Strange Fruit: The Photograph Term Paper

Pages: 8 (2666 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 8  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Criminal Justice

¶ … Strange fruit:" the photograph that inspired an iconic song

The photograph of the lynching of Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp by Lawrence Beitler would be horrifying even if it was a picture of an isolated, random act of violence. However, the photograph is symbolic of a larger system of social control exercised against African-Americans in history, namely the systemic use of lynching or vigilante justice against black people who were 'punished' for actions that would not be crimes had their actions been performed by whites, or who were accused of crimes and not permitted to have the protections of the justice system, as would a white defendant. The 1930 photograph 'went viral' as much as a photograph could during that era, and was circulated in newspapers across the country

The practice of lynching was particularly associated with the Jim Crow South, but in the case of this specific photograph, the lynching took place in the Midwestern state of Indiana. This fact indicates the pervasiveness of racism within the United States: although more common in the South and associated with the development of the Klu Klux Klan, it was far from limited to that region The history of the photograph is as follows: "Eighty years ago, two young African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched in the town center of Marion, Ind. The night before, on Aug. 6, 1930, they had been arrested and charged with the armed robbery and murder of a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and the rape of his companion, Mary Ball" ("Strange fruit: Diary of a lynching," Radio Diaries).Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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The practice of lynching, however, had existed long before photography became commonplace. "Lynching, an act of terror meant to spread fear among blacks, served the broad social purpose of maintaining white supremacy in the economic, social and political spheres" ("People and events: Lynching in America," The American Experience). Lynching, regardless of the accused crime of the hanged man is deemed "a particularly visible and violent rejection of due process and seemingly neutral forms of justice in favor of more community-driven and public forms of violent and ritualized justice." (Norman 933). Even academics have been criticized for their rather myopic view of lynching, focusing mainly upon the South during the mid-1800s. "Scholars have not fully appreciated the role of lynching in the West…Lynchings are performative…because rough justice advocates demand a ritual of communal punishment when they deem due process to have fallen short. That is, rough justice advocates rejected bourgeois stances of neutrality" (Norman 933). This can be seen in the photograph itself: this is not a lynching committed by the Klan: these are recognizable, 'ordinary' townspeople standing by, clearly revealing their faces to the camera. They seem proud of their actions.

The details of the alleged crime the lynched men participated in were as follows: Claude, who had just been laid off from his job at a foundry "had taken Mary to Lovers' Lane, a clearing by the river just outside of Marion. The boys crept up on them, pulled them from the car and held them up at gunpoint for money. Supposedly they raped Mary, then beat and shot Claude several times before driving off. A nearby farmer answered Mary's cries for help and took Claude to the hospital" (Griot, "An iconic lynching in the North"). All of the accused African-Americans were teenagers at the time, although it is difficult to tell this from their clothing and appearance. (They do, however, have the thin and gangly appearance of adolescents.)

Across America, victims of lynchings were accused of a variety of crimes, spanning from the commonplace (such as whistling at a white woman) to more serious crimes like Smith and Shipp. With photography, lynchings became gleefully reported upon by the media: "Lynchings were covered in local newspapers with headlines spelling out the horrific details. Photos of victims, with exultant white observers posed next to them, were taken for distribution in newspapers or on postcards. Body parts, including genitalia, were sometimes distributed to spectators or put on public display" ("People and events: Lynching in America," The American Experience). The public nature of the act was part of the spectacle. In some instances, law enforcement 'looked the other way,' although that was not the case with this particular crime. People flooded in from all over, demanding a hanging of the accused murderers of the white men but initially the police chief resisted. "When he refused, strong young men brought sledge hammers from the nearby foundries. They broke the brick around the iron entrance door. The lynching party surged into the jail and passed through unlocked doors to the cell blocks" (Griot, "An iconic lynching in the North"). Men used "sledgehammers and crowbars to pull the young men out of their cells" and a local photographer named Lawrence Beitler took "what would become the most iconic photograph of lynching in America. The photograph shows two bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a crowd of ordinary citizens, including women and children. Thousands of copies were made and sold. The photograph helped inspire the poem and song 'Strange Fruit' written by Abel Meeropol -- and performed around the world by Billie Holiday" ("People and events: Lynching in America," The American Experience).

Although rape was a common accusation leveraged the victims, many African-American political activists, business owners, and journalists were also victims. Law officers were often complicit or ignored the practice even if the victims had committed no crime. Thus while the photograph may be described as 'iconic' it is worthy of note that the fact they were accused of murder as well as rape was not typical. The exact details of their crimes were never fully understood: a third youth, James Cameron, was convicted of being an accessory after the fact and served four years in jail (Griot, "An iconic lynching in the North").

The spontaneous, non-staged nature of the photograph is striking. The white men and women are clearly conscious of being photographed, and make no attempt to hide their faces. A thin, rangy man in the foreground proudly points to the two hanged men on a nearby tree. Next to him, two women in housedresses smile at the photographer as if posing for a shot during a public outing. The 'ordinary' nature of the viewers is striking and makes for a sharp contrast with the almost Biblical, Christ-like hanging images of the two dark men with nooses around their necks. "Despite the photograph and what eyewitnesses told investigator Walter White shortly after the event, townspeople claimed not to recognize any of the lynchers. None were ever brought to justice" (Griot, "An iconic lynching in the North"). This might be said to partially explain their boldness in staring at the photographer -- they are secure in the knowledge that they will not be condemned by society. The fact that the men were accused of a supposedly 'real' crime (versus just being 'uppity') perhaps gives them, in their minds, some social sanction.

The logic of lynching, however, is always curious -- it is not enough in their eyes that a black man merely be condemned by the justice system for a crime that he commits but rather the crime must become a painful public spectacle, and there is no trust in the justice system that punishment will be meted out (despite the virtual certainty that the accused would have been convicted). In retrospect, it was never clear if the two men actually committed the crimes for which they were accused. "We know that three young black men were at the scene of the crime. We know there was also a young white woman at the scene of the crime. Who pulled the trigger, who shot Claude Deeter is not known. And I don't think really can be known," ("Strange fruit: Diary of a lynching," Radio Diaries).

It should be noted that the photographer was not an activist intended to expose the evils of lynching, but rather a kind of complicit accessory. "Photographer Laurence Beitler was called in to take a formal portrait of the dead boys and crowd. This was a regular ritual in spectacle lynchings" (Griot, "An iconic lynching in the North"). The actual caption to the photograph is "Souvenir Portrait of the Lynching of Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, August 7, 1930, by studio photographer Lawrence Beitler. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society," indicating how 'souvenirs' were often created via photography in a highly planned and ritualized fashion (hence the staged 'posing' of the white participants in the foreground and their smiles) (Griot, "An iconic lynching in the North"). These souvenir photographs were meant to act as a warning to blacks.

The other accused youth, James Cameron, was also supposed to be lynched but according to Cameron, a voice in the crowd rang out, saying that Cameron was innocent and urged the lynchers not to hurt him. Miraculously (Cameron later said he thought it was the voice of an angel), the crowd calmed down. During… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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