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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 March 2005, 11:21 GMT
'I escaped lynch mob's noose'

By Clive Myrie
BBC News, Washington

He greeted me with a firm handshake, the skin of his right hand soft as butter.

James Cameron, lynching survivor
A lynch mob put a rope around James Cameron's neck
Wheelchair-bound, he had been ill for the last year or so, but there was an alertness in his eyes you couldn't miss despite his age of 91.

James Cameron had agreed to talk to me about a painful time in his life, the day a racist, angry mob of thousands tried to lynch him.

Back in 1930 he was a 16-year-old accused with two other teenagers of the murder of a white man in Indiana.

A mob lynched his friends and then went after him, breaking into the local jail.

He told me that the crowd was chanting his name as if it was at a football match cheering on a favourite player.

"We want Cameron. We want Cameron. We want Cameron."

Then he was dragged from his jail cell and beaten all the way to the tree outside, where he could see his two friends Tommy and Abe already hanging, their necks broken.

A rope was put around his neck and he was about to be hoisted up when someone in the crowd shouted out that he wasn't a murderer.

Miraculously the mob spared his life.

Imaginary crimes

Thousands of other African Americans were not so lucky in the years after the Civil War right up to the 1960s.

A lynch mob surrounds Mr Cameron's friends Tommy and Abe
Lynching was never about justice. It was about terror used to enforce white supremacy
Men, women, teenagers. Lynching was a part of the danger of everyday life for millions of people.

The lynchings were mob justice for crimes real or imagined.

Public spectacles attended by thousands, happy, proud even to pose for photographs as dead bodies hung from trees behind them.

Now the Senate is expected to pass a resolution officially apologising for not enacting anti-lynching legislation over the years.

In all, seven presidents petitioned Congress to do something about the extrajudicial killings, but filibusters mainly by southern senators meant no vote was ever taken on the issue.

Some 200 bills went before Congress and were effectively ignored.

No memorial

Most lynchings were in the Deep South, but it was a nationwide curse.

James Cameron in his youth
James Cameron in his youth
In doing the research for this story, I came across a black and white photograph in a book of a courthouse in Maryland dated 1931.

Outside the building was a row of trees with a thick white arrow, pointing to the spot where a black man named Matthew Williams was lynched by a mob. He'd been accused of murder.

I went to the courthouse and found no plaque or memorial.

In fact it was hard to imagine a crowd of almost 3,000 people had gathered there all those years ago, baying for blood.

The irony of course was that Matthew Williams died in the shadow of the courthouse, having been denied a lawyer, a judge or a jury.

But then, despite claims to the contrary, lynching was never about justice.

It was about terror used to enforce white supremacy after the abolition of slavery.

Often the only crime of those accused of murder, or theft, or the rape of a white woman, was that they were black.

Terrible time

James Cameron showed me a macabre souvenir.

He still has a piece of the rope used to kill one of his two friends.

Lynchers often cut up the rope they used to commit murder and sold the pieces as 50-cent souvenirs.

James told me that the rope represented a terrible time in American history.

It is a time that senators now say they want to acknowledge with an apology to lynchings victims, survivors and their descendants.


SEE ALSO
America's painful past
18 May 00 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Race riot victims win pay-out
05 Feb 00 |  Americas
Clinton condemns 'race' murder
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