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James Cameron, civil rights activist and founder of the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin died Sunday after a long battle with lymphoma.
Many of you have already seen the bone chilling picture above. It was taken in Marion, Indiana in 1930. What you might not know is that James Cameron was seconds away from hanging directly beside the lifeless bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. All three men had been accused of robbing and murdering a white man on the previous day. During that era, it was not unusual for black men who had been accused of a crime against a white person to be removed from their holding cells and murdered by a bloodthirsty mob. Such was the case in Marion. One by one the prisoners were taken from the jail in which they were being held and mercilessly strung up. When it was Cameron’s turn, he recalls seeing a woman jumping up and down on a car in a frenzy, repeatedly screaming, “Kill all the niggers!” Cameron vainly pleaded with those people whom he recognized in the throng to spare his life. The lynching rope was literally around his neck when there was a call from the crowd to release him. The voice contended that Cameron, unlike the two men whose still-warm bodies hung above him, was innocent.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Cameron while visiting his museum in 1997. I lived in Milwaukee for a few years and the wonderful discussion that I had with Mr. Cameron stands out as one of my only memorable experiences. I remember being amazed by the fact that the abominable incident in Marion, and indeed, his experiences with the racism he would encounter for many years afterwards, didn’t embitter him. On the contrary, he was able to use the horror of that night as a tool with which to confront racial hatred. James Cameron and people like him give hope to those of us who wish to challenge racism and its institutions. He will be sorely missed.
Thank you to Hysterical Blackness, who has dedicated ample space on her blog to share the story of James Cameron and the lynching in Marion and from whom I learned about the tragic passing of Mr. Cameron. Let’s never forget what those who have come before us have had to endure.
Labels: Bigotry, Optimism