On Aug. 7, 1930, a very hot night in Marion, Ind., a mob of approximately 4,000 angry white people broke into a police station and pulled Tom Shiff out of his cell, beat him to death and then hung him on a tree. The mob then returned to the jail, grabbed Abe Smith, beat him and then tried to hang him too. He kept using his hands to stop the rope from going around his neck, so the mob broke both his arms and strung him up.
The teenagers were suspects in the murder of a white man and the alleged rape of his white female companion. When the coroner came to take down the bodies, the mob stopped him because they wanted the hanging bodies to serve as a warning to other Black people.
Between 1882-1968, approximately 4,743 people were lynched in the United States, and approximately 73% of those victims were Black. The practice began after the Civil War by white people as a means of intimidating and controlling free Blacks.
Lawrence Beitler took a photograph of Shiff and Smith after the lynching, which was later seen by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and member of the communist party. Meeropol was so moved by the atrocity that he wrote a poem called “Strange Fruit” in 1937. He turned the poem into a song that was first sung by Billie Holiday on April 20, 1939. This year marks the 84th anniversary of that song and a new movie depicting Holiday’s persecution by the FBI for having the temerity to sing it. Actress Andra Day portrays the singer in “The United States v. Billie Holiday.”
Meeropol’s story is interesting because he and his wife, Anne, adopted Robert and David Rosenberg, the young sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the government as communist spies in 1953, after being found guilty of attempting to sell nuclear secrets to Soviet Union. The Meeropols first met the boys at a Christmas party in the home of W.E.B. Dubois.
The history of the United States is one of suppression. The ongoing and continuous shooting of unarmed Black men is in many ways similar to the lynchings that occurred in this country. It is meant to keep Black people, especially Black men, in their place.
White police officers, like a lynch mob, rarely face any consequence for killing a Black man. Various state legislatures are trying to pass laws that will help disenfranchise the Black vote, similar to the laws passed after reconstruction that took voting rights away from Black people or severely restricted their ability to vote. The U.S. Senate used the filibuster to squash many anti-lynching laws and now the threat of the filibuster is again being used to prevent passage of federal laws meant to protect voting rights.
The Meeropols were young communists. During the 1930s the American Communist Party was concerned about civil rights and the ongoing persecution of Black people, including lynchings. Both Meeropol and Holiday displayed great courage in standing up to a system that wanted to continue to maintain white supremacy.
Today, many young white people are protesting the killing of George Floyd and other victims of police violence. Leaders of Black Lives Matters, civil right activists and others who protest the senseless murder of one Black person after another are under attack. Gov. Ron DeSantis' infamous passage of a bill in this state that will criminalize free speech and protests is just one of many laws meant to suppress Black Americans.
While we have famous Black athletes and musicians, a Black vice president and even a Black former president, this country is still trying to ensure that white people maintain control.
Donald Trump's overt racism and his plans to “make America great again” was a rallying cry for white racists to try and continue the pattern of oppression that started when African slaves first arrived in this country, and the fear of a slave uprising first took root. Now, the fear is that the changing demographics of America, which will be more brown and Black than white by 2040, will result in lost power for the white establishment.
The current attempt to pass laws that will make it harder for Black and brown people to vote is the result. The Republican legislature's passage of restrictive voting laws is just an echo of America’s racist past.
Reginald J. Clyne is a Miami trial lawyer who has practiced in some of the largest law firms in the United States. Clyne has been in practice since 1987 and tries cases in both state and federal court. He has lived in Africa, Brazil, Honduras and Nicaragua.