In honor of the 76th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” haunting ballad I wanted to commemorate with music that has shaped or been inspired by human/civil rights movements in the United States. The recording brought life to the haunting poem “Bitter Fruit, that was written by teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol, in response to a photo of the lynching’s of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith August 7, 1930 in Marion, Indiana.
Holiday recorded the first version in 1939, with her friend Milt Gabler’s label, Commodore, after Columbia refused in fear of what response/outrage would come from audiences about the gruesome lyrics. The same year Marian Anderson, sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in front of Lincoln Memorial on Easter Day after Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall refused to have her perform because she was Black.
Shipp, Smith and a third gentleman, James Cameron, were wrongly accused and arrested. Charged for the robbery/murder of a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and rape of his girlfriend, Mary Ball. A crowd of 12 to 15,000 broke into the jail with sledgehammers and attacked the three gentlemen, in attempts to hang them. Both Smith and Shipp were beaten to death before they were hung by the police cooperated lynching. Cameron, who was 16 years old at the time, escaped to an unknown “woman who intervened,” according to his account, “saying that he was not guilty.” Mary Ball later admitted that she was not raped and charges were dropped against the three men, according to Cameron’s memoir A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story. Shipp and Smith did not live to see their innocence proved. Cameron went on to become an activist who founded three chapters of the NAACP and the America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1988.
The State Attorney General Flossie Bailey worked to gain indictments but no charges filed against those involved in the lynchings. Cameron was convicted at trial as an accessory to the murder and served four years in prison. He was paroled in 1935, later to be pardon.
In light of protests against causes such as anti-war, state violence and civil rights, many look to music or entertainment to shed awareness on the crises that are happening in their communities. Music has always reflected what was going on in the world or in many cases music has influenced civil or social unrest. Revolution music was essential to fuel my drive to take to the streets and protest in response to Mike Brown’s murder.
I listened to so much of Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone and others before I would go out every day. Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” album was spawn from a song that Renald Benson of the Four Tops wrote after seeing the anti-war protest at Berkeley’s People’s Park on “Bloody Thursday.” Gaye cited the 1965 Watts riots as a pivotal moment in his life in which he asked himself, “with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Motown founder Berry Gordy basically told Marvin that he was “silly” for doing a protest song. The track led to the full album which was to come from the POV of a Vietnam vet coming back to the States after the war, much like his brother Frankie did in 1969. Songs like “We Are the World” and “Sun City” included artists banding together to bring awareness to issues like apartheid in South Africa (at the time Hip-Hop was new to the music industry so artists like Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow were introduced to a mainstream audience). Much like Sun City which was banned by South Africa and many radio stations in the U.S. (due to “explicit criticism” of former President Reagan); N.W.A.’s “F*ck tha Police” was an unapologetic track about police violence/abuse that led to the FBI warning the record label of inciting violence leading to it banned for airwaves as well.
So when J. Cole released 2014 Forest Hills Drive and acknowledged the work that’s been happening in Ferguson in his audio thank yous on “Not to Self, I gasped. I think I practically teared up because I’ve been such of a fan of his work and to know he was paying attention. He cared. Common & John Legend’s “Glory” also bridged the civil rights movement in the film Selma to present day unrest.
Reading up on movements globally like Apartheid, the falling of the Berlin Wall and the LA Riots of ’92 and how influentially music has been to progress. I chose a few songs that inspired me to be involved but that also reflect many movements from different eras that are still relevant today. I listen 76 years later, songs like “Strange Fruit” are audio time capsules that for generations to come show how we’ve evolved from past struggles and that the fight continues.