been married for 55 years and raised five children.
But mostly what he’s done for over 60 years is struggle obsessively to bear witness. He began writing A Time of Terror in prison, but authorities confiscated the manuscript when he was paroled. By early the next year, he’d written it out again. Once he’d moved to Anderson, he began going back to Marion to interview white people who’d witnessed the lynching. Cameron then rewrote the book about 100 more times as he accumulated nearly 300 rejections before self-publishing. He pulls out pamphlets he’s produced on the Klan, the Confederate flag, the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery, Reconstruction, the first civil rights bill, the second civil rights bill… he’s written hundreds. The latest is “Definite and Positive Proof that Free Black Men Did Vote Right Along With Free White Men in the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America.” Neither an academic nor an activist, he’s out of the loop in which these messages usually get advanced, self-publishing as much as he can afford at $20 per copyright.
He hasn’t even begun to renovate the ex-boxing school. His exhibits have been packed away for over a year. But Cameron points into the gymnasium where I notice basketball hoops and piles of chairs: “That’ll be my Chamber of Horrors.” That will be the room with, for example, the photo taken in Marion’s courthouse square. Cameron intends to exhibit large pictures in the style of the Jewish Holocaust Museum. That’s what inspired him, when he visited during a trip to Israel with his wife, Virginia, in 1979. “It shook me up something awful,” he recalls. “I said to my wife, ‘Honey, we need a museum like that in America to show what has happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us.’ ” He shows me where he intends to put his bookstore, his contemplation room, his lecture and screening room. The spaces are still filled with old weightlifting machines, lockers, a pool table.
This building is his third location. With $5000 of his own money, he opened the museum in 1988 on the second floor of Milwaukee’s Black Muslim headquarters, then moved to a storefront around the corner, but he never had room to exhibit more than 10 photos or to store many of his 10,000 books on race relations. And, to his utter frustration, he would sometimes go for days without a single person coming in. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
The approach of his 80th birthday has kindled a sense of urgency. “I got one foot in the grave and the other one got no business being out,” he chuckles, then sobers. “I wish that book would hurry up and come out so I can get some speaking engagements under my belt and then I can get my money to put that boiler in.”
Cameron is part of that tradition of African Americans who would hold this country to her ideals. He would like to replace the word “racism” with “un-American.” He pulls out a copy of Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings: “This should be in every home just like the Bible.” I ask him if he’s ever studied history — noting The Rhetoric of Racial Revolt, The Negro Since Emancipation, Writings by W.E.B. Dubois and stacks of other books in his cluttered office. “Yes,” he replies, “I live in history.”
“My grandparents were from Marion,” I tell him.
“They probably remember it,” says Cameron.
This benign assessment of what I know to be shameful slows me down. “My father remembers it too, even though he was only seven when it happened.”
“Yeah, that made an impression on him. Sure.”
He begins to tell me his story, even though he has said that he doesn’t like to do this one-on-one. It’s still too emotional for him. Showing me a postcard of the Marion jail, he points out where Tommy was, where Abe was, where he was. Almost compulsively, he describes how they were beaten, how he’d found out later that the Marion sheriff, Jacob Campbell, was in the Klan, and how, when the mob was about to hang him, he prayed. “And then this voice spoke from heaven. It was from heaven. No human voice could have quelled the fury of that mob.” Then a great silence fell over the crowd, and he entered what seemed like a room made of film negatives, where he and everyone else was “petrified,” and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.
I tell him my family’s story, leaving out the cruel part — the laughter. “Then, after he died, we found out that my grandfather was in the Klan.”
“That happens,” he replies.
“All my father said was he never saw a hooded sheet.”
“You know what?” Cameron tells me. “During the roaring ’20s, Indiana had over a half million Klansmen and Marion had the first chapter. They were called the mother den of all the Klans in Indiana. It was an upgoing thing. If you weren’t in the Klan, you were nobody, and that’s what gave them the liberty to lynch black people with impunity. Sure.”
“My grandfather may well have known about the lynching and may well have approved of it.”
“Sure.” He gets up, saying that he has something special to show me, a new artifact for the museum. Someone in Marion had sent him one of the Klan’s infamous “souvenirs.” The ropes used to hang Tommy Shipp and Abe Smith had been cut into pieces and distributed as mementos. Now, from a business envelope, Cameron pulls a piece of nondescript and fraying rope. A handwritten document says that it was obtained from the original owner by the man elected sheriff several years after the lynching, and that it was unknown which of the two ropes it came from. “I’m going to put that in a glass case with all kinds of padlocks on it,” he says, handing it over for me to inspect. “You’re the first one to have seen this.”
In my conversations with Cameron, I found myself constantly astonished at things he mentioned in passing. I would stumble to rephrase a question, not sure I’d heard him right. Most of these little shocks related to his interactions with white people — not the brutal ones, the “nice” ones. Like the 200-plus white people Cameron found who’d been among the spectators at his near-death. The actual lynch mob probably numbered between 25 and 50. But thousands more had watched. Those Cameron interviewed were all happy to see that he’d survived the beating (rumor had it he’d died), but none of them had lifted a finger to ensure that he would survive. And they now demonstrated neither a reluctance to talk nor a wish to apologize.
Then there’s the story about the mayor of Marion, who came to visit Cameron in jail the day of the lynching, bringing with him a red-haired man who had the bottom half of his face covered with a handkerchief. I think we can assume that the redhead was a ringleader, that he’d come to see which three prisoners they’d be taking from the jail, but he remained silent while the mayor asked Cameron how old he was and what his mother did for a living and had he ever been in trouble before. Then the mayor left town “on business” before the lynching began. In 1980, Cameron visited the old mayor and together they looked at the infamous picture taken that night while the mayor named for him nearly every person in it. They were photographed while doing this, for Ebony magazine.
In an old article from the Marion paper, I read a vehement denial from Sheriff Campbell’s daughter about his allegiance to the Klan. Not only was he never allied with them, she asserted, but it was his voice that called out that night to save James Cameron.
When I related this to Cameron, he said, “Isn’t that pitiful?”
THESE HISTORIC CRIMES are the ghosts still flitting through all of our lives. Perhaps if we white people could take responsibility, reconciliation could happen. But how do we do that? The further we get from these stories and their contexts, the easier it is to say: I wasn’t there; I didn’t do anything. We ignore how much the new stories grow out of old rot. And we can’t acknowledge that we’ve done something that needs forgiving.
But in 1991, Cameron decided that he would ask to be forgiven. He wrote a letter to Indiana governor Evan Bayh, requesting a pardon “for the foolish role I played in the commission of a crime that resulted in the loss of three precious lives.” Cameron said the idea to request a pardon just came to him. He wanted to clear his name before he died. He wanted to “wipe this whole thing clean.” Bayh signed the pardon in February of last year, and Cameron went back to Marion. The mayor gave him a key to the city in a ceremony at a Marion hotel, and Cameron wiped away tears as the inscription on his pardon was read.
“Now that the state of Indiana has forgiven me for my indiscretion,” he told the overflow crowd, “I, in turn, forgive Indiana for their transgressors of the law in Marion on the night of August 7, 1930. I forgive those who have harmed me and Abe and Tom realizing I can never forget the traumatic events that took place that night.”
See, he did it for us. Wiped it clean.
In a racist society, a white person can not feel “whole.” That was the conclusion reached by Lillian Smith, and I keep going back to her because she is one of the very few to consider what whiteness means, and what its tragedy might be. “Only a few of our people are killers,” she wrote in her analysis of lynching, but she noted the heightened level of violence, how usually the black man was killed several times over, becoming a receptacle for “dammed-up hate” and “forbidden feelings.” There’s a pathology there that leaks out into everyday relationships. Only a few of our people are killers, but we are dissemblers, dehumanizers, averters of eyes, enforcers of a rift in our psyches, and all because we’re wearing the hood — to hide our guilt, our past, and our helplessness in the face of that past. This is why Smith analyzed lynching, in the end, as “a Sign, not so much of troubled race relations, as of a troubled way of life that threatens to rise up and destroy all the people who live it.”
I remember my childhood disquiet with that Bible verse about “visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” It was so unfair, yet I worried that it might be true. I no longer know this as the curse of a wrathful God but as the curse we’ve brought on ourselves by refusing to look at our histories. We white people don’t want to feel guilty, of course. And guilt isn’t useful. But, too often, we compensate by feeling nothing.
We can at least begin to tell the truth about the past. I decided to, hoping in some way to uplift my race. ■
A Time of Terror will be published next month by Black Classic Press, 410-358-0980. America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, 414-264-2500.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 2, 2020