The Church and the Lynching
The early 20th century was still a time in the United States of racial unrest. On a small scale, the Marion lynching remains as a pivotal point in the city's history. It was only a drop in the bucket of this nation's racial hate crimes, but it does exemplifies common influences to these types of events. One relationship that presented itself was the connection between the Marion lynching and the Christian Church.
The Marion Lynching
August 7, 1930. In Marion, Indiana a mob lynched two colored boys, Thomas Shipp, 18, and Abram Smith, 19, who were to be trialed for the murder the night before of Claude Deeter, 23, and the alleged rape of his companion, Mary Ball, 19. After getting word of the stick up, murder, and assault, an angry mob stormed the Old Grant County Jail, and took the boys out one at a time, brutally beating and lynching them both. The mob was in the process of lynching a third boy, the two’s younger accomplace, James Cameron, who had left them right before the incident, yet somehow he would be released, alive ("A Lynching in the Heartland"). The two lynched bodies were photographed above those left from the mob, and hung by the Grant County Courthouse as an example to other African-Americans. No one from the mob was ever convicted for their crime. For many years after, this tragedy would haunt the city of Marion, staining it as the town of the last confirmed racial lynching in the northern United States.
"You can not help but ask yourself the question, ‘Where were the white Christians when they were hanging those two black boys?’” said Rev. Mike Henson, pastor of Bethel Worship Center, to the members of the Grant County Ethnic Diversity Task Force on Tuesday, October 7, 2003. “I ask myself that question. Where were they?” ("Family protests plaque").
The “white Christians” were likely in the crowd. Possibly at home, either unaware or unattatched from the scene of the crime, but evidence indicates that many church-goers had taken a part in the Marion Lynching. The sheer number of how many people were witnessed to be in the mob, and the percent of the community that claimed Christian faith, makes a case that white Christians were in the crowd. Along with that, several racist, social groups funneled into the Church, such as the famed Klu Klux Klan, which was a self-proclaimed Protestant organization. This was beneficial for the Klan, because the “white supremacy” dogma was popularly supported through the idea of it being a God-given right. When the Klan its spread in Marion in 1920, the focus was on its support of the Church and Americanism. The KKK went around condemning sinful behavior and commending many pastors for their moral character, awarding them with large sums of money. People gleefully joined the Klan, only to see its ugly side later. At the beginning, the newspapers spoke of the KKK sighting as if in awe of a secret social hero, but just a few short years after that, local newspapers either condemned the KKK or were run by members of it ("Carr").
There is no evidence to conclude that the Klu Klux Klan had any direct involvement in the Marion Lynching, especially with the Klan’s decline in the late 20s, however, individuals who had been members of the KKK were certainly present. Sheriff Jake Campbell, the man in charge at the Marion Jail when it was stormed by the lynching mob, was rumored to be a Klan member (Madison). The KKK membership was very secretive, so no sufficient amount of evidence has proved this accusation, but it is known that he had gotten word of the possible lynching mob in advance and had refused to send for any reinforcements even with the opportunity to do so. Also, the only thing Sheriff Campbell and the officers did to prevent the mob from reaching the inmates, was throwing cans of tear gas out into the crowd. The cans were quickly thrown back, and the mob entered, meeting little or no resistance (Carr). So Sheriff Campbell's membership in the Klan would fit with his known actions. Note, however, that the beliefs held by the Klan were not held by the actual Church, (See Conclusion) but of people in the Church. Christians had also been very involved in abolition, Quakers especially, such as in the Underground Railroad. Regardless, it is sufficient that the Klu Klux Klan’s discriminatory beliefs were well spread. Those beliefs, which had shaped a society of black inferiority long before even the formation of the KKK, had been deeply embedded into the minds of thousands of people, not just Christians, and those beliefs were what triggered the crowd guilty of the lynching.
The Day of Reconciliation
73 years later, twenty area pastors gathered on September 12, 2003 at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion. The ten black, and ten white clergymen came together to shape a “day of reconciliation” to make public atonement for the 1930 Lynching. The main goal of the event was to allow the community to rise above its ugly past by giving the people from both sides the opportunity to acknowledge wrongs and forgive (Group hopes residents can grow…). Specifically, it was for the community's failure to provide justice to the two murder suspects, and for the death of Claude Deeter ("Family of Marion..."). The plan was voted 2-1 for the plaque by county commissioners. David Glickfield, one of the commissioners who voted in support of it, said the plaque would send a positive message. "What is important is the symbolism it creates. The issue is to support a grassroots effort to end racism in Grant County and if we're not supportive of that effort, then I think we're sending the wrong message," ("Family of Marion..." ). The date for the service to commemorate the plaque was set for October 19.
Protests and The Plaque
It should be mentioned that not everyone was on board with the idea of a plaque and reconciliation service. Since the first article mentioning it, many people began to protest the possible plaque remembering the lynching. One of those who held that opinion was Ruth Anne Nash, a niece of Thomas Shipp, one of the lynching victims. She read a letter to two of the commissioners, asking them to change their decision to not allow the making of the plaque ("Family protests plaque"). "There is no closure of any kind to the horrible injustice done to these two black men that were hung on the Courthouse Square," Nash, 66, said, "We resent the implications that this act will bring closure to us, the Smiths, the Deeters and this town, being that the town is still very prejudiced towards blacks of any age, past or present."
The pastors involved had expected much of the resistance. They had come together on two occasions before October to pray together for guidance. Rev. Gale A. Janofski of Brookhaven Wesleyan Church was among the pastors involved. "There's a need for this, I really believe," he voiced, then conceded, "But sometimes you can stir things up and instead of making them better, you can make them worse." This was what many opposed to the plaque were afraid of; they were afraid that bringing up the subject would cause more racial issues than it solved ("Forgiveness: Pastors expect..."). However, those in support of the plaque remained strong in their belief. Rev. Mark Henson, pastor of Bethel Worship Center, along with other pastors involved, gave the statement that a public sin, like the lynching, requires public confession ("Family protests plaque").
Compromise for Commemeration
After much discussion and statements on both sides, a compromise was made. The plaque would be placed on the inside of the courthouse, instead of the yard as first planned. As Glickfield told Shipp family members, "They're putting up a plaque but it's still not referring to 1930." Pastors restated the importance of making amends for Marion's past of any racial violence, not just the lynching. The final wording for the plaque was approved by the Grant County Commissioners ("Family protests plaque").
"As Citizens of Marion, Grant County, Indiana, We Acknowledge that Hatred, Violence, and Bigotry Have Scarred This Community. We Confess that This Legacy Touches All of Us. We Both Seek and Offer Forgiveness.
We Commit Ourselves to the Pursuit of Healing, Unity, and Peace.
And We Declare This Day of Reconciliation, October 19, 2003, To Be the First Step Toward A Bright and Prosperous Future For the People of This Community."
Adjustments and Acknowledgment
Protests still continued. October 13th, the commissioners came together again and revoted 3-0, reversing their decision to allow the plaque, deciding to table the issue ("Revote:No plaque"). "I personally believe this is the wrong time to put up a plaque," said Commission President Karen Bostic Weaver, who had voted against the plaque in the first vote ("Revote: No plague"). Commissioner Jeremy Diller did change his vote to be against the plaque in the second deciding, but he stilled believed that an open confession of mistakes would be useful for Marion to heal ("Revote: No plaque"). A major reason for the reversed decision was not so much a change in opinion of two of the commissioners as it was their concern over the discord made by the dispute ("Revote: No plaque"). The decision did, however, preserve the possibility for a plaque or other marker in the future.
So the Church ministers who had first come to the commissioners were unsuccesful in getting the plaque, but without their help and willingness to step out of their comfort zones, the Reconciliation service would have never been made possible. Sure, it was only a few church leaders, and so did not represent the opinions of the whole Church, but they did have the support of their congregations backing them through the process.
By comparing Marion’s history in 1930 and 2003, it may seem that the Church changed sides on the issue of racial equality. This is not really the case. It is fair to say that many members of certain racist groups at the time of the lynching professed to be Christians, but they did not represent the whole Church. Most Americans at that time were under a Christian denomination, but the variety of followers often had very little else in common in their beliefs. Even in the dark hayday of groups like the KKK, there were just as many organizations in support of equality within the Church. So to characterize the views of the entire Church by views of a minority would be stereotyping. The racist views were not held simply by Christians, but the entire society of the time, and they affected every group. Yes, people of the Church did play a part in the Marion Lynching, just as they did in most every other dark event in America’s history. The facts should not be ignored or used against any group, but rather they should be used for good. Just as the 2003 reconciliation service wished to do, the events in the past should be repented for, forgiven, then used to propel this country toward improvement, by remaining as a warning of what traps we need to avoid falling into in the future.
- Madison, James. A Lynching in the Heartland. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Print.
- Carr, Cynthia. "Our Town". New York: Crown Publishers,2006. Print.
- Harty, Kristin. "Group hopes residents can grow beyond tarnished past." Chronicle Tribune 13 September 2003: Page A1, col 2, & Page A2, col 3. Print.
- Harty, Kristin. "Family protests plaque." Chronicle Tribune 10 October 2003: Page A1, col 2, & Page A2, col 1. Print.
- Harty, Kristin. "Revote: No plaque." Chronicle Tribune 14 October 2003: Print.
- "Family of Marion lynching victim against courthouse plaque." Indianapolis Star 10 Oct 2003, Print.
- "Forgiveness: Pastors expect to encounter resistance." Chronicle Tribune 13 Sept 2003: Page A1, Col 2, & Page A2, Col 3. Print.
This page was written by Megan Swan for Mr. Munn's IU ACP history class at Marion High School during May 2011.