Have you ever watched one man die and then another, knowing that your turn was next? Have you ever looked into ten thousand angry faces whose open mouths screamed for your blood? Have you ever felt yourself in the hands of such a mob whose sole purpose was to destroy you?
All of these things and more happened to me several years ago. This I acknowledge not boastfully but humbly, for the fact that I am alive to tell this story is due to a power greater than myself or any man.
It is an established fact that people learn a great deal quickly when caught in traumatic events. The things I believed I learned, as well as the unforgettable events themselves, are the reasons why this book has been written. It is just as I remember living every word of it. The story is true in every detail. It is a matter of record.
I had heard of white people lynching black people all the days of my life. My mother, relatives, and friends used to tell me some hair-raising factual stories about this enigma to us black people. I had read in the newspapers and magazines and heard about the practice over the radio. To me, it was a strange way of avenging real or imaginary wrongs committed by that lunatic fringe of our population who advocate white supremacy.
Little did I dream that one day, one horrible night filled with stark terror, I, too, would fall into the hands of just such a merciless mob of fanatics; that they would be my judge, jury, and attempt to execute me to carry out their diabolical scheme of death because of the color of my skin. This whole way of life was and is still a heritage of black slavery in America. Every black person knows the routine, the ritual.
How did I act when it came time for me to die? This question has been thrown at me countless times. It is impossible to explain the impending crisis of sudden and terrifying death at the hands of people I had grown up to love and respect as friends and neighbors. The words I am putting down on this paper can only give an idea of the big emotions involved. Only God knows the agony of such a trial. Man’s inhumanity to man is especially terrifying to a black man who has experienced the fury of white mob violence.
I remember, I remember, I remember the mobsters breaking into the jail. They surged forward in one great lunge, knocking and trampling the black prisoners around me. Some of them got their hands on me, right away, three on each side, and then the merciless beating began. I tried to break out of their grasp, but there were too many of them. They beat and kicked me in the corner of my cellblock for several minutes before dragging me out of that part of the jail. Their grips were like bands of steel. They knew, now, how to hold a captive because they had just lynched Tommy and Abe, my two buddies. I was in the clutches of the same murdering hands who had lynched them on a tree on the courthouse lawn.
All the way down the corridor outside my cellblock, all the way down the steel stairway, the angry pounding continued. So many clubs and hands were aimed and swung at me, they got in each other’s way. Now and again, one of the men holding me would cry out in pain, but they never released their holds on me. Somehow, not because I wanted to, I remained dimly conscious. Through a maze, a thick haze mixed with my own blood, I saw the crowd come to life as we emerged from the jail.
“Here he comes!” the crowd shouted. “It’s him! They got Cameron!”
“We got him!”
“We got him!”
“We got him!”
The people pushed and shoved for a chance to get close enough to hit me. Only a few were successful, it seemed, because of the press [of the crowd] around me. I was too weak to fight back anymore. The cruel hands that held me were like vises. I sagged and reeled lifelessly, but I still did not pass completely out. More fists, more clubs, more bricks and rocks found their marks on my body. Only the strongest and the biggest were able to get in close enough to inflict inhuman pain. The weaker ones had to be content with spitting on me and throwing things at me. Some of those holding me caught spittum in their faces as much as I did. Little boys and girls, not yet in their teens, but being taught by their elders how to treat black people, somehow managed to get in close enough to bite and scratch me on the legs.
And over and over the thunderous din rose the shout:
Again and again the word rang out until it seemed as if this was the only word in the English language that held any meaning in their lives.
A crowbar thumped against my chest. A pick handle crashed down against the side of my head.
“I haven’t done anything to deserve this,” I heard myself mumbling weakly.
My voice was barely audible coming through bruised and swollen lips. I barely heard myself. No one else could hear me. I was too numb by this time to feel the excruciating pain anymore. The cruel and merciless blows that continued to fall no longer had any meaning. Once or twice I thought I saw a kind Christian face, someone who was civilized, in the press near me. To each of these I cried out for some kind of help while, at the same time, I gave others a pitiful look, mutely imploring mercy. But nothing happened. The mob mauled me all the way up to the courthouse lawn. Not once did they stop pounding on me.
Many uniformed policemen helped the mobsters to clear a path through the swarming thousands of people so they could get me all the way up to the tree where Tommy and Abe were hanging in shredded clothing.
“Where’s the rope?” somebody yelled out the question.
At this, I felt my stomach shrinking. My whole body felt as if it was encased in ice packs. I was shocked into something approaching full consciousness. What a way to die! I screamed as loud as I could above the din and the roar of the crowd that I had raped no woman or killed any man.
Rough hands grabbed my head and stuffed it into a noose. The rope was handled so roughly that it seared my neck. For a moment, I blacked out. I recovered in a second, though, as they began shoving and knocking me closer to the tree and under the same limbs weighted down with the torn and mutilated bodies of Tommy and Abe. Now it was my Judgment Day! All my days and nights seemed to flash before me in my mind’s eye. I remembered what my mother had told us children about sinners facing death, about the thief on the Cross. She told us the Lord will forgive and have mercy on their souls if the sinners will only call on Him.
I knew I had nothing to lose, everything to gain. I couldn’t be any worse off than I was at that moment.
“Lord,” I mumbled through puffed lips. “Forgive me my sins! Have mercy on me!”
I stopped thinking then. In my own mind and body and soul, I was already dead and was glad to be leaving a world filled with so many false and deceitful people.
But what brought me there to that spot under the death tree? What business did I, a sixteen-year-old, have for being in such a condition and situation? How did it all begin?
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