IMPORTANT UPDATE: Foster’s execution overturned!!! *see bottom of the post
“Silence struck us,” is how my grandmother, reaching into the vaults of her memory, described the tenor of a Greenwich Village nightclub just moments after a 23-year-old Billie Holiday, in spite of death threats on her young life, sang “Strange Fruit.” The lines—Southern tress bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves/Blood at the root—resonated with many like my grandmother who, coming from the South, had witnessed African-American men, women and even children burned, mutilated and hung from trees by white lynch mobs as crowds of pale spectators heckled and cheered.
“Strange Fruit,” written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol, was inspired specifically by the Indiana lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two young African-American men who were lynched, without a trial and with the assistance of the police, for crimes they did not commit. Holiday’s protest song, ripe with the somber outrage of injustice, struck a national chord as it climbed to #16 on the charts. Although tragic, the tragedy is not today’s arid music landscape in which protest songs don’t climb the charts or even exist in the popular imagination; the tragedy is that the same song, 70 years after Holiday first recorded it, is still so bitterly applicable today.
On August 30th, 2007 — tomorrow — Kenneth Foster, a 30 year old African-American man, is scheduled to be put to death by the State of Texas for a murder he did not commit. In 1996, Foster, then 19, was driving to his San Antonio home when acquaintance Mauriceo Brown jumped out of the car, stumbled into an altercation 100 yards away and fatally shot Michael LaHood. Foster, struck by what he describes as “blatant shock and disbelief at what just occurred,” allowed Mauriceo to re-enter the car and, moments later, they were both apprehended by police. Brown, who confessed to the shooting and testified that Foster didn’t have any prior knowledge about the murder, was executed last year.
Explaining why Foster, who all legal parties agree did not participate in the murder of LaHood, is perhaps, in 2007, more difficult than explaining the “swinging Black bodies” Billie Holiday crooned of in the 1930s.
The ‘explanation’ or ‘legal’ justification for Foster’s execution lies under the Texas “law of parties,” an extremely controversial law which, in 2005, a Texas federal district judge found to be misapplied and unconstitutional in Foster’s case. Given this country’s pungent narrative of racism, it is impossible for me to describe the execution of Kenneth Foster—an innocent man denied the writ of habeas corpus in a state that forbids judges from considering new, emancipatory evidence—in terms other than lynching.
“The death penalty is the first cousin of lynching,” says Steven Bright, a human rights attorney and professor who plays Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” for his law students at Emory, Harvard and Yale. Bright reminds his students that “Strange Fruit” helped to spark a national anti-lynching movement which led to the civil rights movement. Although the same song is playing now, we—the listeners—seemed to have forgotten that the power does not rest with Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, but where it always has: with us.
“There is a time,” student leader Mario Savio once proclaimed, “when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
That time is now and, as Kenneth Foster writes to all of us from Death Row, “I just wish that you all could see it.”
UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!
(picture of Foster and his family)
Today, on the day Kenneth Foster Jr. was scheduled to be executed for a crime he did not commit, Texas Governor Rick Perry made the announcement:
‘After a careful consideration of the facts and the recommendations of the Board of Pardons and Paroles I think it is a just decision to change Foster’s death penalty into a life sentence,’
Don’t let the Governor’s language fool you – it was the constant pressure from activists, Blackademics, freedom fighters and concerned citizens, that forced Perry to remove Kenneth Foster Jr. from Death Row. This is a testament to the power of the people who demand justice, by any means necessary. Thanks to everyone who took a stance and refused to allow this lynching to take place.