Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Our Town

James Cameron, one of the few black men to ever survive a lynching, died Sunday at age 92 in Milwaukee.

Two men, friends of James's, were successfully murdered by a lynch mob on the night of August 7, 1930 in Marion, Indiana.

My hometown.

That remote, idyllic, albeit conservative little town where I grew up.

You may have seen the photo taken of the lynching, as it is a famous one, due to the horrifying juxtaposition of the dead bodies hanging above, and the party-like atmosphere of the crowd beneath.

It was one of the last public lynchings north of the Mason Dixon line. And no one is quite sure how it was that James survived. He was dragged from the jailhouse after his friends were already mangled and dead. The way he remembers it, a voice of unearthly origin stayed the hands of those putting the noose around his neck. Eyewitness accounts vary as to exactly who did address the crowd that night, but someone, possibly the sheriff, caused the mob to allow James to return to the jailhouse.

Later, James opened a museum dedicated to the victims of lynchings in the US. He had apparently attempted many times to buy the old abandoned Marion jailhouse in order to house his museum there, but he was resisted by governmental and commercial interests in Marion. No one in Marion wants to remember or talk about the lynching.

And no one was ever convicted of the lynchings, in spite of the hundreds of witnesses present. Seventy-five years later, many remain afraid of reprisal.

I'm reading a really wonderful book written by a former Marion resident about the effect this event has had upon my old hometown. I guess that's part of the reason that seeing his obituary this morning really stunned me: I feel so immersed in all of the events of that night. Also, it seems to me right now that all politics are somehow emblematic of the politics of my hometown. How I feel about my country right now is how I feel about my hometown.

There were places in Marion I loved. Like the shallow spot in the Mississinewa river up the county road from Indian Village where we kids used to go and ride the rapids in our underwear. And the farmer with the friendly horse who would feed from your hand and run along the fence as you rode by on your bike. And of course the general store in Jalapa where we bought penny candy and Push-ups. We played outside every day until the sun went down. We were unsupervised, but we looked out for one another. It was the kind of life every parent wants for their kid, and yet.

And yet.

No black child could have had that same life in Marion. And I cannot think of the sweet days of my childhood without also thinking of that.

Even in my day, in the 60s and 70s, Marion was also a harsh, bigoted, small-minded, mean little town full of blacks and whites that hated and feared each other.

So the rural idyll came with a big heaping dose of bitterness and injustice and the feeling that you just couldn't change anything, no matter how hard you tried. Gradually, unless you wanted to belong to the hate club, or you were just too poor to get out, you decided that you couldn't stomach Marion, Indiana anymore. And you said goodbye for good.

Like I did.

But it's not like I never think about what I lost. I think about it.

I think about it all the time.

P.S. I will say this: the local newspaper published James Cameron's obituary. That's something.


SJ said...

I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama which is pretty much the fucking ground zero for lynchings such as you speak. Discrimination, fire hoses, back of the bus--and yet it also became the birthplace of the entire Civil Rights movement. I still struggle with my white guilt every day, as I did as a child.

vikkitikkitavi said...

I'm sure you understand what I'm feeling, SJ, although I think to call it "white guilt" somehow trivializes it.

I don't feel guilty for being white. I'm proud of the people I come from. But at the same time their persistant stupidity, and in fact their pride in being ignorant, just astounds me and makes me so sad and well, just bone tired.

Grant Miller said...


GETkristiLOVE said...

Can I read it when you're done?

vikkitikkitavi said...

Sure, you can read it. Hopefully I'm finished by the time you visit.

dad said...

I bought the book and plan to read it during our next trip. My best man, Marcus Cannon is mentioned in the book and is described as a "black panther".

vikkitikkitavi said...

I was going to ask you if that was the Marcus I remember!

Also Adeline is in there. She is the great-grandaughter of a man that ran an underground railroad station.

moneyca said...

Great post. I'm enjoying reading your blog.

Zoe said...

Chilling huh? The 80's weren't much different. I can remember "cruising" main street in Gas City (the city next to Marion for those who don't know) one night, hanging out at the local McDonald's when a car of black kids rolled through town. The hate monger kids that were hanging out at the McDonald's got in a red pickup truck with baseball bats, there were 8 of them, 3 in the cab and 5 in the back. They chased them out of town with their baseball bats in the air, screaming explicatives. I went to the police station to let someone know what was going on and the cops just said... "boys will be boys." In 1991 the same thing happened again (I was living in Indianapolis then) but this time the black kids fought back and the driver of the car who was chasing them was killed in a knife fight right on Main Street. I think those black kids went to jail. Yeah, hatred is alive and well, still, in Indiana.

I'm glad I got the fuck out.