A black and white photo of singer Billie Holiday.
Image Source: Billie Holiday / Facebook

The Lessons of ‘Strange Fruit’ Still Ring True

March 25, 2022, is the 91st anniversary of the Scottsboro Boys incident, an infamous miscarriage of justice against nine Black teenagers. Though they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison or execution by a U.S. court of law, their persecution began with their arrest by a group of white vigilantes (National Archives). In other instances, white vigilantism ended not with racist prosecution but with extralegal lynchings. Billie Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit” mourns the victims of a particularly barbaric (and especially American) practice that reverberates to the present day. It illustrates the hugely significant role that cultural workers play in the struggle for liberation: a fight that is far from over. 

On August 7, 1930, a large white mob publicly lynched Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Both 19 years old, the two were accused of murdering a white man and, like the Scottsboro Boys, raping a white woman. Mr. Shipp and Mr. Smith’s brutalized bodies were hung in the public square for hours as thousands took photos. Onlookers took pieces of their dismembered bodies home as souvenirs. This was one of the thousands of public lynchings that happened after the defeat of Reconstruction (EJI).

Years later, their alleged victim testified that she wasn’t raped. Like the Scottsboro Boys, Shipp and Smith were falsely accused.

TAKE ACTION

• Consider the Black media you consume. Is it all “issue-related” content, like the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” we’ve highlighted today? What Black history do you celebrate that’s not rooted in white supremacy?

• Black activists targeted and surveilled under COINTELPRO are still imprisoned. Support efforts to release Dr. Mutulu Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal, activists that advocates assert were falsely imprisoned.

• Sign this petition created by the family of Emmett Till that urges the State of Mississippi to move the open investigation forward, press charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham, and issue an official apology to the Till Family.

• Billie Holiday was unashamed to live openly in a time that persecuted her for her racial identity and bisexuality. How can you be a better ally for the Black and LGBTQ+ community?

In 1936, Abel Meeropol, a Jewish American public high school teacher in the Bronx, NY, saw a photograph of their lynching. It haunted him so much that he wrote a poem about it for the teacher union’s journal. The poem was later published in the Marxist journal, The New Masses. Later, Meeropol turned the poem into a song, performing it with his wife and African American singer Laura Duncan at protests (USHMM).

That song was popularized as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which she debuted in 1939 in New York’s first integrated nightclub. The song reminded Holiday of her father, who died at 39 from lung disease after being turned away from a hospital for his race (Biography). She used to close all of her performances. 

Holiday’s performances of “Strange Fruit” gained the attention of Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger. A known racist, Anslinger believed that drugs caused Black people to overstep their boundaries in American society. He stated that Black jazz singers — who smoked marijuana — created the devil’s music. He particularly didn’t like that Billie Holiday was a Black woman that “didn’t know her place” (Politico). His ruthless prosecution of Black artists started the War on Drugs, a global campaign that disproportionately impacted young Black Americans.

After learning that Holiday had a history of drug use, Anslinger and his agents ruthlessly hounded her, attempting to blackmail her into not performing the song. Through hiring a Black agent to befriend her and conspiring with her abusive husband, he had Holiday tried and convicted in 1947. Upon her release in 1948, the federal government refused to renew her cabaret performer’s license, mandatory for any performer playing or singing at any club or bar serving alcohol (Progressive). Anslinger and his agents continued to chase her.

When she was 44 years old, she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. En route, she stated, “they are going to arrest me in this damn bed.” She was right. Agents swarmed the hospital room and claimed to find drugs hanging on the wall, out of Holiday’s reach. They arrested her, handcuffing her to the bed, removing all of her personal items from the room, and refusing her any visitors or adequate treatment. Despite protests from her friends and supporters, she died days later in July 1959 (Politico). 

The U.S. government persecuted Holiday for denouncing the vigilante violence of lynching. The same government handed down draconian sentences against the teenage Scottsboro Boys after they were apprehended under false pretenses by a white mob. Though public lynchings may be a thing of the past, their legacy continues in the most hallowed U.S. institutions: the F.B.I. and the police, the courts, and the prisons. “There’s a trope that says, ‘Until the last anti-Semite is dead, I’m Jewish,” said Roger Meeropol, the son of the song’s author. “Now, until the last racist is dead, ‘Strange Fruit’ will be relevant” (Rolling Stone).

“Strange Fruit” is one of the formative protest songs of the last century. Billie Holiday’s legacy should not only be celebrated because she defied white supremacy but her brilliance despite it. She lived her life in full and without apology. She was openly bisexual, uncompromising in her opinions, and unparalleled in her talent. It’s a shame that we lost such a Black illuminary because of our society’s racial inequities. I want this lesson to be remembered not for Billie Holiday’s bravery but for the shameful acts of white supremacy that try – and fail – to dim the light of Black brilliance.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The Scottsboro Boys were falsely convicted of rape after being seized by a white mob.

• White vigilantism often ended in lynchings, one of which inspired the song “Strange Fruit.”

• Disproportionate state violence against Black people is the modern legacy of lynching.

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