A Tale of Race, Violence, and Shame

In popular memory, lynching will always be a crime of the South. But one of the most notorious American lynchings took place on an August night in 1930 in Marion, Ind., a town 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

A photograph from that night made the event unforgettable. The image shows two black bodies hanging from a sturdy elm in the town square, as white people mill about, some looking severe, some curious, some festive. A man with a Hitler-like mustache and a tattooed arm points at the bloodied corpses. A local photographer had been called to record the event. He took one exposure and left, his daughter recalled many years later. In the weeks that followed, he sold thousands of prints, charging 50 cents a piece. Souvenir hunters collected pieces of the ropes as well, and even branches and bark from the tree. What happened that night became "a living secret" in Marion, writes Cynthia Carr, "still pulsing just under the surface. People had never stopped talking about it, at least in private, because they had never stopped having feelings about it." At the same time, the prevailing public attitude was to hush things up, to let the past recede. No point in dwelling on it.

Carr had heard about the lynching as a child on visits to Marion, the town where her father grew up and where her grandparents lived. A family story suggested that her grandfather had gone to the square that night as a spectator. As an adult, Carr learned that her grandfather had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and when she saw the famous photo for the first time, she searched nervously for his face in the crowd.

She didn't see him. But she wanted to understand what happened in Marion and how a grandfather she loved could have been implicated. "Our Town" is the result of more than a decade of probing her family history, the town's history, and the community psyche that never quite healed.

Carr's investigations began when she found out that there was a third black male dragged from the Marion jail that night but that he had been spared by the mob and released. This third man, James Cameron, was living in Milwaukee and had written a memoir called "A Time of Terror." Carr, then a writer at the Village Voice, wrote about him in 1994, which led film crews and reporters to descend on Marion, attention that was not entirely welcome in the town.

When the media blitz faded, Carr went back. Eventually she took an apartment in Marion and, over the course of a year, spoke to anyone she could find who knew something about that night in 1930. The essential facts were on record: On August 6, three young black males, Tommy Shipp, Abe Smith, and Cameron, attempted to rob a white man named Claude Deeter who was parked on a country road with a young woman. In the struggle, Deeter was fatally shot. Police tracked down the perpetrators within hours. By the next day, rumors circulated that the woman had been raped. On the night of August 7 a mob gathered, sledgehammers were taken to the entrance of the county jail, and vigilante justice was carried out.

But who had organized the lynch mob? Was the KKK involved? Did authorities allow it to happen? A full accounting never emerged. Several locals were eventually indicted but no one was ever convicted.

Carr has produced a full accounting. Her book is brimming with revelations about this racial trauma in Indiana and about secrets, silence, and shame in American life. She discovers, to take just one example, that when Deeter died on August 7, his mother went to see the mothers of the assailants. She told them that her son had forgiven their sons. As far as the Deeter family was concerned, it was over. "To think," Carr writes, "that it had been settled among the mothers. Immediately. And no one ever knew. If this story had been publicized back in 1930, reconciliation between black and white Marion might have begun then."

Though Carr ultimately concludes the "mob fever" that welled up that night was not directly fomented by the Klan, her book helps us understand what Klan participation meant in the days when her grandfather joined, along with perhaps as many as a half a million other Hoosiers. In the 1920s, Indiana initiated more Klan members than any other state. For some, the KKK was little more than a fraternal organization, a way to be part of "an upgoing thing." If one stood opposed to moonshiners, papists, Jews, immigrants, and race-mixers, all the better.

Carr goes to considerable effort to find current-day Klan members in Indiana. Though successful lawsuits have more or less put the KKK out of business over the years, she finds some Kluxers who keep the embers smoldering. As Carr writes, "The Klan always shatters like mercury, reconstituting itself in smaller and smaller entities. It does not go away."

Yet it's clear that today's Klan is no "upgoing thing"; it's a refuge for the most marginal and broken-down people. "It seems that it is now a major Klan function to act as the bad white people, so the rest of us can think we're the good ones," Carr reflects.

That kind of insight is what makes this book so worthy. In its humanity, its moral seriousness, and its lack of self-righteousness, "Our Town" is in the great tradition of Anthony Lukas's "Common Ground." The subject is not just racial crime but the inability to discuss it openly. When Carr informs Cameron, the lynching survivor, that her grandfather had been in the crowd that night, he tells her, "By his silence, he gave approval."

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