Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves, 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 magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
I wrote "Strange Fruit" because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it. - Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan), 1971
April 4, 1906 three black men were lynched, hung from a light tower and burned. On top of the tower stood a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The lynching frenzy was launched by reports that a white woman from out of town had been raped by two black men. Two suspects were picked up and held in the county jail. That night, as police and city officials stood by, the mob raided the jail, released convicted criminals (probably white), grabbed the two black men, beat one almost and perhaps to death, and took them to the tower. No hearing. No indictment. No trial. After their burning, the mob returned to the jail where they found another black man who had been unable to escape. He too was lynched and burned. The next day, Easter morning, townspeople visited the lynching site, a few taking photos they would later sell as souvenirs. The story of the rape was a hoax. A number of the mob were brought to trial, but were acquitted.
In 1934, five years before Billie Holliday read the lyrics to "Strange Fruit," an unbelievable (but true) lynching occurred in Florida. An eye-witness reported: "First they cut off his you know what and made him eat them and say he liked them. Then they sliced his sides and stomach with knives and every now and then somebody would cut off a finger or toe. Red hot irons were used on the nigger to burn him from top to bottom. From time to time during the torture a rope would be tied around his neck and he was pulled over a limb and held there until he almost choked to death, when he would be let down and the torture begun all over again. After several hours of this punishment, they decided just to kill him. His body was tied to a rope on the rear of an automobile and dragged over the highway to the Canniday home. Here a mob estimated to number somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 people from eleven southern states was excitedly waiting his arrival. A woman came out of the house and drove a butcher knife into his heart. Then the crowd came by and some kicked him and some drove their cars over him. What remained of the body was brought by the mob to Marianna, where it is now hanging from a tree on the northeast corner of the courthouse square. Photographers say they will soon have pictures of the body for sale at fifty cents each. Fingers and toes from the body are freely exhibited on street corners here."
Billie Holiday sang the song "Strange Fruit" for the first time in 1939 and paid the consequences. White audiences reacted violently to her performances. But she established a new course for black musical culture to address the issues of lynchings, prejudice, racial injustice, intolerance and segregation.