The Unlikely Civil Rights Legacy of Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton

“Sherman Minton,” photograph, n.d., Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

Sherman Minton’s willingness to find flexibility in the law and his own thinking helped end state-sanctioned discrimination toward African Americans in housing, employment, and education. Considering his rigid stance on judicial restraint, Minton’s reformist civil rights record is surprising at first glance. He believed that Congress, not the courts, should define the country’s laws. As an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1949-1956, Minton invariably deferred to both congressional and judicial precedent, opposing activism by the Court. A closer look at his role in several landmark desegregation cases shows how Minton was able to stretch precedent in order to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. His much-lauded judicial opinion on Barrows v. Jackson, the Supreme Court decision that ended discriminatory housing covenants, is particularly relevant. Today, much work remains to fully end discriminatory policies that create disparity in income and living conditions for millions of Black Americans, a sort of de facto segregation that lingers more than sixty years after these Civil Rights Era desegregation cases. The civil rights work of Sherman Minton is worth considering here, if for no other reason, because it remains unfinished.

New Albany High School, The Vista, 1909, accessed Maurer School of Law History and Archives, Indiana University. Sherman Minton is second from the left.
Indiana University, The Arbutus for Nineteen Thirteen, “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012,” accessed AncestryLibrary.com

Young Minton, better known as “Shay,” was a troublemaker. Born in Georgetown, Indiana, in 1890, he had to work from a young age to help support his struggling family. Yet, he somehow still found the energy to knock neighbors hats off with snowballs or loosen a wheel on his brother’s wagon, causing it to fall off and ruin his date. While Minton may have been rambunctious in his spare time, he was a serious student with a love of learning. He graduated from New Albany High School in 1910 and worked a series of jobs before enrolling at Indiana University in 1911.[1]

At IU, Minton excelled in football, baseball, and debate. He took two years of undergraduate classes before entering the IU School of Law, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1915.[2] He then won a scholarship to Yale University School of Law where he earned his Master of Laws degree in 1916.[3] While at Yale, Minton came under the tutelage of former President William Howard Taft, who himself would go on to serve as a Supreme Court justice (the only president to boast this accomplishment). Reportedly, after Shay argued with Taft over a lesson about a certain Supreme Court ruling, Taft told his student:

I’m afraid, Mr. Minton, that if you don’t like the way this law has been interpreted, you will have to get on the Supreme Court and change it.[4]

Minton would later take the former president up on this suggestion.

Upon graduation from Yale, Minton set up a law practice in New Albany. Soon after, the United States entered WWI and Minton immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was commissioned as an infantry officer, trained at Fort Benjamin Harrison, and sent overseas in July of 1918 where he served on the French front.[5]

Indianapolis Star, May 24, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

After returning from war, Minton entered the Democratic primary to seek a congressional Senate seat. While he was unsuccessful in this 1920 election, he would remain active or interested in Democratic Party politics his entire life.[6] For the following decade, he practiced law before making another unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1930.[7] During the 1930s, he became even more politically active, campaigning for Paul McNutt in the 1932 gubernatorial race.[8] After McNutt was elected, the new governor rewarded Minton with his first public office, appointing him public counselor to the Public Service Commission. Minton began his work March 8, 1933, representing the public against utilities companies, and securing rate reductions in hundreds of cases.[9]

In 1934, Minton again ran for Congress on a platform of staunch support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. That November 6th, Indiana voters finally sent Minton to Washington.[10] He took his seat in the U.S. Senate next to future President Harry Truman in January 1935.

Tampa Morning Tribune, January 3, 1935, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

Minton would serve only one term in Congress, but the experience influenced his later judicial positions. As a member of a committee that investigated utility companies, he helped break up monopolies, work he would later continue from the bench. He was a vocal critic of the Supreme Court decisions that declared several New Deal policies unconstitutional, establishing his long-held view that the Court shouldn’t overturn the will of the people as expressed through their elected officials. And he became a spokesman for the administration, explaining complicated issues (like Roosevelt’s court packing plan) in plain language, a strength he would later bring to his written judicial opinions.[11]

When it came to increasing or strengthening the rights of  African Americans, he was swayed neither by the administration nor legislative precedent. Instead, Minton took a moral stand for civil rights. For example, he broke with the administration’s lack of action against lynching by advocating for anti-lynching legislation throughout his term.[12] When opponents to a 1938 anti-lynching bill claimed that the states should regulate lynching, not Congress, Minton noted that there had been eight lynchings the previous year and none were prosecuted. “In other words,” Minton told his fellow senators, “there was 100 percent failure to prosecute the most heinous crime.”[13] He finished with a moral argument for legislative interference to stop lynching, stating:

I am interested in State rights, but I am much more interested in human rights.[14]

Minton was again nominated for his Senate seat in 1940, but lost as the Republican Party swept the Indiana elections. Recognizing his service to the Democratic Party and the administration, in January 1941, President Roosevelt made Minton his administrative assistant. Soon a position on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a busy federal court located  in Chicago, opened, and FDR nominated Minton for this prestigious judgeship. On May 7, 1941, the Senate confirmed the nomination and that October Minton joined the Seventh Circuit bench. [15]

Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1941, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard a large number of cases and Minton wrote his share of opinions and dissents in his eight years on the bench in Chicago. Yet, even drawing on this large sample of cases, it can be difficult to understand his judicial philosophy. He seems full of contradictions at times.

An ardent New Dealer, Minton believed the government was responsible for improving the lives of its citizens, which included protecting consumers. Thus, Minton often decided against corporations engaging in monopolistic practices and usually decided for the rights of labor unions. However, it was the greater good of the majority of citizens that moved Minton, not necessarily the rights of individuals. Thus, he often decided in favor of government agencies at the expense of individual rights. This was especially true when the decision could potentially impact national security. Perhaps this is not surprising considering for much of his time on the Seventh Circuit bench, the world was at war and many in the United States feared both foreign and domestic enemy agents.[16]

New York Daily News, March 30, 1948, 57, accessed Newspapers.com.

Minton was dedicated to judicial restraint and  upholding legislative intent – two sides of the same coin. In other words, Minton believed that the courts should not overturn congressional legislation which was the will of the people made law. This dovetails with his interest in protecting the rights of the majority. By deferring to Congress, Minton believed he was deferring to the people of the United States who elected the congressmen. But in cases of individual freedoms, his position sometimes put him out of step with his colleagues who saw an opportunity to expand civil liberties through their decisions. Minton was not opposed to increased civil liberties, he just believed that such issues were under the purview of Congress, not the courts. He would adhere to this view as he ascended to the nation’s highest court.[17]

Indianapolis Times, October 12, 1949, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In September 1949, President Harry Truman nominated Sherman Minton, his old friend from their years in the Senate, for the Supreme Court of the United States. Minton was confirmed and took his place on the bench that October.[18] As an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Minton maintained his general position of restraint, tendency to side with legislative precedent and the administration against individuals, and his disinclination to overturn the rulings of state courts. Despite this determination, Minton maintained a consistently strong, activist position when it came to civil rights issues, especially desegregation, as evidenced by landmark cases such as McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, Sweatt v. Painter, Brown v. Board of Education, and Barrows v. Jackson.

“George W. McLaurin,” photograph, n.d., Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, accessed Oklahoma Historical Society.

On June 5, 1950, the Supreme Court decided both McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents and Sweatt v. Painter. These cases overturned the “separate but equal” precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson with the Court unanimously deciding that, at the level of graduate school and law school, segregation denied Black students equal educational opportunities, violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights to “equal protection of the laws.”[19] Referring to the separate areas where a Black student was forced to eat and study, Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote in the Court opinion:

Such restrictions impair and inhibit his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession . . . State imposed restrictions which produce such inequalities cannot be sustained.[20]

Alabama Tribune, February 17, 1950, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

These cases provided precedent for the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. In this historic case, the Court determined that, like the earlier cases dealing with higher education, segregation in public schools also violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In short, the justices determined that there was no such thing as “separate but equal” education. In his opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.[21]

“English Class at Moton High School,” photograph, 1914, Brown v. Board of Education, National Archives. National Archives caption: English class at Moton High School, a school for Black students, one of several photographs entered as evidence in the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, which was one of five cases that the Supreme Court consolidated under Brown v. Board of Education, ca. 1951

Chief Justice Warren felt that an unanimous decision was essential in Brown in order to convey to the public that the Court was taking a moral as well as a constitutional stand against segregation and that the issue was now decided unequivocally. Imparting that moral argument in the opinion for Brown, Justice Warren wrote:

To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.[22]

Legal historians Linda Gugin and James St. Clair argued that Sherman Minton played a vital role in making these decisions unanimous. The scholars called him “the Court’s strongest team player” because of the warm personal relationships he fostered with his colleagues.[23] Minton was reportedly the only justice welcome in every one of their offices. He regularly organized group lunches and made sure to express his respect for his fellow justices when he dissented from their opinions. It was, therefore, quite possible that Minton was able to convey the importance of a united front on the Brown decision to his undecided colleagues.

Greencastle Daily Banner, November 17, 1953, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Because the opinions in the aforementioned cases were written by the Chief Justice (Vinson for the 1950 cases and Warren in 1954), it is impossible to definitively analyze Minton’s impact on the decisions. However, in the 1953 case of Barrows v. Jackson, Minton penned the Court’s opinion, allowing us a rare opportunity to dissect his thinking and interpret his own views on segregation and civil rights. To summarize the complicated case of Barrows v. Jackson briefly, the white neighbors of Los Angeles resident Leola Jackson were suing her for damages after she sold her house to African American buyers. This sale violated the neighborhood’s “restrictive property covenant,” a clause forbidding the sale of property in the neighborhood to non-white buyers.[24]

In the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court had ruled that while private discrimination was not unconstitutional, state courts could not enforce restrictive covenants because this would constitute state action in discrimination. Such state involvement would violate the State Action Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which affirms that “a state cannot make or enforce any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of any citizen.” In other words, white people were free to discriminate against African Americans by refusing to sell them homes in segregated neighborhoods, but the courts could not enforce such segregation or it would be the state itself that was discriminating against African Americans, which was unconstitutional.[25]

White supporters of segregated neighborhoods quickly identified a weakness to exploit in the Shelley decision – the issue of damages. Was it legal for white home owners to sue for damages when their restrictive covenants were violated? If so, this blatant attempt to intimidate white sellers into not selling to Black buyers would make the spirit of Shelley, which was intended to end covenants, null and unenforceable. The Barrows v. Jackson case would decide if state-sanctioned segregated neighborhoods could continue.[26]

Alabama Tribune, April 24, 1953, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Minton’s decision in Barrows v. Jackson drew on this idea of state action as defined in Shelley and expanded it to finally end restrictive covenants for good. This required an advanced understanding of the technical aspects involved in the case, as well as a morally-based desire to end injustice in housing for African Americans. In order to end the unjust covenant practice, Minton had to engage in some complex legal maneuvering and creative use of precedent.

The first issue Minton addressed in his majority opinion in Barrows v. Jackson was a relatively straightforward application of the “state action” determination in the Shelley decision. He argued that if the state were to award damages to Jackson’s neighbors for her violation of the covenant, this would constitute “state action.” This would then violate the Fourteenth Amendment State Action Clause.[27]

The major legal challenge Minton resolved with his opinion, was that of the petitioners’ attempt to circumvent Shelley altogether. The white petitioners were not suing the Black buyers for damages, which would have made the discrimination obvious. They were suing the white seller. This was a carefully chosen legal strategy. Traditionally, the Court would not hear cases where the party being impacted, in this case discriminated against, was not present. The attorneys for the neighbors hoped that the case would be dismissed because the rights being violated were that of a third party (the Black buyers), who were not present in the courtroom. Here, Minton flipped the question. He asked the Barrows’ attorneys, “whose constitutional rights would be violated if California failed to award contract damages to the petitioners?” They had to reply “that no one’s rights would be violated.” So, where then was the damage? The petitioners would have to bring the racial issue into the courtroom if they were claiming some damage had been done in selling to a Black buyer.[28]

Indianapolis Recorder, June 20, 1953, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Minton extended the Shelley decision to cover the missing third party issue by explaining that Jackson had a right to protect herself against the “coercion” of the petitioner. In short, the Shelley decision was intended to stop discrimination against African American buyers. If Jackson had to pay damages for violating the discriminatory covenant that Shelley had intended to invalidate then she would, in fact, be paying for failing to discriminate – a direct contradiction of the intent of Shelley. He determined that the interests of Jackson and the Black buyers were closely enough aligned that Jackson represented the buyers. Thus there was no missing third party and racial discrimination was the inherent issue.[29]

Minton had little tolerance for the petitioners’ blatant attempt to circumvent the Shelley decision through such lawsuits aimed at technicalities. And he had no tolerance for continued discrimination against African Americans. He summed up his thinking eloquently and passionately in his written opinion:

The relation between the coercion exerted on respondent [Jackson] and her possible pecuniary loss thereby is so close to the purpose of the restrictive covenant to violate the constitutional rights of those discriminated against, that respondent is the only effective adversary of the unworthy covenant in its last stand. She will be permitted to protect herself and, by so doing, close the gap to the use of this covenant, so universally condemned by the courts.[30]

Minton and his clerks cited several other cases, notably Pierce v. Society of Sisters, and wrote careful clauses further defining the third party issue. [See complete legal analysis here]. In summary, Minton closed the last loophole allowing restrictive covenants and state-sanctioned segregation. Legal scholars Gugin and St. Clair summarized the final decision thusly:

The court moved to make restrictive covenants virtually unenforceable in state courts by ruling that state courts cannot award damages when a restrictive covenant is violated because it is tantamount to the state itself discriminating on the basis of race, which it may not do under the Fourteenth Amendment.[31]

California Eagle, June 18, 1953, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

Minton’s arguments as forwarded in his written opinion in Barrows v. Jackson may stand as his finest judicial moment. Gugin and St. Clair called it “Minton’s most memorable opinion” and noted that “he was praised in law review articles for his imaginative approach.”[32]  In fact, the Barrows decision has been classed among the most important desegregation events of the Civil Rights Era. Although Barrows determined that the state would not discriminate, de facto segregation continued.

Tracy Hadden Loh, Christopher Coes, and Becca Buthe, “The Great Real Estate Reset,” December 16, 2020, accessed Brookings.

In fact, neighborhoods remain segregated to this day. The real estate opportunities afforded white Americans and denied Black Americans in the 1950s helped widen the economic disparity between races. “White flight” from cities and government subsidies for suburbs have created new segregated neighborhoods. Zoning, housing codes, gentrification, and low-income housing areas have further separated economic classes, divided along racial lines. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic further highlighted this disparity. More than twice as many Black Americans died as a result of “the inequitable living conditions, work circumstances, underlying conditions, and lower access to health care that characterize segregated neighborhoods.” According to the Brookings Institute:

Public policy and industry practice have produced a separate and unequal landscape of American neighborhoods, propagating multigenerational negative impacts on health, social mobility, and wealth for people of color as well as harmful divisions in our economy and society.[33]

As the Supreme Court decided in the desegregation cases when Minton sat on the bench in the 1950s, there is no such thing as separate but equal. The work for equal rights for Black Americans and the perfection of the promises made in the United States Constitution continues.

Notes

[1] 1900 United States Federal Census, Georgetown Township, Floyd County, Indiana, page 8, line 36, Enumeration District: 0054; FHL microfilm: 1240371, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; “Twenty Pupils Suspended,” Plymouth Tribune, February 25, 1909, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, Sherman Minton: New Deal Senator, Cold War Justice (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1997), 38-44.

[2] “Indiana University Debaters Who Will Meet Illinois and Ohio Orators in Annual Contest,” Indianapolis News, March 13, 1913, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton, Star Half Appears on Field,” South Bend Tribune, November 19, 1913, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Bryan Prize is Awarded,” Indianapolis Star, April 9, 1914, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lineup for Sunday’s Game,” Bloomington Evening World, April 23, 1915, 1, Newspapers.com.; “Medic and Law Graduate List,” Bloomington Evening World, May 28, 1915, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] “News of the Colleges,” Indianapolis News, September 29, 1915, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Enters Yale,” Bloomington Evening World, September 29, 1915, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; 1920 Alumni Directory of Yale University (New Haven: Yale University, 1920), 541, accessed  HathiTrust.

[4] Gugin and St. Clair, 52.

[5] Sherman Minton Draft Registration Card, June 1, 1917, Floyd County, Indiana, Form 522, No. 46, U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; “In Second Training Camp,” Indianapolis News, August 14, 1917, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; U.S. Army, Passenger List of Organizations and Casuals Returning to the United States, July 7, 1919, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; National Archives at College Park, Record Group 92, Roll or Box 125, U.S., Army Transport Service Arriving and Departing Passenger Lists, 1910-1939, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.

[6] “Soldier Announces His Candidacy for Congress,” Jasper Herald, December 5, 1919, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “J. W. Ewing Wins Third District Nomination,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, May 8, 1920, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[7] “Democrats to Open Campaign Sept. 18,” Seymour Daily Tribune, September 13, 1914, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Democratic Speakings Announced for County,” Brownstown Banner, September 17, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Sherman Minton Has Brilliant Record,” Jeffersonville Evening News, reprinted Jasper Herald, January 24, 1930, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; Sherman Minton, “To The Voters of Dubois Co,” Jasper Herald, May 16, 1930, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Democrats in Jasper Rally,” Bedford Daily Mail, October 15, 1930, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[8] “Meeting Shows M’Nutt Backing,” Indianapolis Star, February 8, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “McNutt Meeting Set for Tonight,” Boonville Enquirer, April 29, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[9] Ralph L. Brooks, “State’s Commerce-Industry Division Affects All Citizens,” Indianapolis Sunday Star, September 17, 1933, 57, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] “Republicans Sweep City, County; Minton Beats Robinson in Race for Senate Seat,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, November 7, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Leads Lake Ticket,” Hammond Times, November 8, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Winner,” Boonville Enquirer, November 9, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[11] Gugin and St. Clair, Chapter Four: “Fulfilling His New Deal Promise.”

[12] “Senators Agree on One Point,” Muncie Evening Press,” August 6, 1937, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.; “May Use Anti-Lynch Bill in Filibuster,” Baltimore Sun, November 25, 1940, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] Congressional Record, 75th Congress, 3rd Session, 1938, vol. 83:2. 1931-45, cited in Gugin and St. Clair, 115.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Sherman Minton Is Named to Circuit Court of Appeals,” Muncie Evening Press, May 7, 1941, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Sworn In as U.S. Judge,” Indianapolis Star, May 31, 1941, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Induction Today,” Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1941, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Becomes U.S. Judge, Says Good-by, Politics,” Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1941, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[16] Gugin and St. Clair, Chapter Seven: “A Faithful Disciple of Judicial Restraint.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Names Minton to High Court,” Terre Haute Tribune, September 15, 1949, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Is Confirmed for Court, 48 to 16,” New York Times, October 5, 1949, 1, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.; “Hoosier Sworn In As Supreme Court Justice,” Muncie Evening Press, October 12, 1949, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Sworn In As Supreme Court Justice,” New York Times, October 13, 1949, 18, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.

[19] Supreme Court of the United States, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education et al., Decided June 5, 1950, 339 U.S. 637, Legal Information Institute.; Supreme Court of the United States, Sweatt v. Painter et al., Decided June 5, 1950, 339 U.S. 629, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

[20] Supreme Court, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State.

[21] Supreme Court of the United States, Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., Decided May 17, 1954, 347 U.S. 483, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Gugin and St. Clair, 263.

[24] Supreme Court of the United States, Barrows et al. v. Jackson, Decided June 15, 1953, 346 U.S. 249, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

[25] Supreme Court of the United States, Shelley et ux. v. Kraemer et ux. McGhee et ux. v. Sipes et al., Decided May 3, 1948, 334 U.S. 1, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

[26] David N. Atkinson, “Justice Sherman Minton and the Protection of Minority Rights,” Washington and Lee Law Review 34, iss. 1 (1997): 97-117, accessed Washington and Lee University School of Law Scholarly Commons.

[27] Supreme Court, Barrows et al. v. Jackson.

[28] Ibid.; Atkinson, 109.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Supreme Court, Barrows et al. v. Jackson.

[31] Gugin and St. Clair, 248.

[32] Ibid., 248-49.

[33] Tracy Hadden Loh, Christopher Coes, and Becca Buthe, “The Great Real Estate Reset,” December 16, 2020, Brookings Institute.

From Strange Fruit to Seeds of Change?: The Aftermath of the Marion Lynching

A crowd at the Marion courthouse looks on following the lynching of Shipp and Smith, courtesy of the Organization of American Historians.

Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of young Black men swinging from a tree as a white crowd looks on in satisfaction lingers in our collective memory. In fact, the local photographer’s snapshot inspired Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit,” which continues to resonate with activists, as well as artists like Nina Simone and John Legend. But what happened after the bodies of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith were removed from the tree hours later—when tensions remained so high? And can anything be learned by examining the immediate aftermath of the 1930 Marion lynching?

On August 7, African American teenagers Shipp, Smith, and James Cameron were held in the Marion jail for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. Before the young men could stand trial, a mob comprised of white residents tore the young men from their cells, brutally beat and mutilated them before hanging Shipp and Smith from a tree on the courthouse lawn. Cameron narrowly escaped the fate of his friends. The mob intended to send a message to the African American community that they were at the mercy of white residents, despite the courageous efforts of Marion NAACP leader Katherine “Flossie” Bailey to prevent the tragedy. Read more about her efforts here.

After the lynching, the crowd lingered to prevent the coroner from removing the bodies, insistent that the message be received. This was the same crowd that had left the jail “ravaged,” with “gaping holes in the walls” and the “twisted remains of broken locks.” The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, reported that after Shipp and Smith had been robbed of their lives, the perpetrators drove past the victims’ houses, shouting at their parents, “‘we have lynched your sons, now cry your eyes out.'”[1]

Untitled (Lynching Scene), illustration 17, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932), accessed On the Arts of Africa and African Diaspora Blog.

Reportedly by midnight, an “indignation meeting” formed in Johnstown, the Marion neighborhood where African Americans lived. Hundreds of shaken Black residents listened to speeches condemning the sheriff’s unwillingness to order officers to shoot at the mob. Munster newspaper The Times reported on the August 9 gathering, noting that although police dispersed the gatherers, “Negro leaders told officials trouble was brewing and might flare up at any moment.” Out of fear of escalating violence, about 200 Black residents fled Marion for Weaver, a historic Black community in Grant County.

Amid the maelstrom of fury and fear, Shipp’s and Smith’s bodies were taken to Shaffer Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Muncie because Marion lacked a black mortician. Before the Black community could grieve, reports spread that a white mob was traveling to Muncie to light the victims’ bodies on fire. According to historian Hurley C. Goodall’s A Time of Terror: The Lynching of Two Young Black Men in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930, Muncie’s African American community was determined to protect the victims’ bodies from further violence, and “for the first time they armed and organized themselves using Shaffer Chapel A.M.E. Church as their headquarters and command post to ward off any mob.” In an oral history interview for the Black Muncie History Project, Thomas Wesley Hall, an African American resident of Muncie at the time of the lynching, confirmed that Muncie citizens gathered to protect the young men’s bodies from further desecration.

After the mortician embalmed Shipp and Smith, National Guardsmen escorted the bodies back to Marion, where “two grief-stricken mothers . . . bemoaned the unjust fate of their boys.”[2] Friends gathered at the victims’ homes to hear final rites and tried to console their mothers, able only to mumble “‘it’s too bad, it’s too bad.'”[3] The Guardsmen “paced back and forth in front of these humble homes to defy with gunfire, if necessary the sworn threat of mob leaders, to burn their bodies.”[4] A “dead line” had been set, around which no white person was to pass. Although they did not attempt to set fire, white people drove past the line to “satisfy their morbid fancies” and revel that a “‘job had been done well.'”[5]

Smith was buried in Weaver, the settlement where African Americans had fled following the lynching. The Recorder marveled poetically, “Strangely enough, Weaver was a station on the ‘underground railroad’ by which slaves, who escaped the South, found a new freedom in the North.”[6] Shipp was buried in a small cemetery in Marion. A combination of the National Guard and Muncie’s Black community allowed Thomas Shipp and Abe Smith to be peacefully laid to rest. In fact, the Recorder reported “Citizens here, both white and Colored are loud in their praise of the splendid conduct of the members of the National Guard which made it unnecessary for anyone to turn his back upon his home.”[7]


Cameron, at about 14, with his school class in Marion, courtesy of the Cameron family, accessed BuzzFeed News.

Once the young men were laid to rest, the Black community was left to cope with unfathomable grief. How did the victims’ friends and family process their trauma and sorrow? For James Cameron, survivor of the lynching, it meant confronting local racism through threat of lawsuits and, later, by educating the nation about racial injustice by founding America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.

According to Syreeta McFadden’s “What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lynching?,” when the white crowd stormed the jail Black prisoners tried to defend Cameron, the youngest of the three accused. Cameron recalled that the prisoners “had become too angry to remember their own fear — if they had any. But they were helpless and powerless to offer any kind of resistance to the mob. They stood with me.”[8] But they couldn’t stop Cameron from being dragged outside, where a noose was thrown around his neck. An anonymous bystander shouted that Cameron had not been involved in the crime, causing the throng to fall silent.

James Cameron revisiting the jail cell in Marion, Indiana, from which he was dragged by a mob, Johnson Publishing Co., accessed America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Cameron described the surreal moment saying, “I looked at the mob round me I thought I was in a room, a large room where a photographer had strips of film negatives hanging from the walls to dry. . . . they were simply mobsters captured on film surrounding me everywhere I looked.” He recalled:

‘Brutally faced with death, I understood, fully, what it meant to be a black person in the United States of America.’[9]

His life improbably spared, Cameron was taken to Anderson and in 1931 sentenced to twenty-one years for accessory before the fact of voluntary manslaughter. Again in a prison cell and surely reliving his trauma, Cameron began penning a book about his experiences entitled A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story, which he later took out a second mortgage to self-publish. Upon his 1935 release from prison, he vowed to “‘to pick up the loose threads of [his] life, weave them into something beautiful, worthwhile and God-like.’”[10]

Cameron with his children in Anderson, (L to R) Virgil, Herbert, Dolores, David, and Walter, courtesy of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Cameron had to navigate a new life in the midst of the Great Depression. He decided to move to Detroit, where he married a nurse and had children. In order to be closer to relatives, the young family moved to Anderson in the 1940s, where Cameron worked for Delco Remy and opened small businesses. Ironically, while Anderson was segregated, the trauma he endured shielded his family from discrimination. According to McFadden, the family went to a local theater, where a white manager intervened when a colleague tried to force the family into balcony seating, stating “‘Those are the Camerons . . . Leave them alone.'” Despite a degree of deference shown to him, Cameron was determined to stamp out Jim Crowism and challenged the theater’s policies, which integrated rather than face litigation.

In gratitude for his life being spared, Cameron worked to eliminate prejudice against Black Hoosiers. He founded four Indiana NAACP branches and investigated civil rights violations as the state director of civil liberties.[11] This work led to threats from white residents, which he endured before moving to Milwaukee in 1950. A student of history, Cameron poured himself into learning about African Americans’ past, undertaking research trips to the Library of Congress. After a trip to Yad Vashem, a Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, he connected the atrocities of the Holocaust with those perpetrated against African slaves and their ancestors in America. The revelation inspired him to establish a museum that would “‘show what happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us.’”[12]

Cameron opened America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in 1988 to “commemorate and reconcile America’s dark history.” As visitors took in an enlarged copy of the photograph of Shipp and Smith, Cameron informed them that a third man was nearly lynched that night. That man would then describe his experience, channeling his trauma into education.

Cameron at his pardon ceremony in Marion, 1993, courtesy of Jet Magazine, Johnson Publishing Company, accessed America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

In 1993, Indiana Governor Evan Bayh formally pardoned Cameron for his conviction. In fact, according to the Indianapolis Recorder, Mary Ball’s relatives stated that Shipp and Smith were not the perpetrators of either crime. Claude Deeter is said to have confirmed this at hospital before he died. Cameron passed away in 2006, leaving behind a trove of published works, several of which McFadden noted “protested many of the same issues being challenged today by the Black Lives Matter movement.” This included his “Police Community Relations Among Blacks in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”[13] Cameron wrote that law enforcement officials “have been enemies of us black people since in [sic] their organization in the early 19th Century.”

That being said, he added:

They can do nothing to alarm or silence me beyond murdering me. Even at that, they may rest assured that I protest it — even in the grave. I have been initiated since my time of terror at the age of 16. I am 72 years old now and destined, like all other nonwhites, to experience a time of terror to the grave.[14]

Like many modern Black victims of police brutality, McFadden notes, the lives of lynching victims are often overshadowed by their deaths. ABHM strives to restore victims’ agency and give visitors a sense of who they were before their lives were taken from them. The Great Recession forced the museum to shutter its doors in 2008, and it became a virtual museum, which focused on remembrance, resistance, redemption, and reconciliation. An anonymous donation in 2017 allowed the museum to break ground at a new location, which will re-open once the Coronavirus pandemic subsides.

James Cameron in the America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Morry Gash/AP, courtesy of Buzzfeed News.

NAACP leader Flossie Bailey, who had tried desperately to stop the lynching and bring the perpetrators to justice despite threats on her life, resolved to turn her lamentation into legislative change. In 1931, Bailey organized statewide meetings, and convinced African Americans to contact their legislators to support an anti-lynching bill introduced by House Democrats. Her legwork paid off. Governor Leslie signed the bill into law in March, which allowed for the dismissal of sheriffs whose prisoners were lynched. The law also permitted the families of lynching victims to sue for damages.

Of its enactment, the Indianapolis Recorder wrote “Indiana has automatically retrieved its high status as a safe place to live.” It added that without the law, Indiana “would be a hellish state of insecurity to our group, which is on record as the most susceptible victims of mob violence.” Although the newspaper praised Governor Leslie, it credited a “small group which stood by until the bill became a law.” In addition to legislation, the NAACP tried to effect change by placing postcards with the image of the lynching in local drugstores “as a visible example of what the colored people confront.”[20] The postcards disappeared from Terre Haute drugstores after a member of the local Republican committee member bought them up.

Katherine “Flossie” Bailey, courtesy of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Using the state’s legislative victory, Bailey and her NAACP colleagues worked to pass a similar bill on a federal level. According to historian James Madison, she tried to change national lynching laws by publishing editorials, wiring President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and distributing educational materials to Kiwanis clubs. Ultimately these efforts were unsuccessful and, as of 2020, a federal anti-lynching bill has yet to be enacted. Despite this legislative defeat, Bailey fought for the rights and safety of African American citizens until her death in 1952, challenging discrimination at IU’s Robert W. Long Hospital, speaking against school segregation, and suing a Marion theater for denying Bailey and her husband admittance based on their race.

It is important to note that trauma manifests differently for everyone and not all victims are capable of transforming grief into activism. In fact, the Violence Policy Center’s “The Relationship Between Community Violence and Trauma,” report concluded:

Individuals who suffer from PTSD may manifest a dangerous combination of hyper-vigilance with an impaired ability to regulate their behavior, resulting in explosive behavior and overreactions to perceived threats. In this way, the cycle of violence becomes clear – acts of violence create behavior in individuals who then beget violent acts.

This was likely the case for James Cameron’s stepfather, Hezekiah Burden. The Indianapolis Recorder noted that in the weeks after the lynching Burden was “said to have been morose and in a threatening mood.”[15] In October 1930, under the influence of alcohol, he opened fire at his wife, Vera, and stepdaughter, Marie. He then shot two police officers, likely because they belonged to law enforcement, which had failed to protect his stepson. The Indianapolis Times reported that the “Efforts of Mrs. Burden, wife of the gunman, to aid her son [James] . . . is said to have cause[d] an argument with her husband,” before he started shooting.[16] A group of armed locals exchanged fire with Burden, ultimately injuring him, which allowed police to take him into custody. The Times noted that he was moved to Pendleton State reformatory to “avoid a possible repetition of the trouble which resulted in the lynching of two Negro youth here.”[17]

Lee Jay Martin, “Cruising Around,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 23, 1930, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reportedly Burden had stated his intention “to avenge ‘himself on a couple of cops,'” the judicial system having made clear there would be no justice for his stepson’s friends.[18] In December, Burden plead guilty and was sentenced to one to ten years in a state prison on three indictments related to intent to murder.[19] Neither Marion’s Sheriff Campbell nor any members of the lynching mob were sentenced for the murder of Shipp and Smith.


From the Marion lynching, we are reminded that reform stemming from tragedy often emerges slowly and in piecemeal fashion. And, like the newly-proposed police reform bills introduced in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, it emerges because of passionate individuals who will not let up the pressure for legislative change, despite threats to their own lives. We learn that the judicial system’s refusal to hold certain perpetrators accountable begets further brutality, as in the case of Hezekiah Burden. Conversely, when groups imbued with authority like the National Guard follow through on the promise to protect and serve, tensions often de-escalate. While acts of violence and systemic suppression imprint trauma upon generations, they also awaken the revolutionary spirit. This spirit often furthers the “arc of the moral universe,” which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded listeners in a 1968 speech, is long, but “bends towards justice.”

Sources:

Syreeta McFadden’s “What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lyching?”

Dani Pfaff’s and Jill Weiss-Simins’ historical marker review

Nicole Poletika’s “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It”

Notes:

[1] “State Militia Stands Guard as Funeral Rites for Lynched Marion Youths are Held,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 16, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Syreeta McFadden, “What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lyching?,” BuzzFeed News, June 23, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Marion Now Calm After Gun Battle,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 11, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] “Fire of Posse Member Brings Down Gunman,” The Indianapolis Times, October 6, 1930, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Marion Now Calm After Gun Battle,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 11, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “Hears Sentence as He Lays Upon Stretcher,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 13, 1930, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

[20] “Lynching Pictures Taken Off Market,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 27, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.