James Cameron, born 92 years ago in Wisconsin, died peacefully this week. Mr. Cameron was the only known living survivor of a lynching in America. Those in the mob of 15,000 who did the beatings and killings that day were never charged with a crime. But Cameron, the lucky, terrorized survivor, was charged, basically with being a friend of the other two who were murdered by the mob, and he was imprisoned.
After his release, James Cameron founded three chapters of the NAACP and served as Indiana State Director of Civil Liberties for eight years until death threats and threats against his family forced him to move back to Wisconsin, where he joined the struggle against housing segregation in Milwaukee, became a prolific writer and publisher, and founded Milwaukee’s Black Holocaust Museum. He was finally officially exonerated with a full pardon and an apology from the State of Indiana in 1993.
Rest in peace with highest honors, James Cameron, for your courage and the dedication of your miraculous and long life to fighting the ugly social disease of racism.
But the unbowed spirit of Mr. Cameron, and that of all people of conscience, must be troubled by an occurrence this Memorial Day weekend here in Ozaukee County.
On May 28, just a thousand feet or so north of the Ozaukee County Justice Center, on Spring Street, a crime occurred. A small business that was recently purchased was invaded and savagely attacked. Fortunately, the business was closed and the operator and family were gone. Most of the stock was destroyed, and equipment belonging to the business was smashed. The damage ran into the tens of thousands of dollars. An ugly, unmistakable racist threat was spray painted inside the premises.
“GET OUT NIGGER” it shouted.
There can be little doubt that a serious race hate crime has just taken place right here in Ozaukee county. A “black” woman operates the business.
The crime was apparently discovered by an alert Port Washington police patrol in the early morning hours. Because there is a continuing investigation, the police have not released an incident report since the discovery two and a half weeks ago.
With the exception of the front door glass, which appeared to be broken to obtain entry, there seemed to be little damage to the premises. Even the racist threat was spray painted on the window shades that belong to the business, not on any of the clean, blank walls of the leased property. It is as though the hate crime perpetrator was careful to damage only that property which belonged specifically to the proprietress.
Unaccountably, the alarm system and service failed to receive or respond to the break-in that night or early morning.
It is a shock to most of us that this ugly hateful crime could take place here in the community where we live. This kind of crime has repercussions that can harm existing business and repel visitors as well as valuable new residents and businesses for a long time to come. It makes us feel less safe, and that our community’s reputation is sullied.
What’s next … A Ku Klux Klan parade? … A cross burning on someone’s lawn? Let’s nip this in the bud with a good, thorough investigation, not a whitewash. And let’s send a clear message that we don’t hide from the truth in Ozaukee County, and we don’t let bigots run amuck here.
It is absolutely inappropriate for us to simply pretend this didn’t happen, and turn away, and leave this matter to weigh only on the shoulders and the minds of the very small minority population in Ozaukee County. And none of us are so uncaring as to fail to think of the victim and her family. They experienced fear every day since this attack took place. That fear made them decide to spend last Sunday night in their storeroom to protect in person what property remained salvageable. And now she’s left the store, unable to operate her business and feel basic security there.
All of us, of any and every ethnicity, should look within and without, and purge the disease of racism from our midst. We must give full support, and urge the police and district attorney to do a proper investigation of this case, and not hesitate to bring charges if the investigation proves fruitful.
Race hate crimes have occurred and re-occurred in every decade of every century and in every state in America. We’re not the first, nor are we alone in our shock and denial and natural desire to sweep the embarrassment under the rug, when confronted with the reality of race hate violence and intimidation.
It is a common reaction for the majority population to ascribe such violence and intimidation to mentally unbalanced fringe elements whose only motive is lunatic hatred. But in reality, most racial hate crimes have had an underlying economic motive.
Runaway slaves, if re-captured, were beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed to discourage repetition and imitation because slaves escaping to freedom meant lost production, lost profits, lost assets, and reduced inheritances. Beatings, arson, imprisonment on false charges, and lynching of “uppity” blacks was used for over a century after “emancipation” to intimidate or eliminate black sharecroppers who objected to being cheated by mills, suppliers, stores, or plantation owners. The race riot in Tulsa destroyed the homes and businesses of a largely self-sufficient, prosperous black community, and illegally transferred substantial assets and real property to white owned business institutions. From Columbus to today, similar examples abound with regards to treatment applied to indigenous people of the Americas.
Whenever a race hate crime occurs, minorities know that the motive, and the payoff, is often economic. The payoff for hate based violence, intimidation, and discrimination is in actual dollars and in maintaining and reinforcing the very tangible advantages of white supremacy. The easiest person to defraud and victimize is always one with limited ability for self-defense; and one who the media and public opinion will not favor; and one who the courts and the police will not likely protect from crime.
The true character of a community is never set by the actions of a shameful, despicable few, unless the rest of the community turns away and pretends to see and hear nothing, as did so many in Europe when Krystal Nacht shattered the peace of midnight, and the stars wept.
June 15, 2006