How 'God saved me from the lynch mob'

Click to follow
THE IMAGE is as famous as it is terrible: the bodies of two black men dangling limply from the tree, and a white mob gaping at them. But the picture - which inspired the lyrics of Billie Holiday's famous song Strange Fruit - of the lynching in Marion, Indiana, one summer night in 1930 does not tell all. There was a third victim - and he survived.

More than six decades later, when white America has all but wiped away the memory of the segregation-era lynchings, this man has emerged to tell his story. 'I remember it like it was yesterday,' James Cameron, now white-haired and 80 years old, said last week. It no longer wakes him up at night, but he still dreams about it: the few terrifying moments when the crowd dragged him from his cell in the courthouse to the base of the tree, and tied the rope around his neck.

Cameron's terror had begun the day before. After work, he had agreed to go on a car ride with two friends, Abe Smith and Tommy Shipp. Smith decided he wanted to rob someone, and headed for Lovers' Lane out of town. A courting couple was singled out, but midway through the hold-up, Cameron fled. After he had gone, the white man was shot - and he died the next day.

But by then Smith, Shipp and Cameron were all locked up in the town jail. It was rumoured around town that the woman in the car had been raped. Quickly, the mob gathered.

After Shipp and Smith had been strung up, the crowd returned for Cameron. 'The mobsters came in and took hold of me,' he writes in a book, A Time of Terror, published here this month. He remembers the chanting of 'Nigger] Nigger] Nigger]' and blows raining on him as he was hauled to the tree. 'More fists, more clubs, more bricks and rocks found their mark.' Then came his extraordinary escape. 'With the noose around my neck and death in my brain, I waited for the end. But before the crowd could hang me, a voice rose above the deafening roar. It was a feminine voice, sharp and crisp: 'Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any raping or killing.' '

It has never been clear who spoke out that night. 'After I heard it, the mob just became paralysed,' Cameron said during a book-signing visit to Washington. 'People say I was lucky, but I was lucky because God chose to save me.'

He believes he was spared in order to educate the American people about what happened during the lynching era. From 1882 to 1964, about 3,500 cases were reported of black men and women who died in lynchings such as that in Marion. The true number of deaths may be much higher.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Cameron hopes to open a 'Black Holocaust Museum' in memory of those who were lynched. Among the exhibits will be a small section of the rope on which he was about to be hanged, and a blown-up print of the famous Marion photograph.

(Photograph omitted)