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Michael Meeropol: Why The Anti-Lynching Song “Strange Fruit” Remains Relevant Today

On June 23, David Brooks published an article on The Atlantic website entitled “Bruce Springsteen’s Playlist for the Trump Era.”Brooks introduced the article thusly:

“This is a moment of tumult, anger, hope, and social change. At moments such as this, songwriters and musicians have a power to name things and help us make sense of events—artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monáe, Tom Morello, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.

It’s been 20 years since Springsteen wrote “American Skin (41 Shots),” a powerful song about the police killing of a black man. I thought it might be a good idea to check in with Bruce, to get his reflections on this moment and on music in this moment.”

[The entire interview is available at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/bruce-springsteens-playlist/613378/.  The full playlist is available on Spotify.]In the course of their discussion, Brooks asks Springsteen if he’s seen progress since the 1960s –Springsteen’s answer is quite thoughtful:

“… I would say there have been a lot of improvements, but obviously we have a long way to go. There is the classic Martin Luther King quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I still believe that. But it just does an awful lot of zigging and zagging along the way. And it feels way too slow for our current times.

But we’re having a national discussion of police behavior that’s been so long overdue. It’s going to be painful, but I think it’s going to have positive effects. In the video age, police misconduct—unprovoked violence, murders—can’t be ignored or hidden. The president can pretend it’s all not happening, and that George Floyd is smiling down from heaven because of the job reports this week. But every American, and I believe the whole world, can see right now that the status quo is not okay. And that’s progress. I have a feeling that things are better now and are going in the right direction, despite or because of our current moment of some chaos.”

The preliminary dialogue is then followed by an introduction of ten songs that Springsteen has chosen. Here is how Brooks tees it up:

“We’re not going to have only conversation here; we’re also going to hear a little music. And these are songs you selected to enrich the moment and maybe give a deeper understanding of what’s going on.”

The first song selected by Springsteen is Strange Fruit written by my father, Abel Meeropol.  Here is what THE BOSS himself has to say.

“It was written by Abel Meeropol in 1937.   So imagine writing “Strange Fruit,” a song about southern lynching, and getting a popular singer like Billie Holiday to sing it in 1939. That was a very controversial recording. Her label, Columbia, did not want to release it. And she released it on another label. It’s just an epic piece of music that was so far ahead of its time. It still strikes a deep, deep, deep nerve in the conversation of today.”

“Strange Fruit” was originally a poem inspired when my father saw a grisly picture of a lynching.  (He published it in The New York Teacher under the title “Bitter Crop” in January, 1937 using the pen name Lewis Allan, though according to the well-researched article by Nancy K. Baker “Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan):  Political Commentator and Social Conscience” American Music Vol. 20, No 1 [Spring, 2002]:  25-79 it had been finished a year earlier and submitted to a different magazine which in the end did not publish it.   He then set it to music in 1938. [See Baker: 45])

Though the music is often attributed to Billie Holiday, whose rendition of the song made it very much her own and definitely accounted for its dramatic impact, the music was written by my father.   In fact it had been performed by the African-American singer Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden.   (See David Margolick, Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights  [Philadelphia, Running Press, 2000:  31-37]).   In 1956, Holiday published a ghost-written autobiography Lady Sings the Blues  [Garden City, NY:  Doubleday,1956  (with William Dufty)] in which she claimed she wrote the music (see Ibid;  98-99).   From that day forward, my father had to constantly defend the fact of his authorship of the music as well as of the lyrics [a task my brother and I have often been required to perform – most recently in a letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review (Nov. 26, 1995:  4)]

After Holiday began performing it, it was covered by Josh White.  Though Holiday clearly had ownership of the song as performance, other artists besides Josh White began to cover it after Holiday’s passing.  It remained such a powerful indictment of lynching that Time Magazine named it “the song of the century,” in 1999.

That’s about right.  Back in 1903 in Souls of Black Folk the great American scholar-activist W,E.B. DuBois identified the “color line” as the main problem of the 20th century.  And what exemplifies that color line more than lynching?   No matter how rarely it might occur in any particular town or state, the message was loud and clear to every person of color --- step out of line you may be next.

This brings me to the point of today’s presentation.  Why did THE BOSS consider a 1930s anti-lynching song relevant today?   Even in 1939, there were only a handful of lynchings.  The Murder of Emmett Till in 1956 provoked national outrage in part because such atrocities had become rare.

Beginning with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, it had become apparent that black people even in the South were no longer intimidated by the old tactics that had worked so well in the 1890s and the first decades of the 20th century.   The acquittal of murderers of African Americans by state juries in the South stopped being sufficient protection once Federal authorities began to prosecute for Civil Rights violations in the 1960s.   Segregation and denial of the right to vote were outlawed by court orders beginning with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 as well as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965.

Enter what the writer Michelle Alexander has dubbed the New Jim Crow.  (The book is unbelievably powerful and convincing.  The full title is The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness [NY:  The New Press, 2012]).  Instead of laws keeping blacks down, we have mass incarceration of alleged black criminals.   Instead of lynching by mobs, we have lynching by police (or vigilantes as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery).   The point remains the same.  If a person of color steps out of line, he or she just might get killed.   Police officers who murder people of color could win acquittal with five magic words, “I feared for my life.”

Mr. Amadou Diallo’s wallet was a sufficient excuse for police to discharge their weapons 41 times (19 of which hit the unarmed man.)  

[One of the ten songs discussed by Brooks and Springsteen is “American Skin (41 shots)” about the Diallo shooting.  For details about the song see    https://www.springsteenlyrics.com/lyrics.php?song=americanskin]

Though indicted by a Bronx Grand Jury, the four police officers who had murdered Diallo were acquitted.  This was routine.  In fact, usually Grand Juries would refuse to indict, as in the case of Eric Garner, choked to death by New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo.  (It took five years for the NYPD to fire Pantaleo – the Obama Administration Justice Department failed to bring an indictment for violation of Garner’s Civil Rights while awaiting the results of the NYPD investigation.   In 2019, the Trump Justice Department (no surprise here) announced there would be no federal indictment of Pantaleo).   The vigilante George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012.  Failure to indict or acquittals if indictments ever were to occur sent the same message in the era of the New Jim Crow as did the routine failure to prosecute lynchers in the “old” Jim Crow.   If you are black, you have a target on your back.

Old fashioned lynchings though still horrific became very rare by the 1940s.   We have to make mass incarceration, vigilante “justice” and police lynchings equally unacceptable today.   And police lynchings will only cease when, as I argued in my last commentary, the very culture of policing changes.   The blue wall of silence must come down.   District Attorneys and Attorneys General must start investigating killer cops.   Grand Juries must start indicting them.  Finally, juries must stop immediately crediting the five magic words (“I feared for my life”) and begin convicting police officers of murder.  Maybe then, Strange Fruit can be sung and listened to as a relic of a barbaric past rather than a reminder of how dangerous it still is to be black in America.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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