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Appointment Radio: A Tough Must-Listen

If you only listen to 13 minutes of public radio this week, let this be the piece:

Strange Fruit: Voices of a Lynching by AIR member Joe Richman and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes from Radio Diaries. The narrator of the segment is historian Jim Madison, author of A Lynching in the Heartland.

This unforgettable story takes place exactly 80 years ago in Marion, Indiana in 1930; it brings the terror of America’s racial history painfully alive through first-person accounts of witnesses, including James Cameron, an African American survivor who barely escaped his own lynching at the hands of an angry white mob.

A photograph of that lynching – in which some in the white crowd of perpetrators are actually smiling for the camera – became an iconic image of the era. It is profoundly disturbing that snapshots of lynchings of African Americans were taken and circulated as coveted souvenirs.

The photograph inspired a poem and a song, written by Abel Meeropol. If the unusual name Meeropol sounds famliar, that’s because Abel and his wife Anne adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted and executed for espionage for the Soviet Union.

The song “Strange Fruit” became one of Billie Holliday’s most popular recordings. The song was the subject of a fascinating Independent Lens public TV documentary in 2002.

Radio Diaries’ feature “Strange Fruit” aired Friday evening on NPR’s All Things Considered.

In a letter, Joe Richman explains where he got the sound for the story: “We were … given access to a box of cassette tapes, recorded four decades ago and kept in a basement, that contain interviews with people who witnessed and took part in the events of that day. What’s remarkable about these interviews is that they are a reminder of how ordinary it all was. Ordinary people in an ordinary town.”

But the story he produced is extraordinary. I highly recommend that you listen and tell others to take the time. It’s a reminder of the power of reality radio and the unique role of public media in reviving history and telling harsh truths about our nation’s shameful past.