James Cameron, Human-Rights Activist, Dies
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A man who was nearly lynched three-quarters of a century ago, died this past weekend at the age of 92. James Cameron was 16 years old in 1930 when he was arrested and put in jail in Marion, Indiana. He was charged, along with two other black men, with robbing and killing a white man and raping that man's girlfriend.
A few hours after his arrest, a crowd gathered and pulled the two others from jail. They were hanged outside. James Cameron watched. Then the crowd came back for him. He described what happened next in an interview on WHYY's Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of FRESH AIR interview)
Mr. JAMES CAMERON (Founder of America's Black Holocaust Museum): And then they began to yell for me like a favorite basketball or football player. They said, we want Cameron. We want Cameron. We want Cameron. And as the priest cleared the path, I looked over into the faces of people as they were beating me along the way up to the tree.
I was pleading for some kind of mercy, looking for a kind face. But I could find none. And they got me up to the tree and someone said, where's the rope? They got a rope and they put it around my neck and they began to push me under the tree and that's when I prayed to God. I said, Lord have mercy and forgive me my sins. I was ready to die.
TERRY GROSS reporting:
But you heard a voice. What did the voice say?
Mr. CAMERON: The voice said, take this boy back, he had nothing to do with any killing.
GROSS: Did anyone else in that crowd hear that voice?
Mr. CAMERON: No. Four years later, after one year of waiting trial and then four years in prison, I came back to Marion, Indiana, and I asked people. They said you were just lucky. We didn't hear any voice.
GROSS: So the crowd, the frenzy of the crowd died down.
Mr. CAMERON: Oh, yes, in an instant. And no human voice, honest to God, could have quelled the fury of that mob that night. It had to be a miraculous intervention.
NORRIS: Cameron went on to serve four years in prison. In 1988, he started what he called America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. It memorializes the victims of lynchings. Vel Phillips is a civil rights pioneer in Wisconsin and the first African-American judge in the state. She knew James Cameron well and knew how important that day was back in 1930.
Honorable VEL PHILLIPS (Civil rights pioneer): That incident changed his whole life, but he was never mean-spirited or anything. He was a fighter, a freedom fighter. But he still was not bitter and mean-spirited.
NORRIS: And it seems like he'd have every reason to be angry.
Hon. PHILLIPS: He would have every reason to be hateful and be mean, but he wasn't. And he, in a sense, he forgave, but he didn't stop fighting for what was right. He was such a, really a gentle person. I loved him dearly and to know him was to love him. And I was so glad that he got national recognition. He got a public apology and a pardon from the governor of Indiana.
NORRIS: We should note the he received a formal apology from the U.S. Senate. James Cameron opened America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee there on a shoestring. What happens to the museum now?
Hon. PHILLIPS: Oh, well, I don't think Milwaukee comprehends and understands what we have here in the museum. And Dr. Cameron's dream and his vision to see to it that these things should not be forgotten and if they are forgotten history will repeat itself, but it takes a lot of money to keep that museum going.
So, I'm thinking perhaps his passing will light a fire and we will finally come to know what we have in Milwaukee, something that no other city can say.
NORRIS: Vel Phillips, thank you so much for talking to us about your friend and fellow civil rights pioneer.
Hon. PHILLIPS: Thank you for asking me.
NORRIS: Vel Phillips remembering James Cameron. He died Sunday at the age of 92.
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