On August 7, 1930, two African-American teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched by a violent mob in Marion, Indiana. Years later, moved by the infamous photograph taken that night, Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher in New York City, wrote a protest song entitled “Strange Fruit.”
The song soon became a signature of a young jazz singer named Billie Holiday, the unforgettable finale of her live performances. In 1999, TIME Magazine declared it the “song of the century,” and this year marks the 75th anniversary of Holiday’s original 1939 recording.
“We didn’t want the anniversary to slip by without telling this extraordinary story,” said Rev. Elizabeth Myer Boulton, President and Creative Director of the SALT Project, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit production company.
In partnership with WFYI, Christian Theological Seminary, and Brooklyn-based Mason Jar Music, SALT set out to create a short film to inspire communities of faith across the country to explore both the dreadful legacy of racism and the tireless creativity of the human spirit.
“Significant tragedies and acts of creative resistance in American history, such as lynching and the ability not only to heal but also to create art out of such cruelty and violence, have a tendency to fade without fresh, contemporary interpretations,” said one of the main voices in the film, Rev. Dr. Frank A. Thomas, Professor of Homiletics and Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration at CTS.
“The power of Billie Holiday's song, along with the memory of the horror she meant to expose and confront, could fade for younger generations unless we tell the story anew for the twenty-first century,” Thomas added.
Rev. Julian DeShazier, also known as J.Kwest, is the film’s other primary voice, a Chicago-based artist devoted to exploring the connections between music, faith, and stories of deep meaning.
“The arts can ‘flip the script’ on negative forces in our society,” said Deshazier. “Billie Holiday did just that, taking a stand in her music that contributed mightily to ending lynching once and for all. Her example inspires us to take our own stands today, writing new songs that help right the new wrongs.”
“With Black History Month upon us,” said Thomas, “and with Good Friday and Easter just around the corner, the time is right to honor Billie Holiday, to celebrate how far we’ve come, and to take stock of how far we all have to go.”
This year Easter falls on April 20, the exact anniversary of Holiday’s original recording.