On this dayAug 07, 1930

Thousands Lynch Two Black Men in Marion, Indiana

Lawrence Beitler/Bettmann/Corbis

On August 7, 1930, a white mob used crowbars and hammers to break into the Grant County jail in Marion, Indiana, to lynch three young Black men, who had been arrested earlier that afternoon after being accused of murdering a white man and assaulting a white woman. Thomas Shipp, 18, and Abram Smith, 19, were severely beaten and lynched, and 16-year-old James Cameron was badly beaten but survived.

That afternoon, word of the charges against these young Black men spread, and a growing mob of angry white residents gathered outside the Grant County Jail. Around 9:30 pm, the mob attempted to rush the jail and was repelled by tear gas. An hour later, members of the mob successfully barreled past the sheriff and three deputies, grabbed Mr. Shipp and Mr. Smith from their cells as they prayed, and dragged them into the street. By then, the crowd totaled between 5,000 and 10,000 people—half the white population of Grant County. While spectators watched and cheered, the mob beat, tortured, and hanged both men from trees in the courthouse yard, brutally murdering them without benefit of trial or legal proof of guilt.

As the bodies of Mr. Shipp and Mr. Smith remained suspended above the crowd, members of the mob re-entered the jail and grabbed 16-year-old James Cameron, another Black youth accused of being involved in the crime. The mob beat the teenager severely and was preparing to hang him alongside the others—but when a member of the crowd intervened and said he was innocent, James was released. 

The brutalized bodies of Mr. Shipp and Mr. Smith were hanged from trees in the courthouse yard and kept there for hours as a crowd of white men, women, and children grew by the thousands. Public spectacle lynchings, in which large crowds of white people, often numbering in the thousands, gathered to witness and participate in pre-planned heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment and/or burning of the victim, were common during this time. When the sheriff eventually cut the ropes off the corpses, the crowd rushed forward to take parts of the men's bodies as souvenirs before finally dispersing.

Enraged by the lynching, the NAACP traveled to Marion to investigate, and later provided the U.S. Attorney General with the names of 27 people believed to have participated. Though the lynching was photographed and spectators were clearly visible, local residents claimed not to recognize anyone pictured. Charges were finally brought against the leaders of the mob, but all-white juries acquitted them despite this overwhelming evidence. In contrast, James Cameron, the Black teenager who survived, was tried for murder, convicted of being an accessory, and served four years in prison. The alleged assault victim, Mary Ball, testified years later that she had not been raped.

After his release, James Cameron founded four NAACP chapters in Indiana, authored hundreds of essays on civil rights and a 1982 memoir, and on Juneteenth 1988 opened America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to document the African American Struggle. “I can forgive but I can never forget,” he was quoted as saying. “That’s why I started this museum.” Mr. Cameron was pardoned by the state of Indiana in 1991 and died in 2006.

A photograph of Mr. Shipp’s and Mr. Smith’s battered corpses hanging lifeless from a tree, with white spectators proudly standing below, remains one of the most iconic and infamous photographs of an American lynching. In 1937, an encounter with the photo inspired New York schoolteacher Abe Meeropol to write “Strange Fruit,” a haunting poem about lynching that later became a famous song recorded by Billie Holiday.

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