Archive for Monday, March 12, 2001

There’s nothing funny about a noose

March 12, 2001


They claim it's just innocent horseplay. They say it's just a joke. And if you know anything about the history in question, you can only gasp and gape.

Apparently, there have been dozens of cases of nooses left for, displayed to, or slipped over the heads of, black people by their co-workers in recent years. I learned this from a story on racial harassment published in The Miami Herald last week by my colleague Fred Tasker.

When complaints are filed, the co-workers often defend themselves by denying any racial motive. They were just fooling around, they say. The rope wasn't any kind of symbol. The rope was just a rope.

I suppose I could tell you how I feel about this trend. But I think it would be more valuable to tell you how James Cameron feels.

Not James Cameron the director. No, this is the James Cameron who was once dragged from a jail cell and had a hangman's noose slipped over his head by a screaming mob of white women, children and men. I called him earlier this week to ask: What does a man who has experienced such a thing think when he sees the noose used as a means of intimidation and then declared a misunderstanding or a joke?

"It's a damn shame," Cameron said softly.

He is 87 years old now, founder and director of America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. In August 1930, he was 16 and living in Marion, Ind., when he was talked into participating in an armed robbery by two of his buddies, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The three approached Claude Deeter and Mary Ball, a white couple parked on Lover's Lane. But at the last minute, Cameron couldn't go through with it. He shoved his gun into Smith's hand and took off running. He was several blocks away when he heard gunshots.

Shipp, Smith and Cameron were quickly apprehended. Cameron was stomped and beaten into signing a paper he later learned was a confession. It said he had participated in the shooting of Deeter and the rape of Ball. Deeter died that afternoon. His bloody shirt was hung from a flagpole in front of the police station. Hour by hour, the crowd of whites gathering beneath it grew larger and meaner. Black people took to their homes and stayed there.

It was just after eight that rocks started slamming against the jailhouse. The crowd surged forward. Men with sledgehammers pounded the mortar around the door. An hour later, the jail was theirs.

They beat Shipp to death first. Then they ran a crowbar through Smith's chest. Cameron was next. He was beaten senseless and hauled from the jail. The cry went up: "Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!" A rope was lowered over his neck.

And in that moment, a voice that has never been definitively identified spoke. "Take this boy back," it said. "He had nothing to do with any raping or killing."

There came a silence. And then the mob simply lifted the noose and let James Cameron go.

Ask him who spoke, and he is unshakable. God, he says. Some contemporaneous newspaper accounts say Deeter's uncle cried out. The Indianapolis Star mentioned an "unidentified man."

No one was ever charged for the murders of Shipp and Smith, despite the fact that the mob was photographed. Cameron served four years for his part in Deeter's death. At his trial, Mary Ball testified that she was never raped.

Indiana pardoned James Cameron in 1991. In his book, "A Time of Terror," Cameron pardoned Indiana.

I asked him if The Herald's story makes him feel as if the lessons of that terror and that time have been lost. He said yes. "There are too many ignorant people in this country, both blacks and whites. People want us to forget it, but how are you going to forget it? A future requires a past. We have to remember these things."

He's right, of course. Right that we have to remember. Right that people want to forget. Even now take my word for it someone is halfway to the computer to fire off a letter of complaint about this column. Need to let the past go, it will say. Need to forget.

I offer this in response: Nooses draped over the heads of black men and women as a so-called joke?

Seems to me that some of us have forgotten too much already.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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