Between the years of 1892-1940, 3000 lynchings had occurred and 2600 victims were African American men. Lynching was a means of white supremacy and was used to prevent African Americans from achieving political, social, and economic success. They were often brutal and included torture of the victims. Lynchings were usually announced in the papers or mobs would drag victims out of police custody and bloodthirsty crowds would gather to watch and at times, collect “souvenirs” such as bones and fingers. The murderers and the crowds would then return to their homes at the end of the day and go about their normal lives until it was time for the next lynching. A common myth used by White Southerners was that mob action was warranted by the threat of Black male assault on White women. From post Civil War and throughout the jazz age, many women and organizations made strides to disprove this theory and encourage legislation for anti-lynching. Beginning in the late 19th century, women like Ida B. Wells Barnett and Mary Church Terrell used their writing talents to both disprove the protection of White women theory and also reveal the true horrors of lynching. Wells-Barnett also brazenly called out organizations, politicians and readers for their failure to speak out against lynching. She also called black people to arm themselves because it may have been the only way to avoid lynching when they were targeted. Mary Church Terrell addressed misconceptions about lynching and analyzed the reasons as to why it was still occurring at such a high rate. Both used graphic details and recounts of mob action and Wells-Barnett frequently compiled facts and statistics in order to convey her investigation and exposure findings. These methods were then used by the NAACP.
The NAACP was heavily influenced by women during the Jazz Age and relied on women as “anti-lynching crusaders.” As previously mentioned, the NAACP gained their investigation and exposure tactics from Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Other women’s organizations also contributed heavily to the NAACP and for the push of Anti-Lynching legislation. For example, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW), formed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell, pushed for legislation in Pennsylvania. Many women from the NACW also served in executive positions in the NAACP. White women in the South also joined the fight to end lynching and joined organizations such as the one formed by Jessie Daniel Ames, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.
During the Jazz age, Abel Meeropol, a Jewish composer, wrote “Strange Fruit” which was sung by Billie Holiday. “Strange Fruit” was a song that addressed lynching in the South and though Billie Holiday may never have witnessed a lynching personally, it was certainly a song that she, as a Black woman, could relate to as lynching was a threat to all Black people. Though she feared retaliation for singing the song, Billie Holiday agreed to a special performance that would compliment the mood of the song. When it was time to sing, the waiters no longer served customers and all of the lights were dimmed to allow only one spotlight on Billie’s face. Once she was finished, she disappeared before the lights were turned back on. Though the song was controversial, Billie Holiday still won an award for the song and it is still popular until today.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop