Strange Fruit

“Strange Fruit”

Bull Run Unitarian Universalists

Rev. Greg Ward

January 19, 2014

This weekend is something of a high holy day in many UU Churches.  Martin Luther King, Jr. studied closely the writings of Unitarian Henry David Thoreau, and himself considered becoming Unitarian while at Boston College but chose not.  He didn’t feel he could summon a cohesive momentum in our movement.  But his example of action in the face of injustice is a frequent reference for us when we talk about doing justice as one of the primary pillars of a religious life.


King was a central voice in the civil rights movement.  He marched so that a vision of dignity could someday feel like a rightful expectation for people of color.  And he did so knowing the painful reality of what it was to be black in an unenlightened America.


Even after slavery was outlawed in the 1860s, people of color were still enslaved by fear. From 1882-1968 – when King was assassinated – 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States.  3,446 were black men, women and children.  Many of the whites were lynched for harboring or helping blacks escape… or for being anti lynching in general.


But King’s dream went beyond advocacy of one race.  He was an advocate of the beloved community.  A world in which we are judged ‘not by the color of our sking but by the content of our character.’


So much changed in the world from the ideals he gave voice to.  And yet, Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station and radical redistricting in North Carolina reminds us that the work continues.  Ours to carry on.  Martin Luther King Jr. only helped us get to the mountaintop.  We still have a ways to go to reach the promised land.


Come, let us worship together.



‘Strange Fruit,’ the subject of today’s service is a phrase well known in the black community.  It was a book made into a play and an opera by Lillian Daniel.  It is the subject of hundreds of paintings.  But all those works were inspired by a song – one we will hear in moment by Noelle Stanley.  The song was inspired by a poem.  And that poem was inspired by a picture.


The picture is famous.  So famous, it became a postcard which, when it appeared in town, terrorized people of color everywhere.  It is a very disturbing picture.  It shows the public hanging of two young black men.  But one of the most notable – and disturbing – parts of the picture are the expressions of the people watching.  I’m going to show the picture for a few seconds.  You may find it too painful or difficult to look at.  But clearly the people in the picture did not.  I will show it for the next few seconds if you want to look away.

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Just a word about showing this picture and the offering the chance to look away.  My choice to show this picture – in church – was not without great deliberation.  It is to validate a reality burned into the consciousness of every person of color who has lived in the midst of fear and prejudice.  It is to recognize and honor the reality from which few black people can afford to look away… because they know it is never too far from them… never too far from possible.  Our opportunities– as white people – to look away, to not have to recognize or live with these painful images – is a privilege.  It is what anti-oppression leaders often call, ‘white privilege.’


This is not about blame.  And it is not about guilt.  It is simply to recognize what IS and what has been in America.  And the different perceptions of that reality that come from looking at it from different points of view.




It is a tangled web
that ties together

the pain

and the promise

of the beloved community we looking away seek


Put your ear

to the constant clamor of violence

and you will hear

a soft plea for MERCY.

Look close enough

and all these illusions of separateness

begin to fade.

The neat categories

‘black and white’

‘us’ and ‘them’

‘those inside God’s grace, and those out’

begin to break down.
Remove all the fear

and it’s suddenly possible to imagine how

we could all stand up

and ‘get it together’

for one great collective cause.

Someday, it may be possible

for a great mosaic of hope to emerge
from the shards of spite and malice

militant apathy will
become the catalyst
for the empathy
that softens hardened hearts

and heals a tired

and tender world.

Someday courage and vision

will not hesitate to take the stand

whenever inherent worth is put on trial.

Until that day we will watch

people trade in

commodities of fear

and few will notice

cynicism replace prayer

the glass drop below half full

or the moment when doubt becomes our daily bread




these stories I tell this morning

-        Are all our story    -

They have been told

-        and retold   -

the world over

Each time there is hope for

people to finally hear

the flat notes

as the angel sings


and begin to ask themselves

what will become of us?

and wonder aloud

if we’ve come too far to turn it around?




Remember, last year,

how the city of Boston was placed in lockdown
while the city

– and the nation –

held its breath

and searched for the culprit(s)
who stole

our collective sense of security.


Two bombs exploded
at the finish line
of the Boston Marathon.
Crude devices
spewing scrap metal
like hate
unleashed on an unsuspecting crowd.

Martin Richard – an eight year old boy was killed.
As was Lu Lingzi – a foreign exchange student
and Krystle Campbell – a young restaurant worker.

The media reported
hundreds in critical condition.
The suspects

they said

were foreign born and ferociously armed.
Explosive debates
over legislation on guns
and immigration
erupted anew.


We learned that the suspects

were brothers
– both born in a country
nine out of ten Americans
could not find on a map

-        or in our hearts –

both born

with given names

too hard to pronounce
unless we’d sat together

and broken bread
like families.


The media responded to the violence

with violence

calling for justice

like a vigilante mob
throwing details of differences

trolling for prejudice

like chum for sharks
while the world held its breath
waiting for justice
to be put back in place.


We, who are human,

were not built
to hold such tragedy.

So much fear

gets into our DNA

passed on to the people we love

as dinner-table prejudice.

How does innocence

have a conversation

with evil?

How can an angry mob

be curious about the plight

of the weak and the vulnerable?

How can we learn to stand in line

pass along – from hand to hand in a row

bread and medicine

to the victims of violence

after the levies holding back our fear

are breached?




One August day
in 1930
another version of the story

Two young men

-        Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith –

were hung from a tree
before the thousand or so citizens

who gathered to watch

in the Marion, Indiana town square.

Three young black men

were arrested
after Claude Deeter

-        a white factory worker –

was murdered
and his female companion
announced she’d been raped.


There was no trial.

On the evening of their arrest

a small mob gathered

and broke into the jail
where the boys were being held.
They brought sledgehammers and crowbars
to break down the walls of justice,
No one among the crowd

thought to ask
on which side of those walls
they stood
when they picked up their tools

And on which side they stood

When they set them down.

They pulled the three
from their cells
demanding that justice be done.
And everyone knew what that meant.

Word got out.

So when hundreds of families showed up

in the town square

they brought even their young
because they were led to believe
the justice which had gone missing

was about to be restored

and that was something

they wanted

their children to see.


After the first two boys were hung
They made sure to pose
for the local photographer, Lawrence Beitler,
who took the pictures

they all felt certain

would show the future
what justice looked like.




I have known people who scorn the church
having patched so many holes in their pants
from years kneeling
in pews too hard
for their soft hearts to find rest.
They say their goodness was talked out of them

by stories of being raised
in the garden of an angry and vengeful God.


But I say.
it is we who get up

-        every morning –

and write the new covenant
since our lease in the garden was revoked.
We are in charge
of rebuilding paradise into the promised land.
We hire the exterminators
who walk the grounds
trapping and ridding

of all the serpents and spiders
that live in our imagination.




Having power over life and death

is a holy thing.
But standing on holy ground
is hard on the feet

which explains the shuffling of the crowd.

In that shuffling

hardly anyone noticed

when James Cameron

-        the third boy arrested    –

and brought to the town square

slipped away

during the commotion of picture taking

and self commendations.


But vengeance

once fed

develops quite an appetite.

‘Cameron!’ called one low voice.
And then another.

A chant followed.
‘We want Cameron! We want Cameron!
with the glee of a home crowd

summoning a favorite football star
to the field.


The face of the town’s sheriff
was nervous and covered in sweat
as he turned to the mob leader.
‘Go on. Get the hell out of here.
You already hung two of ‘em
… that ought to satisfy ya.’

But reason takes no root

In the dry hard pan of apathy and anger.

So, when Cameron came into view,
the crowd got louder

pushing him back in place

under the tree

already holding his two friends.

He carried the look of a drowning man
swallowed by a sea of fear
not only his own.
He scoured the faces of the people he passed
searching for any sign of mercy.
But he saw none.

“They got a rope,” Mr. Cameron remembered
“… and they put it around my neck.
Then they began to push me under the tree…”

His reflections, offered in hindsight

are recorded as history
because Cameron did not die that day.
But he does reveal

what great power turned

the rabid crowd from its prey.


James Cameron lived

not because of his own pleas

nor those of the sheriff

But from the cries

of a lone – unidentified – man

who stood up on the hood of his car
parked on a street

off to the side of the town square

and called out for the people to stop.
“Mercy!” he cried.


Some say he turned the lemming crowd

away from the moral cliff.
Some say he


saved a life
from being strangled by blind vengeance.
We seem to like theories that
one man
one action
one perfect moment
can do anything
and turn everything around.
I like to think
it was more than that.

Because I know real transformation

takes more than that.




In a tangled web

there are two ways to be a spider:
you can work
to address the real pest population,
reduce the numbers
of cockroaches, mosquitoes and aphids
that carry disease toward our children,
and make the garden untenable for creation.

Or, you can harbor fangs
and carry venom
build sticky webs
trap prey,
eat baby birds
devour your own species
maybe even your mate.

Either way, you are simply a spider –
true to everything you were born to be
carrying within you
the power to spin a web
and capture prey.

But also weaving the strands

that communicate the struggle
of something innocent

caught in the web

years ago

still struggling in our soul.




Abel Meeropol was a teacher and a poet.

He wrote a poem

about the pain he felt
after seeing the postcard
made from the photograph taken that day
Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
were hung from the tree.


Abel Meeropol was A Jew in the Bronx
a thousand miles away
but he had enough distance to see
that his whole world
was woven into the same
religious web.
And like the strands from which
the two boys hung
he knew that he too
would be regarded as prey
to the spider whose hunger
cannot swallow reason

and is blind to mercy.

Some trees, bear ‘Strange Fruit’

Meeropol mused as he saw the photo.

He noticed in the picture

how the crowd displayed

cavalier expressions

where he expected looks of horror.

From this he began to understand

how the world

could compartmentalize people

if it is run by people

who compartmentalize their feelings.

And loyalty.


Trees of prejudice

grow from seeds of love

fertilized by fear.

He wrote the poem

under a pen name
because the reality of anti-Semitism
made it clear that such trees
stand at the center of almost every garden.




Abel’s namesake,
from the bible

was born outside the garden.
He was led by his brother, Cain
into the field and ‘killed.’
‘Sacrificed’ is the word
some preachers use to describe the slaying.
But ‘sacrifice’ has a dignity to it
which makes it inaccurate.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
was the question asked

by Cain.


It might also have been the question

on the lips

of everyone in the Marion Center square that day

as they lit the match

that burns in our conscience.

But only the voice of God
shouting from the hood of His car
had the power
to call back the spider.




When police caught up to the suspects
who planted the bombs in Boston,
the news described a standoff.
Both sides heavily armed.
The shootout lasted for hours.
It ended when one brother
was fatally shot
and run over by the other brother
as he raced from the scene of the crime.

Police caught up with the surviving outlaw
the next day
hiding in a small boat
hoping, perhaps, to sail somewhere
not quite so crazy.
Hoping, perhaps, to live in a world
a little less wrapped in fear.

But there he was

anchored in the one world

he was born into.

“I’m glad they caught him,”
said someone who worked in the trauma ward
that treated the 260 people injured in the explosions.
“I’m glad he’s alive.”
said a police officer who helped find the suspect.

Now everyone could now breathe a sigh of relief

and get on to the question

of whether to pursue the death penalty.




Abel Meeropol published his poem

-        in the New York Teacher journal

And the Marxist publication

“The New Masses”    –

He used the pseudo name, Lewis Allen

taking his pen name from the first names
of his two sons
Lewis and Allen
both arriving stillborn
both understanding what it’s like
when you aren’t given a chance.


It’s possible Meeropol knew
the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s life
when he showed her the poem
at that club in New York city
where he went to hear her sing.

It’s possible he was aware
of how she was overpowered
and raped by a man
when she was twelve
and how she turned to prostitution
at fourteen.

It’s possible he recognized
that there was no one who came
with sledgehammers and crowbars
to break her out
of the prison sentence she served every day.

It’s possible he knew
how many drinks
and drugs
and other distractions
she needed to salve
the shape of emptiness
in the center of her soul.

Or perhaps he only recognized
the voice of an angel
who could sing the word of God –
over our heads.

The kind of angel

willing to stand up

-        in a basement bar –

-        or on the hood of a car –

and call a callous world
to its senses.


Whatever the reason
Strange Fruit became Holiday’s
signature song
reaching number sixteen
on the popular charts.
When it was released
Time Magazine denounced the song
as a ‘prime piece of musical propaganda’
for the NAACP.


Though he managed to write a few songs for
Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee

due to his ties with the Communist Party,

Meeropol stopped getting work
as a writer during the 1950s

during the red scare of McCarthyism.

Perhaps that gave him the time – and maybe the reason –
to adopt two boys –
the orphaned sons
of Ethyl Julius Rosenburg
- the ones convicted of treason and espionage

trading national secrets
during the race

to build the world’s first atomic weapon.

The case swept the country
into hysteria
and the Rosenburgs were declared ‘guilty’
and executed.
Nobel Prize winning playwright Jean-Paul Sarte
described the case as
“A legal lynching which smears with blood
a whole nation.”

The two boys were lost in the madness.

“From the time of their parents’ arrests,
and even after the execution,
the Rosenburg boys
were passed from one home to another
- first one grandmother looked after them,
then another,
then friends.
For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter.
The paranoia of the McCarthy era
was such that many people
- even family members –
were terrified of being connected
with the Rosenberg children,
and many people who might have cared for them
were too afraid to do so.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
has always been a question
of timid and tender conviction.




Billie Holiday introduced “Strange Fruit”
to Greenwich Village’s Cafe Society
in 1939.
It always came at the very end of her set.
Each time she sang

It sounded like

the voice of an angel
singing about the work of the devil.
The waiters in the Sheridan Square basement club
would suspend service so the room was quiet.
Holiday was illuminated
by a small pin light on her face,
which went dark at the song’s end.
There were no curtain calls.
No encores.




Abel Meeropol is dead.
As is his namesake from the bible
As are Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
Billie Holiday is dead.
As are Ethyl and Julius Rosenburg.
Martin Richard,
Lu Lingzi and Krystle Campell
are dead.
Guilty of standing to close to the bomb

Which detonated at the Boston Marathon
last year.

Tamerlan Tsamaev
who built the bombs
is dead,
which some will argue is a good thing.
Some might conclude that his brother

is as good as dead.
Just like the media that covered the story
and the empathy that got lost in the madness

and the justice we hoped to find

It is when we notice
that angels sing in basements
and spiders run the world
that it begins to feel like
we are all descendants of Cain.


There were many left in critical condition

after the violence in Boston.
They numbered in the hundreds
at Mass General.
They number in the billions
around the globe.
Whether any of them come back to life

depends on how many people stop

and stand up for what we need to be

when they hear the angels song.




People change.
Hearts change.
Minds change all the time.
Our culture changes
sometimes too slowly

to keep our hearts from breaking

But broken hearts

are the only thing

that help us hear the angel’s song

and change the course of history.

When enough people listen

to the angels sing of brokenness

a tilting world will turn

into its leanings toward good.

What other explanation is there

for Time Magazine – in 1999

naming ‘Strange Fruit’
‘the song of the century’?


Over our heads

there is trouble in the air.

But there is also music

and singing.


and you will hear

Angels sequestered in basements…

Singing on the hoods of cars…

And you will know:

there must be a God somewhere.




The morning after the Boston Marathon tragedy,
my alarm went off.
These days the alarms
on cell phones are rather sophisticated.
I have mine programmed to play
a Dave Matthews song.
As I listened,
it occurred to me
that if God were at the Boston Marathon
She would have been on a side street
standing on the hood of Her car.
And as the people ran by
I think this is what she might have sung.


by Dave Matthews

Don’t give up
I know you can see
All the world and the mess that were making
Can’t give up
And hope God will intercede
Come on back
Imagine that we could get it together


Stand up for what we need to be
‘cause crime won’t save or feed a hungry child
can’t lay down and hope miracles will intercede
lift up your eyes
lift up your heart


Singing, Mercy! What will become of us?
Have we come too far to turn it around?
Can we carry on just a little bit longer
and all try to give of what we need?
(Dave Matthews, 2012)