*Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, edited by James Allen and written by Hilton Als, Congressman John Lewis and Leon F. Litwack, undoubtedly is the most disturbing book that I have ever read.
It chronicles man’s inhumanity to man and punctuates a depravity unlike any I have ever known. The lyrics to noted and legendary singer Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit gives a hauntingly descriptive picture outline of this book:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Congressman John Lewis, himself a victim of the violence of racism, had this to say about and in the book: “Without Sanctuary brings to life one of the darkest and sickest periods in American history. As a young child, growing up very poor in rural Alabama, I heard stories about lynchings and about the nightriders coming through, intimidating and harassing black people. At the time it all seemed nightmarish, unreal – even unbelievable. The photographs in this book make real the hideous crimes that were committed against humanity. Many people today, despite the evidence, will not believe – don’t want to believe – that such atrocities happened in America not so long ago. These photographs bear witness to the hangings, burnings, castrations, and torture of an American holocaust. Despite all I witnessed during the height of the civil rights movement, and all I experienced of bigotry and hate during my lifetime, these photographs shocked me. What is it in the human psyche that would drive a person to commit such acts of violence against their fellow citizens? This book cannot answer my question, but it does fill me with deep sadness and an even stronger determination to keep such atrocities from happening again. It is my hope that Without Sanctuary will inspire us, the living, and as yet unborn generations, to be more compassionate, loving, and caring. We must prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”
I was actually born in Charleston, Missouri, almost exactly 14 miles between two of the towns where the most horrific lynchings occurred and was written about in Without Sanctuary, that of Will James in Cairo, Illinois in November of 1909, and that of Cleo Wright in Sikeston, Missouri in 1942, seven years before my birth. Having attended a Charleston High School and family reunion a couple of years ago, actually held at a hotel in Sikeston, it never dawned on me that this was where Cleo Wright had been dragged from his jail cell and gasoline thrown on his body and set afire by a mob of whites in the black area of town known as “Sunset Addition.” In viewing a photo of Wright’s burning body, one can almost smell the “burning flesh” that the singer Billie Holiday” speaks of in the haunting lyrics of Strange Fruit. This lynching was done in broad daylight, and viewed by many blacks and whites. This was also one of the first instances in which the U.S. Department of Justice actually filed charges against whites in a lynching, “United States v. Walter Kendall, et al.” It is certainly ironic, that now that we have the first black president, Barack Obama, who has appointed the first black Attorney General of the United States, Eric H. Holder, Jr., this Attorney General is defending a white female Vice-Chairman of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), Anne M. Wagner, who had earlier been alleged to have discriminated against a black female attorney in a federal lawsuit, in another federal lawsuit in San Diego filed by a black man, Moore v. Susan Tsui Grundmann and Anne M. Wagner (11cv1570). The white female, Anne M. Wagner, is alleged to have lied to Congress in her confirmation hearing for appointment to the MSPB, about her involvement in discriminating against a black female attorney, yet the first black Attorney General is defending her actions in federal court in San Diego. In a further irony, the wife of the first black Attorney General, Dr. Sharon Malone, tells EURweb exclusively at the Television Critics Association, in regard to a 90-minute PBS documentary “Slavery by Another Name” the heartbreaking story of her Uncle Henry, where she states: “I want people to understand that this is not something that’s divorced and separate, and this doesn’t have anything to do with them. If you were a black person who grew up in the South, some way or the other – whether or not you were directly involved in the system as my uncle was – you knew somebody who was, or your daily lives were circumscribed by those circumstances.”
Charleston, 14 miles from where Cleo Wright was lynched in Sikeston, has its own sordid history of lynching. As documented by Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., in his book; The Lynching of Cleo Wright, Capeci points to the lynching of Roosevelt Grigsby in Charleston during the mid-1920s – for allegedly attempting to rape a sixteen-year-old white girl. As a matter of fact, the noted movie director, Roger Corman, filmed a movie in Charleston some 50 years ago, The Intruder, starring William Shatner of Star Trek fame. This movie about the forced integration of the high school in Charleston that I actually graduated from, seemed to have highlighted the sordid race relations and history of lynching in the Charleston and Sikeston area. There is a scene in the movie where Shatner leads a caravan of Ku Klux Klan members through Charleston, and the movie ends with a lynching scene at the high school that I graduated from. A number of my friends and classmates that I grew up with had bit parts in the movie. The director of the movie provides commentary at the end of it, indicating that his film crew had to sneak out of Charleston in the middle of the night due to the inflammatory nature of the movie and the history of the area.
Without Sanctuary profiles another horrific and infamous lynching, which chronicles the only known living survivor of a lynching, that of James Cameron. The lynching of James Cameron, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith occurred in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930. The following account has been excerpted from Cameron’s book, A Time of Terror: “Thousands of Indianans carrying picks, bats, ax handles, crowbars, torches, and firearms attacked the Great County Courthouse, determined to ‘get those goddamn Niggers.’ A barrage of rocks shattered the jailhouse windows, sending dozens of frantic inmates in search of cover … The door was ripped from the wall, and a mob of fifty men beat Thomas Shipp senseless and dragged him into the street … The dead Shipp was dragged with a rope up to the window bars of the second victim, Abram Smith. For twenty minutes, citizens pushed and shoved for a closer look at the ‘dead nigger.’ By the time Abe Smith was hauled out he was equally mutilated. ‘Those who were not close enough to hit him threw rocks and bricks. Somebody rammed a crowbar through his chest several times in great satisfaction.’ Smith was dead by the time the mob dragged him ‘like a horse’ to the courthouse square and hung him from a tree. The lynchers posed for photos under the limb that held the bodies of the two dead men. Then the mob headed back for James Cameron and ‘mauled him all the way to the courthouse square,’ shoving and kicking him to the tree, where the lynchers put a hanging rope around his neck. Cameron credited an unidentified woman’s voice with silencing the mob and opening a path for his retreat to the county jail and, ultimately, for saving his life … After souvenir hunters divvied up the bloodied pants of Abram Smith, his naked body was clothed in a Klansman’s robe – not unlike the loincloth in traditional depictions of Christ on the cross.”
The truly ironic and scary part about the lynching of James Cameron, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930, is that it occurred just 50 miles from Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was once Chief of Contract Data Control and Communications for the Department of Defense at the Ft. Ben Harrison Army facility some 30 years ago. It was that position and experience which brought about the current and aforementioned federal lawsuit in San Diego, that Attorney General Eric Holder is defending against. Prior to being promoted to the position in Indianapolis a black female manager at the Defense facility in Chicago that I worked at told me to “watch the lay of the land,” which I would later learn was in reference to the area in and around Indianapolis and Marion having a reputation for Klu Klux Klan actiivity. While a supervisor at the facility in Indianapolis, I was held in a closed office by a white male deputy and a white female manager, and instructed as to what to include in a termination letter for a Hispanic male employee, which was unwarranted. Later, I was being coerced into firing a black female employee by these same white managers, and when I resisted and withdrew all proposed charges against her, I was stripped of my supervisory responsibilities and brought back to Chicago, being told that “I would never be a supervisor again.” Upon coming back to Chicago and refusing to signoff on a statement indicating that the Hispanic male employee was not discriminated, I was subsequently fired. It now gives me chills to think what could have been, especially considering the history of Marion, Indiana.
Without Sanctuary is a history lesson for us all. The photos in this book of Laura Nelson hanging and swaying from the end of a rope, while her fourteen-year old son swung from another rope about twenty feet from her with his clothes partly torn off and his hands tied behind his back, as well as that of Frank Embree, is a ghastly reminder of the cruelty of one race of people towards another. The grotesque photos of mutilated black bodies are a painful reminder of man’s inhumanity to man!
Dennis Moore is a writer and book reviewer with the East County magazine in San Diego and the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego. He is also the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago. He can be contacted at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.