75 Years Later, Scars Linger

Saturday, June 11, 2005

James Cameron can still recall the feel of the rope around his neck.

It was after sundown on Aug. 7, 1930, in Marion, Ind. The day before, Cameron, then 16, had been arrested with two friends and charged with robbing a white couple at a lover's lane, then killing the man, Claude Deeter, 23. Initial reports said the woman was raped, but she later denied it.

After the men were arrested, a mob broke into the jail, beat them, dragged them to the town square and hung Thomas Shipp, 18, and Abram Smith, 19. Cameron, who was the last to be dragged out, said he sent up a prayer as a rope was thrown over his head: "Lord, forgive me my sins."

Cameron, now 91, is the only living survivor of a lynching known to historians. As the 75th anniversary of his ordeal approaches, he can still remember some of the faces of the 2,000 white people who gathered there. Some had brought their children. Some were eating. A photographer snapped pictures.

As the noose tightened, someone spoke. " 'Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any killing or rape,' " Cameron recalled a person saying. He was returned to the jail and later sentenced to prison for robbery. He owns a piece of the rope that scarred his neck.

Carl Deeter Jr., 70, a nephew of the murder victim, said the episode haunts his family as well. His grandparents told the sheriff they didn't want a lynching, said Deeter, who was born five years later. The sheriff, the fire chief and the mayor all pledged to maintain order but stood by as the mob took over.

Four years later, Deeter's grandparents appealed to the parole board to release Cameron from jail. Last year, Cameron and Deeter met at a gathering called by 25 Marion ministers in the square where the lynching took place.

Both men said they believe the U.S. Senate should apologize for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. Cameron, who opened a museum in Milwaukee about violence against African Americans, will be at the Capitol on Monday when the Senate votes.

"I think they should pass the law, but it's not going to help," Cameron said in an interview. "If you hit someone with your car, but you apologize . . . he's still hurt. It's a good idea, but it's too late."

-- Avis Thomas-Lester


© 2005 The Washington Post Company