Some historians consider the period between the World Wars (1919-39) as the nadir of the post-Civil War experience for black Americans. Not that the prior half-century had been great. While Reconstruction saw some freed blacks gain access to voting, minimal education and even office-holding it also saw the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and terrible violence (see, for instance, the Colfax Massacre). Once Reconstruction ended in 1877 and Northern Republicans lost any interest in the fate of freed slaves, white Southerners were able to start to put into place the legal edifice of Jim Crow, reasserting control of "their" society (at a time when more than 90% of blacks still lived in the former slave states), using threats of, and actual, violence and manipulation of voter eligibility laws to disenfranchise blacks. Throughout the end of the 19th and early 20th century the legal web of segregation grew tighter at the state level, potential help from the Federal level was cut off as the Supreme Court eviscerated the protections promised under the 14th Amendment and in the post-war Civil Rights Acts passed by Congress, and all capped by President Woodrow Wilson's banning of blacks from the US Civil Service as one of his first acts upon coming into office in 1913.
The interwar years further isolated the black community from the rest of American society. The 1920s saw a revival of the KKK (including in Northern states to which more blacks were migrating) and a further ratcheting up of Jim Crow laws; it was in that decade that the Virginia legislature passed the "one-drop" law classifying anyone with any amount of black ancestry as a Negro for purposes of the segregation laws. In the 1930s, the New Deal labor laws ended up further restricting the access of blacks to labor markets as union and Southern Democrats interests coincided (many Southern Democrats of that era were populists who favored Federal intervention and funding provided it did not upset Jim Crow arrangements). For more on the New Deal impacts read Only One Place of Redress (2001) by David Bernstein.
And throughout this entire period, blacks Americans were being terrorized and lynched.
It was at the end of this period, in 1939, that Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit (Holiday was previously featured by THC in God Bless The Child). The talented Holiday, born in Philadelphia, had just turned 24 and been performing since she was 14. She'd already sung with the Count Basie and Artie Shaw bands and had several hits.
Written the prior year, Strange Fruit was the first popular song to directly confront lynching. Live performances of the song were considered provocative, and Holiday showed courage in insisting on recording it. Her label, Columbia Records, would not touch it considering it too controversial, instead giving her contractual permission to go to Commodore Records to record the tune, which she did on April 20 and it was released shortly thereafter peaking at #16 on July 22 (though the other side of the recording, Fine And Mellow, may have driven its popularity). At the same time another black musical artist was involved in a controversy. Earlier in the 1939, Marian Anderson, a classically trained singer, was refused permission by the Daughters Of The American Revolution to perform in front of an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. With the aid of Eleanor Roosevelt it was arranged for Anderson to do an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9. The concert drew(Anderson) 75,000 people and was radio broadcast to an audience of millions. Taken together, the actions of both artists were an indication that perhaps the readiness for change was growing but it would take WWII and its aftermath to make it a reality.
In the years immediately following the end of the war that change began with President Truman's order desegregating the US military, the integration of baseball (see 42) and a string of legal victories against Jim Crow by the NAACP culminating in Brown v Board of Education in 1954 (see Marshall).
The lyrics of Strange Fruit are poetic but unambiguous:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Billie Holiday performing Strange Fruit:
Lynching has a long and tangled history in America and though primarily associated with hanging it covers extrajudicial killing by a mob by any method. Over the century after the Civil War most victims were black although large numbers of whites, Chinese and Mexicans were also lynched.
The best database on lynching goes from 1882 to 1968 and was compiled by the Tuskegee Institute and is available by year and by state. The database includes 4,743 lynchings of which 73% are of blacks and 27% of whites (a category that includes Chinese and Mexicans; these are not broken out in the charts I've seen but are a substantial number based on other references I've found). Some of the white lynchings are where you would expect; the state with the most lynchings which was never either a slave territory or state is Montana with 84 of which only two were black. On a per capita basis blacks were lynched roughly 25 times as often as white and was considered a socially acceptable activity in many places as you can see from the photo below.
The demographics of lynching changed over time. From 1882-89 there were more white than black lynchings (669 v 534) but after that decade 82% of lynchings were of blacks and the proportion grows every decade even as the overall total of lynchings starts to decline after 1900. Lynchings peaked in the 1890s with black deaths more than doubling whites (1105 v 429) and 161 black lynchings in 1892 alone. The discrepancy became more pronounced from 1900 to 1938 (the year Strange Fruit was composed) with 1764 black lynchings and only 192 white lynchings and the trend accelerated in the 1930s immediately proceeding the song (117 black v 8 white). Average yearly black lynchings per decade are 110 in the 1890s, 79 in the 1900s, 57 in the 1910s, 28 in the 1920s, 12 in the 1930s, 3 in the 1940s and less than 1 per year in the 1950s. The decline up until WWII did not reflect a mellowing of white attitudes but rather the effectiveness of the combination of terror and Jim Crow laws in subduing black Americans.
The last lynchings were the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers (two of them white) in Mississippi.
Precisely 4,000 (84%) of the lynchings, and a similar percentage of black lynchings, were in the former slave states and territories. In four states, Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, more than 90% of those lynched were black (the figure was 97% in South Carolina). In the free states and territories 17% of lynchings involved blacks, which is still a higher per capita rate than for whites in those states (West Virginia is excluded from both categories as I'm unsure where best to place it). Two states, Mississippi and Georgia, account for 24% of all U.S. lynchings (and 30% of black lynchings) over the entire 86 year period.
Surprisingly, the largest mass lynching in American history was the 1911 hanging of eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans after nine of them were found at trial to be not guilty of murdering the city's police chief. THC's family history may also have been altered by a lynching. In 1913, Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Atlanta, Georgia, was convicted of the murder of a white 13 year old female factory worker and sentenced to death (a conviction now acknowledged to be erroneous). In 1915, after Frank's appeals failed, the Governor of Georgia, believing there had been a miscarriage of justice, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment but Frank was kidnapped from jail and lynched by a mob. Between 1913 and 1915 half of Georgia's Jewish population left the state because of a surge of anti-semitism. At the start of this period, my paternal grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Russia, lived in Rome, Georgia. My grandfather had enlisted in the U.S. Army five weeks after arriving in America in 1905, serving two 3-year enlistments and, except for a posting in the Philippines, spending much of it in Georgia (including a brief period between enlistments), staying in the state after his final discharge and my grandmother learned to speak English with a Southern accent while working as a housekeeper for local families. By the end of this period they had left Georgia, moving first to Tennessee, then Kentucky and finally on to New York and then Connecticut. My grandparents died during the 1930s and, to my knowledge, never spoke with their children of their reasons for leaving but the timing is suggestive in light of the Frank lynching.
There is a final strange note about Strange Fruit. Although there was some controversy initially, Abel Meeropol, a one-time Bronx high school teacher, is now acknowledged as the sole composer. Meeropol was also a secret member of the Communist Party USA, an organization long-suspected (and now confirmed through documents that became available after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union) of being funded and directed by the Soviet Communist Party. As a party member, Meeropol was under party discipline and expected to follow the party line without question; debate was forbidden. The result is a haunting and poignant song about injustice, prejudice and hatred written by a member of a secret political group directed by an organization which, even as Strange Fruit was written, was in the midst of arbitrarily executing more than 800,000 people and imprisoning millions more. "Arbitrarily" is not an exaggeration; during the Soviet Union's Great Purge of 1937-8 provincial party officials were given numerical quotas by Moscow for Category One - to be shot - and Category Two - to be deported - with the first round of quotas collectively amounting to precisely 386,798 in Category One and 767,397 in Category Two. The quotas, if not fulfilled, subjected the provincial officials to purging by the security apparatus. To prove their efficiency and loyalty the provinces exceeded their quotas and asked for more, even though that failed to save many of these same officials who were caught up in the subsequent waves of the Purge. And all this only a few years after the party completed murdering perhaps 5 to 10 million people through the deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian people and the killing and deportation of the Kulaks.
Abel Meeropol went on to write the lyrics for The House I Live In, a plea for religious and racial tolerance and a hit for Frank Sinatra, who was a strong advocate for civil rights. Meeropol and his wife later adopted the two sons of the Communist party members and Soviet spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, after their conviction on espionage charges and executions in 1953.