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Perfunctory telling of interesting story
on February 11, 2004
I grew up in Richmond, Indiana, about an hour from the Marion, location of the lynchings. Because of my family's friendship with blacks and my mother's civil right's activity (in the 1960s), we sustained threats and physical abuse that necessitated police intervention. In Wayne County, of which Richmond is the county seat, apparently up to half of the white males were members of the KKK in the 1920s. Statewide, the Klan was as powerful as it was in any other state. The ugly history of Indiana racism deserves more attention, and Madison directs us to one especially compelling story.
Like many non-fiction books, the story is more interesting than the telling. Madison is a pedantic writer and the editing is mediocre. The author has an infuriating habit of engaging in unfounded speculation. For instance, he writes "Indeed, it may have been the Beitler photograph [of the lynchings] that so haunted Abel Meeropol and led him to write [the jazz song] 'Strange Fruit.'" And Meeropol may not have seen the photo, so why bother to speculate about the unknowable?
The lynch mob intended to murder three young men, but the youngest, James Cameron, was apparently spared because someone in the mob declared that he was innocent. Madison spends much time on Cameron, but his story comes off somewhat incoherent. In later life Cameron, who admitted his role in the killing that led to the lynchings, wrote a book and devoted himself to publicizing the incident. Madison notes in passing that Cameron fictionalized some events in his book, but he isn't inclined to challenge the eventual transformation of Camerson into something of a hero. As grizzly as the lynchings were, the victims-- if Cameron is to be believed -- were hardly saints. Madison dances gingerly around the issue of guilt, as if the lynchings could only be denounced if those hung were nice people. No doubt some of those lynched throughout the U.S. were guilty, but that doesn't lessen the abomination of the the mob response, and its indiscriminate spilling into further racial violence.
Mary Ball was a white woman who claimed to have been raped one or more of the three black men. Yet she was said to have been in a relationship with one of the three, and on good terms with the others. Madison does a poor job of nailing down the most likely explanation of what actually happened to Ball, if anything. He doesn't ask the obvious question: since James Cameron was there, why didn't he tell whether Mary was raped? If he did tell, why doesn't Madison tell us what Cameron said happened? It is as though Madison wants to use the fragments that enhance the undeniable horror of the lynchings, while ignoring details that cast the victims in a bad light. This may be good politics, but it is poor historical writing. Let's know the facts and let the chips fall where they might.
On balance, the book is worth reading, but with an eye to the loose ends Madison neglects to tie up.
It is a testament to America's transformation that Marion, and my town Richmond, have seen radical improvement in black-white relations. A friend of my family was a fireman who, like all black firemen in Richmond, was segregated at Station No. 2 into the 1960s (and long denied deserved promotions). He eventually retired as assistant chief and his daughter was elected president of the student body at Richmond High School. It still isn't uncommon to hear the word "nigger" spoken (by whites) in Richmond, but the town, Indiana, and America, have come a long way.
It's important to be aware of history, though.