The history of a lynching and a life SURVIVOR

February 16, 1994|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

The rope was strung around James Cameron's neck tight enough to leave burn marks as he dangled from a tree. He was 16 years old and a mob had just lynched two friends before his eyes. Mr. Cameron was to be the third.

To this day, he's not sure who or what saved him.

Mr. Cameron recounts his tale in "A Time of Terror: A Survivor's Story." The book was first published in 1982 but was just reissued by Black Classic Press, a small Baltimore publishing company.

Don't think of his tale as just a part of black history, Mr. Cameron says in a telephone conversation from his home outside Milwaukee.

"You cannot tell the history of black people without telling the history of white people as well," Mr. Cameron says. "It's all intertwined."

Now 80 years old, he's led a full life. He married, raised a family and worked for civil rights.

He's been angry but never bitter over the dramatic event that changed his life. Mr. Cameron is a man who laughs often and takes the time to search for the positive in every situation -- even a lynching.

"I wonder what I would have amounted to if this had never happened to me," he says reflectively. "In all evil, there is some good."

And lynching, he says, is one of the ultimate evils.

In simple yet compelling terms Mr. Cameron recounts the lynching and its aftermath in the 200-page book.

"I had heard of white people lynching black people all of my life," he begins his book. "Little did I dream that one horrible night filled with stark terror, I, too, would fall into the hands of such a merciless mob of fanatics."

Mr. Cameron lived in Marion, Ind., with his mother, two sisters and a stepfather who was often on the road eking out a living hunting and fishing around the country.

The town of about 25,000 whites and 4,000 blacks really did not have a race problem, he says.

"There was no trouble from the whites at all, to speak of, other than the fact that they denied blacks equal opportunities, a condition that was widespread in the United States," he writes.

But trouble erupted Aug. 6, 1930.

Mr. Cameron had a job shining shoes. After work that Wednesday he stood around with a group of friends pitching horseshoes. Mr. Cameron decided to go home. But when a friend asked if he and another young man wanted to go for a ride, he went along.

While driving around, one of the trio said he wanted to rob someone to get money for a new car.

Mr. Cameron says he wanted to get out of the car but didn't -- or couldn't -- because the driver wouldn't stop.

Eventually, they came upon a couple parked on a dark lover's lane and decided to rob them. Mr. Cameron couldn't go through with it. He took off running in the opposite direction then heard the bang! bang! bang! of gunfire behind.

He was barely home when the police knocked on his door and took him to jail. The two others were already there.

The man who was shot later died. Rumors circulated through the town that the three young men had murdered the man and raped the woman. (However, during the trial the woman testified that no one had raped her.)

An angry mob, some dressed in Ku Klux Klan hoods, began gathering in front of the jail the next day, calling for their lives.

Quickly, word spread throughout the region that a lynching was about to happen over in Marion. Over the next few days, 10,000 to 15,000 people gathered in front of the jail screaming for the three young men, says Mr. Cameron, who was observing the scene from his jail window.

Some in the crowd used a sledgehammer to break into the jail, and first Thomas Shipp, 18, then Abram Smith, 19, were dragged out. Mr. Cameron witnessed the lynching of the young men.

"The crowd cheered wildly, jumping up and down in an insane and intense excitement as Tommy feebly writhed at the end of a rope," he writes.

Mr. Cameron was in a cell with a group of mostly black men who had been arrested for illegally hitching a ride on the train.

At first, nobody would point out who Mr. Cameron was. Eventually, one man did and Mr. Cameron was dragged out and beaten. A rope was strung around his neck and tossed over a tree branch.

"All my days and nights were flashed before me in my mind's eye," he writes.

"With the noose around my neck and death in my brain, I waited for the end."

And then it happened.

Mr. Cameron remembers hearing a voice shout above the crowd: "Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any raping or killing!"

A silence, he says, fell over the crowd. ". . . hands that had already committed murder, became soft and tender, kind and helpful. I could feel the hands that had unmercifully beaten me remove the rope from around my neck," he writes.

He never found out where the voice came from.

Eventually, he was taken to another prison and later stood trial where he was found guilty of being an accessory before the fact to voluntary manslaughter.

Although mocked, insulted, beaten and cursed by some white citizens and law enforcement officials, he says he never felt badly toward whites as a group.

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