One night in 1930 James Cameron watched as two friends were lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. It was his turn next. He tells Esther Oxford how he was saved, and about the legacy of the murders
James Cameron's tie hangs slightly skew-whiff. I want to lean forward, loosen it and gently ease it over his head. "Doesn't it feel odd wearing a tie round your neck?" He smiles. "I don't associate a tie with a noose," he says.

Sixty-five years ago a rope was slung round Cameron's neck and he was shoved against a maple tree in main square, Marion, Indiana. Since then he has lived a fairly ordinary life - wife, children, engineer in a shopping mall, a little house with a fence around it. But he has made it his life's work to remember that night and he has now documented it in his book, A Time of Terror.

The extraordinary part of Cameron's ordinary life began on an August night in 1930. Cameron was 16 at the time - naughty (stole apples) and not always pleasant (lied, could be cheeky). Two of his friends persuaded him to take part in a robbery. During the robbery a white man was shot dead and his girlfriend raped. "I didn't shoot or rape anybody," he told the police when they came to arrest him. They didn't believe him.

By 8 o'clock the next evening 15,000 whites had turned up outside the jail house, lathered by rumours of a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan. For hours they stood in the filmy heat, eyeing the victim's bloody white shirt strung from a flag-pole, waiting to get a glimpse of the offenders. Then the agitation started: bricks, stomping, cursing, "Turn those animals, over to us. Turn them loose!"

Thomas Shipp, 18, was the first of Cameron's friends to be collected. The cell was unlocked and he was dragged out to the crowds. A rope was put round his neck. For a short while, says Cameron, who was watching from his cell, Thomas "feebly writhed". Then he went limp. Abe Smith, 19, was next. This time the punching and stamping were so brutal that Abe was dead before he was hung from a maple tree. Cameron remembers feeling sick with terror. "I knew I was the clean-up target".

At first, Cameron remembers, he tried to lie. "I'm Henry," he told the Klan. It didn't work. "They grabbed my head and stuffed it into a large noose. The rope was handled so roughly it caused a rope burn on my neck ... 'Lord,' I mumbled through puffed lips, 'Have mercy on me! I haven't done anything to deserve this'." Then, for some inexplicable reason, the crowd had a change of heart.

"Maybe we felt justice had already been done," says one witness, featured in an Everyman documentary this weekend. In any case the rope was removed and the lynch mob melted away. A reeling Mr Cameron was escorted back to his cell.

By then, the famous picture, which was later to be published all over the world, had been taken by an unknown photographer.It showed Abe Smith, his clothes torn and splattered with blood, hanging from the maple tree. Beside him hung Thomas Shipp, stripped of his own clothes by souvenir hunters, and dressed in a sheet worn by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The photograph was handed round during civil rights meetings; it was stored away by those who witnessed the lynchings. "It shows white people what we already know," says Cameron, bitterly. "That black people are regarded as nothing in America."

Now 81, Cameron lives 300 miles north of Marion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After spending five years in jail for "being with the two boys before the killing", Cameron met his wife and focused his energies into his work as an engineer and bringing up five "good, Christian children to be proud of". He now has eight grandchildren and five great grand children and has been happily married for 57 years. He has also opened a museum about the history of black people called the Black Holocaust Museum, which features wax dummies of black men hanging from a rope. "They look like real people," he says. "People stumble out of there."

Cameron has been back to Marion since the lynching. "I've even spoken to some of the spectators who were there that day. They tell me where they were standing when I was dragged out into the square.... One time I was standing in front of the prison with a film crew when this young lady came across. She grabbed me and hugged me. 'I'm so sorry that happened to you. I'm so glad they saved you,' she said. We were both in tears."

Cameron has always insisted that he was one block away when he heard the shots that killed the young man in the "blackest part" of Lovers' Lane. He says he became frightened when his friends urged him to pull a gun on the couple and he ran off. Most people (including the family of the victim) appear to have forgiven Mr Cameron for what he calls his "youthful indiscretion". But there are those in Marion who still believe Cameron was holding the gun that day. "Lots of people act like they were there," he says. "They try to tell me that I was guilty."

Cameron's book has done little to change their minds. His refusal to acknowledge his responsibility for his part in the murder (Why did he not try to stop it? Why did he not run to get help?) combined with a rather, self-righteous tone, have not endeared him to local people. At a recent book-signing day in Marion, Cameron recalls how a customer "went up to the store manager and said: 'I don't understand: here is this man signing copies of his book, and yet he doesn't express any sorrow in his book at what he's done'."

Then there have been the hate mail and the telephone calls. "A lot of people call up with crank calls. Or people who have read my book write to me calling me a rat. 'This country was made for white people,' they write. 'Niggers have no place in it'."

But Cameron says he has nothing to apologise for, that the only "crime" he committed was having "bad associates": "I don't regret not going back to help. I might have been shot. I still wouldn't go back there if it happened today." To those who read his book and complain about his lack of empathy for the victim, Cameron has this to say: "You might have read the book. But you didn't understand it."

Cameron shows no self-pity. But he is bitter. "I saw people I'd mown lawns for, shined shoes for or exchanged cordial greetings with in the crowd that night." Has he ever asked them why they didn't intervene? "No," he says firmly. "Man's inhumanity to man is part of being human. There is no way I can stop it."

There were some whites who tried to help: "I was told about a white lady who jumped up and started screaming: 'Don't do it! Don't do it!'" But the rest were tourists - there to enjoy the show and then scrabble for mementos afterwards. Last year a white man gave Mr Cameron one such souvenir - a piece of the rope used to hang one of his two friends. He put it in his museum.

"People ask me if I harbour a hatred towards whites. I say to them: 'There are white men I dislike and black men I dislike. But I think people should be punished for shouting out their hatred in public.' "

If he feels indignation at the way he was treated, Mr Cameron masks it well. He is, he says, "the most thankful old man in the world. It is a terrible thing to go round feeling hate. It destroys the body."

I ask him how he lives his life, what he does with his days. He says that he gets up, goes to mass, goes into the museum, talks all day to schoolchildren, or college students, or tourists about black history, then goes home "to argue with my wife for a little excitement". He bends, picks up his book, and begins to read his favourite poem by the American poet Sam Walter Foss.

There are hermit souls that live


In the peace of their self-content;

There are souls, like stars, that dwell apart,

In a fellowless firmament;

There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths

Where highways never ran;

But let me live by the side of the road

And be a friend to man.

His eyes swell with tears as he says the last two lines. "The poem depicts human beings as they really are," he says. "Some are good, some are bad. As good and as bad as I."

'Unforgiven: the legacy of a lynching' will be shown on BBC1 on Sunday at 10.30pm.