Lynching in the United States became exceedingly popular after the Civil War. Lynching was supposed to be an extrajudicial practice only for murderers and rapists, similar to the death penalty. However, it mainly served as a means to preserve white supremacy over black people after slavery. Simply put, lynching was racial terrorism.
The act of lynching was more than a punishment for crime. In fact, many people were lynched for minor transgressions like whistling at white women or trespassing. Some lynching victims had not even committed a crime at all. Most lynchings were a vessel to maintain white supremacy. In other words, lynchings were used to send a message to blacks about the potential consequences of stepping away from the docile, subservient role many whites (particularly in the south) were used to.
When most people think of lynching, they think of hangings. But in actuality, a lynching is much more. Lynching can be in the form of being shot several times by a firing squad, burned alive, forced to jump off a bridge, drug behind cars, and so on.
The Birth of Strange Fruit
Between the years 1882 and 1964, at least 3,400 blacks were lynched. Lynching via hanging appeared to be the preferred method of the “lynch mobs” who carried out these heinous acts. Hangings became so common that the euphemism “strange fruit” became regular terminology in reference to black bodies hanging and swinging from trees, similar to the way that fruit does.
The term strange fruit originated from a poem written by Jewish-American school teacher and songwriter, Abel Meeropol, under his alias Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynching.
Horrified by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, Meeropol was compelled to denounce white supremacy, particularly the lynching of black people.
Eventually, Meeropol’s poem was converted into a song, which was sung by, jazz singer, Billie Holiday. Though Meeropol was the one who created the lyrics of the song, Holiday sang life into it, garnering the attention of the masses. Strange fruit became Billie Holiday’s biggest hit, and one of the most influential protest songs of the 20th century—some would argue it is the most impactful protest song of all-time. Many recording artists have adopted renditions of the classic song—most notably Nina Simone in 1965 and Kanye West’s Blood in the Leaves in 2013.
The Irony of it All
It’s ironic that something as unnatural as the hanging of a human body is colloquially associated with something as natural as fruit. Therefore, it is, indeed, strange; as this fruit was not grown from seeds and soil, but from hatred and bigotry; It was not cultivated by God’s divinity, but man’s wickedness. This fruit is not natural at all. As a matter of fact, it is incredibly unnatural. For most fruit, from the roots of a tree is where its life begins, but for this strange fruit, the tree is where its life ends.
I assume that most of us view lynchings as a thing of the past, but truthfully lynchings are just as present today, as they were in the 20th century. The only thing that has changed is the methods used and the verbiage associated with the atrocities.
Every time a black person is shot and killed by police with impunity, a lynching has occurred.
Every time a rouge citizen decides to take the law into his own hands (á la George Zimmerman) by exchanging a black body for so-called justice, a lynching has occurred
Lynching is not a thing of the past, and I’m afraid it never will be. Lynching cannot be a thing of the past as long as racism is a thing of the present. Lynchings are the byproduct of racism; these inhumane acts are nothing more than an attempt from those who benefit from racism to maintain the status quo of racism.