That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
November 24, 2003

Congenial tasks



ON AUGUST 6, 1930, in Grant County, Indiana, three black boys (James Cameron, 16; Tommy Shipp, whose age is variously given as 18 and 19; and Abram Smith, 19) robbed a white couple from Fairmount (Claude Deeter, whose age is variously given as 21 and 23; and his fiancée, Mary Ball, 19). Cameron, who was carrying a gun that he claimed had been given to him earlier by one of the others, became frightened and ran away, leaving the gun behind. Shipp and Smith remained. They clubbed Deeter and shot him three times (four, by some accounts).

Deeter died of his wounds the next day, and all three boys were arrested for murdering him and raping Miss Ball and were placed in the Grant County jail in my hometown, Marion. (Miss Ball later testified that she had not been raped.) That evening a crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered at the county jail. I am sure that figure is an exaggeration, especially since most of the people in it were supposed to be from Fairmount, whose population eight years later is reported as 2,056. Crowd members dragged Shipp and Smith to the courthouse lawn a couple of blocks away, beat them, and hanged them. Others came back for Cameron, but as the noose was placed around his neck, a voice — some say it was Miss Ball's uncle's — cried out that Cameron had not killed anyone, and he was saved.

This event is the subject of "A Lynching in Marion," volume #258 in PBS's VIDEOdatabase of America's History and Culture. The half-hour documentary explains to the viewer that in the 1930s, when the Klan was powerful in Indiana, lynchings formed a "racist form of social control" and that the bodies of lynching victims were often used for target practice. The latter did not occur in the case of the Marion lynchings, and it is clear that they were not a form of social control. They were a common response to a black-on-white murder, a variety of murder that of course is not itself designated a "racist form of social control." (Introducing facts extraneous to an account is another form of social control. But I digress.)

Cameron served four years as an accessory to murder. His book, A Time of Terror, tells his story, and he is prominently featured in the PBS video. He obtained government money to establish a museum in the building that used to be the Grant County jail, and according to the PBS video he hopes to "document his and others' similar experiences by establishing 'America's Black Holocaust' museum in Milwaukee."

In short, Cameron has taken the lemons that were handed to his friends and made a fair amount of lemonade out of them for himself.

On October 19, 2003, Reconciliation Day was proclaimed in Marion. A group of local ministers had organized an event held on the same courthouse lawn where Shipp and Smith were hanged. The event was attended by some 400 souls (and covered by the Fort Wayne TV stations). The long-delayed healing had at last begun.

Or so we're supposed to believe. Of course, if the healing has truly begun, should we not hope for a similar gathering to be held at some distant day in the future to announce that it has been accomplished? But there is virtually no chance that such an announcement will ever take place — is there anyone anywhere who believes that it will? (A similar start to get the healing going was made in 1993, when James Cameron received a pardon from Gov. Evan Bayh and was given the keys to the city — Marion, not Fairmount. I have searched in vain for a report of the events of Reconciliation Day informing me that much progress had been made since the day Cameron received his pardon. Or that we were well on the road to recovery.)

Reconciliation is an interesting thing. I have been under the impression that it is accomplished by a confession of one's own wrongdoing and the forgiveness extended by those one has wronged.

So if true reconciliation is underway in Marion, wouldn't we expect to hear an apology from James Cameron to the families of Claude Deeter and Mary Ball? And statements of forgiveness from the Deeters and Balls? Perhaps statements of forgiveness from the Shipp and Smith families and Cameron himself to the lynchers? Would it not seem, if the relatives of the principals are reconciled, that there's the end of it?

Ah, but no. When the state gets involved as some kind of representative of "society," nothing ever seems to be resolved. And how could it? The state is no one in particular. According to the ministers (10 white and 10 black) who organized Reconciliation Day, although some gestures of forgiveness have been made in years past, there has never been an acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the part of the city's government leaders.

Well, that seems to have been taken care of now. The main apology statement came from the Grant County commissioner who offered his acknowledgement of wrongdoing: "We as a group of elected officials were wrong." He enumerates the many ways elected officials were wrong.

So that should take care of it, right?

Probably not.

"The community never came together and asked God for forgiveness," said Larry Batchelor, pastor of New Light Baptist Church, one of the organizers. "They didn't say anything. They didn't cry out for that horrible deed. The Christian community has to give leadership to these kinds of things so that they won't ever happen again."

So now the call is for the "community as a whole" to seek forgiveness. By the way, the "kinds of things" Batchelor was referring to were the lynchings, not the murder. There have been murders aplenty in Marion since 1930. There has been plenty of black-on-white crime in Marion since then. There have been no more lynchings.

Batchelor's is an interesting perspective. He seems to believe that the lynchings have some supernatural power to go on punishing the residents of Marion:

"Some people are saying, 'Why now? Why 73 years later?'" he was quoted in the Marion Chronicle-Tribune. "Our answer to that is why not now? We waited too long. It seems like every little town around Marion is prospering except Marion." I wonder whether he remembered that Fairmount is one of those little towns around Marion?

But the answer to the "why now" question is simple: Because widespread and general collectivism have made these never-ending demands respectable. Everyone feels free to make them; everyone else feels compelled to respond to them. But these demands will never, ever be satisfied. Indians and Negroes are never going to say that white people have done enough to make up for the injustices of which they are accused. Jews are never going to say that they have finally, at last, accepted some apology of some major Christian figure — a future Pope John Paul LXXXVII, perhaps. Environmental groups and animal-rights groups are never going to say that McDonald's is making the world a better place to live. And, indeed, why should they? It is not apologies that anyone making such demands wants: it is surrender and the transfer of power.

"We need to do something to move this stigma off Marion because we have moved beyond 1930. If we don't do something now, our grandchildren will be dealing with the same issue 70 years from now," said Batchelor.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for suspecting that men like Batchelor and Cameron will make good and sure that the issue will still be alive 70 years from now.

For the fact is that not one person in 500,000 would know of the lynchings if men like Batchelor and Cameron did not keep the memory of them alive. (When I was in school I heard about the lynchings, though I did not know when they had occurred or why. They had rather the same mysterious aura possessed by tales of the ghosts who periodically burned down the high school.) And if all the world forgot about the hanging bodies of Shipp and Smith, Negroes in Marion would not begin to walk about town fearful of lynching. Even if a pair of Negroes robbed, beat up, and murdered a couple parked on one of the little county roads outside Marion, it is doubtful that they would be afraid of being lynched.

"We're trying to get across the idea that this city is not as bad as the nation would believe it to be," said Rev. J.D. Williams, of Greater Second Baptist Church, another of the organizers. "We're trying to create an atmosphere that will stop the business and community from leaving."

One would think the lynchings had taken place just this past summer, and that businesses — sensing a PR disaster — began moving out.

The commissioner's "confession" illustrates a curious feature of all this mad talk of "reconciliation" and collective "repentance," a feature that C.S. Lewis pointed out years ago in a book that sold well enough in Christian bookstores — including the Christian bookstores of Marion: that it gives "encouragement ... to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing — but, first, of denouncing — the conduct of others."

And that is what is really going on: people who seem not be self-righteous (don't abject collective apologies appear to be, indeed, the opposite of self-righteousness?) get to denounce others by pretending to denounce themselves. We all know that the Grant County commissioner had nothing to do with the lynching, that he did not fail to protect Smith and Shipp. But by pretending that those failures fall upon him, he is free to denounce his predecessors and bewail their sins. And how tasty it is to be free to denounce others who cannot defend themselves.

And what of Cameron? If collective repentance is proper, perhaps in addition to making whatever apologies he has made, he would like to offer further apologies for all blacks who have robbed and murdered whites? Perhaps he would like to admit that "we as a group" have merited the enmity of a large number of whites?

Probably not.

And who is there to accept such an apology anyway?

The accounts of all the feel-good carrying on of October 19 neglect to remind readers of at least one important fact: James Cameron has never claimed that the friends on whose bodies his career is built were not guilty. No one has ever claimed that they were not guilty. In Indiana, had they faced trial, they would have been found guilty and faced the death penalty.

I suppose that nothing I can say at this point will prevent a critic from accusing me of defending lynching, so — to coin a phrase — let me give him more rope.

Some have complained that the leaders of the lynching were never convicted, though two members of the mob were tried. But with what crime could they be charged? Depriving the state of its monopoly to execute murderers?

(There is an urban legend in Marion that the land on which the courthouse stands was donated with the proviso that no death penalty ever be handed down in it. And that is why important murder cases are tried in other venues. Perhaps your own little town has a similar legend. But if it were true, and if the proviso were binding, that the lynchings were conducted on the courthouse grounds was an additional insult to civil proprieties.)

A trial confers no goodness on a penalty that would be otherwise thought wicked. If it is just to hang a man for wanton murder, then it is just whether he has been tried or not.

There is no natural right to a trial; there are procedural proprieties and civil privileges that the state is pleased to call rights. But they are not the natural rights conferred on us by nature and "Nature's God." They may be prudent; they may be useful. But they have no intrinsic merit in justice.

The point of a trial is not to make hanging a man just; it is to make sure you have the right man. Its procedures, its formalities, its codes of conduct are intended — or at least used to be intended; I think the purpose has changed in the last few years — to see to it that, if an accused person has a defense, he has an opportunity to present it.

As Roy Childs pointed out in his debate with Jeffrey St. John, "Government does not consist of men who have powers of epistemological elitism; that is, they have no means of knowledge not available to other men." If true knowledge of guilt justifies a hanging, then justice is indifferent to who possesses that knowledge.

Similarly the point of a formal execution is not to make hanging a man just; it is to remove the hanging from the passions of the executioner. It is not that a guilty man should not be hanged. But he should not be hanged in the heat of passion. It is not that the final result of a mob's deeds is unjust; it is that the mob have probably acted like barbarians in the course of carrying out the executions.

We give formal trials to enemies of civilization because we are not barbarians and we prefer not to act like barbarians.

So long as it is uncontested that Shipp and Smith were guilty, let us recognize them as enemies of civilization. Let us recognize them as barbarians. And let us, like Loki, weep dry tears for them.

Unlike the bloviations of Reconciliation Day, that is not a congenial task. Ω

November 24, 2003

© 2003 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2003 by WTM Enterprises.

Notice to visitors who came straight to this document from off site: You are deep in The Last Ditch. Please check out our home page and table of contents.