The story of STRANGE FRUIT

Billie Holiday’s 1939 song about racist lynchings stunned audiences and redefined popular music. In an extract from 33 Revolutions Per Minute, his history of protest songs, Dorian Lynskey explores the chilling power of Strange Fruit…

Written by a Jewish communist called Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit was not by any means the first protest song, but it was the first to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment. Unlike the robust workers’ anthems of the union movement, it did not stir the blood; it chilled it. “That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,” Nina Simone would later marvel. “Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.” For all these reasons, it was something entirely new. Up to this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but Strange Fruit proved they could be art.

Been an important song in my life for decades. I threaten to get back to singing some day; but, honestly, that’s not likely. I spent a number of years singing pretty much full time. Years when I was also pretty much full time in the Movement. That was enough to say, back then. I’ll leave it at that.

A reminder of picturesque Mississippi


Photograph: Emmett Till Interpretive Center

A sign riddled with bullet holes marks the spot where, in 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mutilated body was pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Two white men lynched Till for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Site markers such as this one were defaced and replaced repeatedly until 2019, when a 500-pound steel sign—bulletproof and indestructible— was installed.

Emmett Till was lynched a few months after I graduated from high school. I remember the news stories – in most of the North – as clearly as anything else about that summer. The so-called trial of the men who murdered that 14-year-old Black youth found them Not Guilty.

When will the United States deal with history of racist murders?


First lynching the FBI ever “solved”

The US justice department will be accused in front of the United Nations on Thursday of failing to account for hundreds of African Americans who disappeared or were murdered by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan during the civil rights era.

The UN’s human rights council in Geneva will be told at a special meeting of its working group that the wave of racial violence that swept through the deep south in the 1940s, 50s and 60s has never been accounted for, despite a congressional law passed seven years ago that instructed the FBI to look again at the issue. The message will be delivered to the UN by a team of lawyers and civil rights experts from Syracuse University who have investigated scores of cold cases of race murders that have never been brought to justice.

They will tell the UN – as part of the world body’s review of the human rights record of the US that reaches a climax in May – that they have compiled a list of more than 300 suspicious killings that the FBI have not even recognized, let alone cleared up. By that calculation there have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of individual murderers who have killed in the name of white supremacy and enjoyed total impunity…

The UN spotlight falls at a time of rising concern about the unresolved nature of America’s sordid history of race killings. It follows the recent publication of a study by the Equal Justice Initiative that identified almost 4,000 lynchings in the country between 1877 and 1950 – vastly more than previously reported.

The issue has also been heightened by growing public concern about contemporary police shootings of unarmed black people such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. The Syracuse experts will invite the UN to draw a parallel between the recent spate of police shootings and killings in the civil rigohts era, many of which occurred with the active co-operation or silence of local law enforcement agencies.

One more overdue class of justice ignored, dismissed, falsified by our political establishment. With few exceptions, even self-described liberals rely on lousy information and excuses from the Department of Justice, the FBI. Phony reports which neither recognize real numbers and real reasons. Racism is something that “other people” are guilty of as far as American law enforcement is concerned. More self-deception.

Not until the era of Mississippi Burning could the FBI even claim to have solved a lynching. And they didn’t do the grunt work in that case either. Civil Rights activists, groups constituted to fight for legal protection for civil rights workers, knew from the beginning where to look for the murderers of Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney. The FBI dragged their feet, as ever. They were pushed by public pressure into finally doing something useful.

The FBI track record through the whole disgraceful history of racist murders in the United States was absolutely perfect up till then. No lynchings were ever solved by the FBI. None. Zero.

Australia tweeted #illridewithyou – and traveled in solidarity with Muslims

#illridewithyou

Against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty following the hostage taking in Sydney, thousands of ordinary Australians turned to social media to spread a message of unprecedented tolerance and solidarity.

Trending worldwide, the #illridewithyou hashtag was a response to a number of Muslim listeners who called Australian radio stations to say they were scared to travel in public as the siege unfolded.

Users offered to ride on public transport with anyone feeling intimidated. They posted their travel plans and invited others to get in touch if they were going the same way and wanted a companion.

Police stormed the Lindt cafe in the central business district, bringing an end to a day-long standoff with gunman Man Haron Monis. There is still uncertainty about his motive for taking up to 30 people prisoner.

But the sight of hostages being forced to hold a black flag bearing the shahada, the basic Islamic creed – “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” – in the window of the cafe seemed enough to make innocent people concerned about a backlash if they wore Muslim dress in public.

There is little wonder that Australian Muslims are scared. As research has shown, terrorist attacks and events seen to be “the fault of Muslims” have been shown to catalyse a sharp increase in the number of Islamophobic attacks perpetrated against Muslims going about their everyday lives…

All this might make the popularity of the #illridewithyou hashtag surprising. But what really underpins this social media phenomenon is the fact that ordinary people are not only aware but are prepared to do something about the Islamophobia that ordinary Muslims face in the current climate…

In the world of bigots you don’t even need to be Muslim to be lynched. You simply have to “look” like a Muslim or “dress” like a Muslim. The first person I recall being murdered by a bigot right after 9/11 was a Sikh in Arizona. Reality didn’t matter in the least. The distance between Sikh and Muslim beliefs includes centuries and are nations wide. Meaningless to a narrow-minded fool.

I mentioned this response to the siege in Sydney to my wife and her first recollection was folks in a software company she deals with in much of her IT work. They’re in Georgia. After 9/11, folks throughout their company made it a point to travel together with many of their fellow workers, Indian, Pakistani, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist – everywhere – to act as an additional shield against the bigots and fools who wanted to kill a Muslim ar at least some kind of non-Christian foreigner.

Indian court convicts 31 over Muslims murdered — in 2002

Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

An Indian court found 31 people guilty on Wednesday of killing 33 Muslims during riots in Gujarat state in 2002.

The trial in a court in Gujarat, followed an investigation, ordered by the Supreme Court, into the events that took place on March 1, 2002. On that evening, a mob of Hindu rioters surrounded houses belonging to Muslims in Sardarpura village in the district of Mehsana and set them on fire, burning dozens of people alive, including men, women and children.

Killings, arson and looting continued throughout the night, with attackers burning shops and houses owned by Muslims. Most of the Muslim families left the village after the episode.

The rioting followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in a Muslim-dominated area in which 59 passengers were killed. The train attack incited widespread riots across Gujarat for several weeks. More than 1,000 people, primarily Muslims, were killed in the riots.

The violence attracted widespread condemnation about the ineffectiveness of Gujarat’s state government. The lack of immediate prosecutions after the riots prompted the National Human Rights Commission to file a case in the Supreme Court for special investigation…

The court also acquitted 42 in the rioting. Concerning the large number of acquittals, Teesta Setalvad, an activist who represents riot victims said she and others representing the victims will speak to the victims’ families to discuss a possible appeal.

The 31 people convicted were sentenced to life in prison and fined $1,000 each.

Sounds like the Old Days in God’s Country – when Black Americans were lynched for the crime of being Black. And state and federal politicians in charge of India reacted to protect the lives of ordinary Indians who happen to be Muslim just about as slow as molasses-foot Congress ever did.