The Ghosts of Strange Fruit

On May 1, an exhibition on the history of lynching opened at the National Park Service’s Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site in Atlanta. At its frightening center is “Without Sanctuary”—photographs taken at lynchings from the 1880s through the 1940s. It will be in Atlanta through the rest of the year.

As reported on National Public Radio, “the entrance to the exhibit is a small black room with a series of bright white lights. Words to the poem ‘Strange Fruit’ are printed on a wall in stark white letters. A recording of Billie Holiday’s version of the ballad plays in the background…This kind of detailed exhibit never has been shown in the South where a majority of lynchings took place.”

James Allen, an antiques dealer in Atlanta, collected the photographs, but until now, he was never able to find a museum in the city—as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes—that was willing to display the pictures.

As Billie sings of “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” Jim Auchmutey of the Constitution wrote: “Viewers will see the bodies of Laura Nelson and her son, L.W., dangling from a bridge in Oklahoma [and] the blistered flesh of a mentally retarded teenager burned alive before a crowd in Waco, Texas. In many of the photos, the white faces of lynchers and onlookers smile into the camera as if they were posing with trophy fish.” Randall Burkett, an archivist at Emory University, says, “Nothing can make white folks appreciate the reality of racism in America like standing in a room with these images.”

During the opening of “Without Sanctuary,” Coretta Scott King said: “A great-uncle of mine was lynched in Alabama. I’ve heard about it all my life, and I’d like to know more.” Another witness, Mary G. Johnson of Decatur, Alabama, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a few years ago, she had visited Gorée Island, where generations of Africans had been forced into slave ships. “I didn’t think,” she said, “I could ever see anything worse than the Door of No Return. This is worse.” A tour guide, taking her hand, asked, “Are you OK?” Mary Johnson could not answer.

Joseph Jordan, curator of the exhibit, wanted those photographs to speak directly to whites as well as blacks. “We have been the kind of society,” he said, “that has studied the victims more than the perpetrators. I think it’s about time now that we begin to look at some of the perpetrators.” Along with Billie Holiday’s singing, there are sounds of the woods at night, where many lynchings took place. And pictures—NPR’s Kathy Lohr reported —“capture the faces of people leering or smiling during lynchings.”

In conjunction with the exhibit of the photographs, there is a showing of Joel Katz’s masterful documentary film, Strange Fruit, which covers: the history of the song; Billie Holiday’s recording and other performances of it; commentary by, among others, Abbey Lincoln, Amina and Amiri Baraka, Milt Gabler (who recorded “Strange Fruit” for his Commodore label in 1939); and new information about the composer, Abel Meeropol. The score is by Don Byron.

Billie’s “Strange Fruit” was not allowed on radio for some time, although I played it on my jazz radio program on Boston’s WMEX in the mid-1940s. (The boss never listened to jazz.) Even without airplay, word-of-mouth was so effective that—as the film points out—the recording of “Strange Fruit” reached “Number 16 on the popular music charts only three months after its release. This was an unusually high ranking for a song which was banned by radio stations.”

In the documentary there is a powerful performance of the song by Josh White. On being hauled before a House Unamerican Activities Committee’s dragnet probe of Communist infiltration among blacks, White read the lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” resulting in the subversive song appearing in the Congressional Record. (The Joel Katz documentary is available from California Newsreel, www.newsreel.org; phone: 415-621-6196, with special pricing for high schools, public libraries and community groups.)

The film ends with an intriguing performance of “Strange Fruit” by Cassandra Wilson, but it’s eclipsed by an earlier BBC appearance by Billie in 1959. This was the last time she performed the song before she died in July of that year. That performance is available on The Billie Holiday Set on the Toronto-based Baldwin Street Music label (www.baldwinstreetmusic.com). The set also contains several interviews with Billie.

At the end of the Joel Katz documentary film, Pete Seeger says: “People have tried to explain in words what the power of music is—and usually failed. All we know is that sometimes, a short song, taking just a few minutes, can have as much impression on a listener as sometimes a whole novel can…You can bounce the experiences of your life against it, and it bounces back new meanings.”

At the “Without Sanctuary” exhibit, 70-year-old John Crawford is reading an NAACP pamphlet, in a glass case, describing the lynching of a black farmer, his grandfather, Anthony Crawford, in Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1916. He tells a reporter from the Constitution: “I’ve got some sons who need to look at this,” as he touches the glass tenderly.

Originally published in October 2002

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