“Brutally and dehumanizingly faced with death, I understood what it meant to be a black man in America. With the noose around my neck and death in my brains, I waited for the end…”
^The lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. 2 Hang, but there was meant to be a 3rd.
I could hear the mob tramping up the jail stairs. In another moment, they would be at the door of my cell block. They would open the door, walk inside, and all hell would break out. Time was running out for me. Outside the door, the corridor was fast becoming jammed with violent men, ruthless men, black-people-hating white men. The leaders held back until they quieted down. The men carried ropes, shotguns, knives, clubs, swords, and rifles. One of the men held a submachine gun in the cradle of his arm. He acted like he knew how to use it. He was a big, burly, bushy-haired man with cold-looking gray eyes, glassy-looking, like he was high on some kind of a “fix.” It was frightening to look at him.
The men gathered around the door of my cell block They were the elite group of black intimidators. Their act now was to complete the path of destruction, death, and tyranny. While they were deciding on the kill, I closed my eyes for a moment to will my disappearance. I opened them again when I heard the eerie jangling of keys on the key ring. I was still in the cell block. There was no time to hide. There was no place to hide. Events happened so fast there was not even time to pray.
At the sight of the mobsters, the black prisoners began jumping around, apparently searching for cover in their miserable mental agony. Even the white prisoners were nervous. All of them were just plain scared.
I was standing in a corner with seven or eight other black prisoners. Big John was among them. Somehow, I felt a small measure of security with them so near. I believed with all my heart, perhaps, because I wanted to believe it, that they would have fought the mob to their deaths had they anything with which to fight.
The man with the submachine gun entered the cell block first. Oddly, a young white girl, very pretty, still in her teens, followed closely behind. Her eyes were wide, like a frightened and startled doe. They seemed to me to be full of question marks and uncertainty. While the machine gunner held us inmates in our tracks, several other men dressed in the deadgear of the Ku Klux Klan flooded the cell block with the others. The corridor inside the cell block jammed tight with mobsters. They stood around awhile peering at the cowering knot of prisoners.
Sheriff Campbell shouldered his way through the crowd. One of his pearl-handled revolvers dangled limply from his right hand. He was breathing hard and perspiring profusely. He paused, uncertain of his next move. There was a harried look about him.
Meanwhile, two men with drawn pistols had separated me and Charles, the other sixteen year old, from the rest of the prisoners.
“What’s your name?” Charles was asked.
“Charles Haynes,” he answered, shakily.
“Mine’s Henry Burton,” I lied to them.
Sheriff Campbell made his way over to the small group surrounding me and Charles.
“Come on,” he said to the men, impatiently. “Let’s get out of here! These are nothing but boys. Cameron isn’t in here, anyway. You’ve already hung two of them. That should satisfy you!”
Then he turned around and walked out of the cell block.
The mob leaders shuffled about restlessly. They paced up and down in the cell block, pondering their next move. Every reference they made to me was preface with an angry epithet:
“That black-assed son-of-a-bitch! He thinks he’s a smart nigger! We’ll find him.”
Reluctantly, they withdrew from the cell block and returned to the gay crowd down in the streets. Now I had time to say a few prayers. I prayed for deliverance.
One of the first mobsters to reach the street called out to the crowd:
“Cameron ain’t in there!”
“That’s a damn lie,” came the angry response from the crowd. “He’s in there and we aim to get him! We want him!”
The whole multitude seemed to yell its approval. They stomped their feet, they began chanting, the way crowds do at a football game for their favorite action hero-star:
“We want Cameron!”
“We want Cameron!”
“We want Cameron!”
I thought I would die during that chant. To think they wanted me that bad! I could have sworn my heart stopped beating with every chant. Again, I prayed wondering if any kind of prayer would do any good. I wondered if Abe and Tommy believed in prayers and had they prayed to God, too, before their deaths.
The noise being made in the streets by the crowd made it clearly understood that they were not going to accept anything less than the three of us. Repeated shouts, chants, demanding that I be dragged out of the jail, fell upon the ears of the leaders of the mob. I was the one person they wanted more than anything else in the world.
The ring leaders huddled together and talked briefly among themselves. Then they turned and reentered the jail. The crowd thundered its approval. A point had been made. The cheers were wild with enthusiasm.
I was it again!
The mobsters marched back upstairs to my cell block. Again, the machine gunner led the way inside. No one dared breathe.
Inside the cell block, the machine gunner barked in a deadly tone:
“Aw right, all you niggers get over to this side of the cell block.”
He pointed with the barrel of his infernal gun just where he meant for us blacks to assemble and line up.
We moved slowly, painfully, and formed a ragged, nervous, broken line along the north wall of the cell block. I tried to hold back the tears. They kept rolling down my cheeks. My own whimperings, though, were soon lost in a jungle of pitiful bleats from the black prisoners all around me. The mob might take one of them—or all of them. Who was there to stop them? Who was going to stop them? Law and order for the black man was a national farce, a complete mockery. It had always been so. The black man was not an equal. The mob made its own law and order.
“James Cameron is here and we mean to git him! NOW, where in the hell is he?” members of the mob wanted to know.
An old back man in tattered plaid shirt and baggy pants dropped to his knees. He held out his hands in supplication, as if in prayer to God:
“Please, Mister White Folks,” he sobbed, “Dat boy ain’t in heah. Honest he ain’t.”
They didn’t believe him. One of the mobsters kicked the old man in the face. The toe of the man’s shoe went into the old man’s mouth, knocking him back against the steel bars of the cells. The old man spit out seven or eight bloody, rotten teeth. His face immediately took on a frightening swelling that resembled some grotesque mask used by makeup men in some way-out horror movie.
“Don’t you black-assed sons-of-bitches lie to us,” one of the leaders shouted at the rest of the black men. “If you don’t tell us who he is, we’ll hang every god damn nigger in this jail!”
I waited, afraid to move a muscle. Now the chips were really down. Now was the time for me to present myself as a living sacrifice. But nobody in the line moved. Heavy, labored breathing was the only sound. Impulsively, I acted like I was going to give myself up when Big John and another black man grabbed hold of me. I got the message.
And outside, the crowd had become very impatient. They took up their chant again:
“We want Cameron!”
“We want Cameron!”
“We want Cameron!”
Tension was racing to a climax. Human endurance was fast approaching its capacity. Seven or eight of the black men glared their defiance at the mobsters. They had become too angry to remember their own fear. But they were helpless and powerless to fight. They stood with me.
One of the mobsters stepped forward and smacked one of the defiant across the mouth with his fist, knocking the man to his knees. Then, all but the prisoners standing with me, broke ranks and fell down on their hands and knees. They crawled and groveled to members of the mob nearest them, like dogs to their masters. They made obeisance to representatives of the god of white supremacy. They hugged the mobsters knees, kissed their hands, and begged them to spare their lives. Several of the men began to bawl like little children lost in a frightened world. They begged with tongues thickened with fear. Tears rolled down their faces into their gaping mouths.
“Lawdy, Mister Bossman, we ain’t done nuttin. We’s jist a bunch ob po’ ol’ niggers in heah fer train riding!”
“Lawd, ham mercy!”
“Please, please, don’t hurt us, Mister White Folks!”
It was a sickening and unbelievable sight. I am sure I would not have believed it had it been something told to me. But I saw the scene. I heard the words. I felt all the anguish and anxiety. But, at the same time, I knew in my heart I would never have acted like that as the price was my life. I would much rather be dead as a man than alive as a whimpering coward.
One of the black prisoners standing nearby, sprayed one of the groveling prisoners with vomit. The latter ignore it and kept right on begging for mercy. The standee kept right on puking.
“Lawd, ham mercy!”
“Tell us where Cameron is or we are going to hang every god-damn one of you niggers!” the mobsters repeated.
“Still nobody pointed me out. The crawlers renewed their sobs and their pleas with increased fervor:
“Please, don’t hang us, Mister White Folks!”
“Aw right,” a man with a shotgun called out. “Let’s take all of these black bastards out and string up every god-damn one of them!”
“No! No! No!” It was Charlie’s father speaking. “Please! Please! Please!”
He hugged the shotgun man’s knees and tried to kiss his hands, to caress him, to plead with him. A huge fist crashed down on the old man’s head, knocking him flat on the floor.
“God dammit, nigger. Tell us where Cameron is! This is your last chance, you damn fool!” the mobster shouted at the prisoner in a fit of anger.
The old man was a pitiful sight, as were the seventeen or eighteen other black men down on their hands and knees, crawling around like a bunch of trained animals. Above their whimpering and wailing and pleadings, sounded the hysterical guffaws of the members of the mob. Most of them had doubled over with laughter as tears of complete enjoyment ran out of their eyes. To them, this was a sight that every white person in the world should be able to see. What a spectacle!
Still whimpering and pleading, Charlie’s father looked up at the mobsters around him. He looked at his son standing near me. He was a completely broken man in mind, body, and spirit. He lowered his head for a moment, as if in prayer. Then, slowly, painfully, it seemed, he turned eyes full of fear, and anguish, and surrender to the corner where I stood. His voice quavered. His whole body shook with the emotion of naked fear. Uncontrolled tears ran down from his bruised and bloodshot eyes. The index finger on his gnarled hand was unsteady, shaking like a leaf in the wind, as he pointed to me!
“Dere he is!” he said, finally, and slumped to the floor.
The other black men down on the floor on their hands and knees, now that the ice had been broken, sobbed out their agreement:
“Dat’s him, Mister White Folks! Dat’s him! It ain’t none ob us! Dat’s him!” All of them seemed to be babbling at once.
For a brief second no one moved. But every eye was on me. Then the mob came close and took me. The nightmare I had often heard happened to other helpless victims now became my reality. Brutally and dehumanizingly faced with death, I understood what it meant to be a black man in America. With the noose around my neck and death in my brains, I waited for the end… (via A Time of Terror)
Watch James Cameron tell the rest of the story about how he escaped the fate of his two friends. He went on to become a Civil Rights activist and the founder of the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.