Strange Fruit, 2017

By Connie Schultz

May 17, 2017 6 min read

Please, somebody tell these boys it's 2017.

Last weekend, several dozen white people, most of them male and all of them loud, swarmed Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest a City Council vote to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Similar protests have cropped up in New Orleans, where three statues commemorating the Confederacy were removed in recent weeks.

Critics have rightfully complained for a long time now that these statues are icons of racism.

"No, no," their defenders whine. "This is about states' rights."

Let me finish that thought for them: This is about states' rights to own slaves. They like to forget that part.

Demonstrators in Virginia went all out, bringing the added terror of dozens of blazing torches held up high in the night.

White supremacist Richard B. Spencer, who popularized the code term "alt-right," led this parade of time-traveling sore losers. He posted online video and photos of the event, so proud of those chants of "Russia is our friend" and "blood and soil," a favorite of the Nazis.

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer condemned them and the hate they rode in on.

"Such intolerance is not welcome here," he said in a statement. "This event involving torches at night in Lee Park was either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK."

Again, let me complete that thought: Bringing torches "hearkens back to the days of the KKK" — when cowards hiding behind white robes and hoods dragged innocent black people from their homes, often in the dead of night, to torture and burn them before tying ropes around their necks and hanging them.

Sometimes the Klansmen didn't even bother to mask their identities, lynching black people in broad daylight for the amusement of gathered throngs of other white people, who often brought along their children. Their friends and loved ones unable to attend the festivities often received photo postcards as souvenirs of the lynchings.

One man wrote on the back of such a postcard: "This is the Barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it." It was signed, "Your son, Joe."

To anyone wincing and wondering, "Now why did she go and bring that up?": You're asking the question of a clueless white person. There's not a black adult in America who wouldn't see those torches in Virginia and know precisely the intention behind replicating that act of terrorism.

For more than two decades, James Allen collected photographs and postcards of lynchings across America. They were published in the book "Without Sanctuary" and are also available on the companion website, at http://withoutsanctuary.org/main.html.

The gallery of more than 80 photos comes with this warning: "Please be aware before entering the site that much of the material is very disturbing."

To say the very least.

An unidentified corpse of an African-American man swings in the air as nine white people, two of them young boys, look on.

Allen Brooks hangs from Elks' Arch in Dallas, surrounded by bystanders, on March 3, 1910.

A collage of the corpses of five African-American males — Nease Gillepsie, John Gillepsie, Jack Dillingham, Henry Lee and George Irwin — is draped against the large trunk of a tree in Salisbury, North Carolina, on Aug. 6, 1906.

Yes. We must remember, and we must oppose any attempt to romanticize this horrible part of our past.

What's a white person to do?

In the late 1930s, a schoolteacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol was so upset after seeing a photo of a lynching that he wrote the song "Strange Fruit." His courage in writing it — he was a Jewish man in the '30s — was compounded by the bravery of Billie Holiday, the black singer who recorded it in 1939.

A few lines:

"Pastoral scene of the gallant South,

"The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,?

"Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,?

"Then the sudden smell of burning flesh."

Last weekend, torch-bearing demonstrators in Charlottesville chanted, "We will not be replaced."

Well, yeah, they were — the very next night, in fact.

Dozens of peaceful protesters showed up holding candles and bearing witness to history.

"Southern trees bear strange fruit," Billie Holiday sang.

"Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

"Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.

"Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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