James Cameron (activist)

James Cameron (activist)

James Cameron (February 23, 1914 – June 11, 2006) was a civil rights activist in the United States. In the 1940s, he founded three chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/12/AR2006061201594.html "Obituary of James Cameron"] , The "Washington Post", 12 June 2006, accessed 14 Jul 2008] He also served as Indiana's State Director of the Office of Civil Liberties for eight years during early integration. After moving to Wisconsin, in 1988 he founded America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. At his death, he was the only known survivor of a lynching attempt.

Early life and education

Cameron was born February 23, 1914 in La Crosse, Wisconsin to James Herbert Cameron and Vera Carter. After his father left the family, they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, then to Marion, Indiana when James was 14 and his mother remarried.

In August, 1930, when Cameron was 16 years old, he and two older teenage friends, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were charged in Marion with the murder of a young white man, Claude Deeter, during a robbery attempt, and with the rape of his girlfriend. (The latter charge was dropped.) Cameron said he ran away before the man was killed. Cameron and his two friends were taken from jail and lynched by a mob of 2,000-5,000 at the Grant County Courthouse Square. They were hanged from a tree on the square. [ [http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060612/bradley David Bradley, "Anatomy of a Murder"] , "The Nation", 24 May 2006, accessed 15 Jul 2008]

Cameron witnessed the deaths of his friends but somehow was saved from being hanged. In later years he said his neck was scarred from the rope. He heard someone saying he was not guilty, and was taken down before he died from hanging. No one from the mob was arrested or charged with the murders of Cameron’s friends.

Cameron was convicted at trial in 1931 as an accessory to the murder of Deeter, and served four years in a state prison. After Cameron was paroled, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked at Stroh Brewery Company and attended Wayne State University. [http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2952/ James Cameron Holocaust Museum founder] , African American Registry, 2006, accessed 15 Jul 2008]


Cameron studied to become a boiler engineer and worked until he was 65. At the same time, he continued to study lynchings, race and civil rights in America and trying to teach others.

Because of his personal experience, Cameron dedicated his life to promoting civil rights, racial unity and equality. While he worked in a variety of jobs, his civic commitment was shown by his founding three chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1940s — a time when the Ku Klux Klan was still active in the Midwest although its numbers had decreased since its peak in the 1920s. Cameron established and became the first president of the NAACP Madison County chapter in Anderson, Indiana.

Additionally, Cameron served as the Indiana State Director of Civil Liberties from 1942—1950. In this capacity, Cameron reported to Governor of Indiana Henry Shricker on violations of the “equal accommodations” laws designed to end segregation. During his eight-year tenure, Cameron investigated more than 25 incidents of civil rights infractions, and faced violence and death threats because of his work.

Civic activism

By the early 1950s, the emotional toll of threats led Cameron to search for a safer home for his wife and five children. Planning to move to Canada, they decided on Milwaukee when he found work there. There Cameron continued his work in civil rights by assisting in protests to end segregated housing in the city. He also participated in both marches on Washington in the 1960s, the first with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the second with Dr. King’s widow Coretta and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Cameron studied history on his own and lectured on the African-American experience. In 1982 he published his autobiography. From 1955 to 1989, Cameron published hundreds of articles and booklets detailing civil rights and occurrences of racial injustices, including "What is Equality in American Life?"; "The Lingering Problem of Reconstruction in American Life: Black Suffrage"; and "The Second Civil Rights Bill". [ [http://blackholocaustmuseum.org "Our Founder"] , America's Black Holocaust Museum, accessed 15 Jul 2008]

After being inspired by a visit with his wife to the Yad Veshem memorial in Israel, Cameron founded America's Black Holocaust Museum in 1988 to document lynchings, and the struggles of African Americans in the United States, from slavery through civil rights. When he first started collecting materials about slavery, he kept it in his basement, but worked with others to build support for the museum. He was aided by philanthropist Daniel Bader.

His institution, America's Black Holocaust Museum, started as a grassroots effort. It is now one of the largest African-American museums in the country.

In 1991 Cameron was officially pardoned by the state of Indiana.

Marriage and family

He and his wife Virginia Hamilton had five children. At the time of his death, two sons, David and James, had died. [http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=434456 Meg Jones, Leonard Sykes, Jr., and Amy Rabideau Silvers, "Cameron brought light to racial injustices"] , "Milwaukee Sentinel Journal", 11 Jun 2006, accessed 15 Jul 2008] He was survived by his wife Virginia and three children: Virgil, Walter and Dolores Cameron, plus numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


Cameron died on June 11, 2006 at age 92 of congestive heart failure. He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Milwaukee.

Legacy and honors

* Wisconsin Public TV produced a documentary "A Lynching in Marion".

* Marion, Indiana presented Cameron with a key to the city.

* Cameron was interviewed by BBC, and Dutch and German television.

* In 1999 Cameron was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. [ [http://demo1.news.msu.edu/story/2109/&redirected "Director of America's Black Holocaust Museum to Speak at MSU"] , "Michigan State University News", 11 Sept 2003, accessed 15 Jul 2008]

* Milwaukee added his name to four blocks of West North Avenue, from North King Drive to North 7th Street, in honor of James Cameron. [cite news| url=http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=489562| title=Street could be renamed for good Samaritan who died |work=Milwaukee Journal Sentinel| date=2006-08-30| first=Larry| last=Sandler]

* America's Black Holocaust Museum has become a place of education and reconciliation.

Published works

*Cameron, James. "A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story", self-published, 1982; reprinted Black Classics Press, 1994.



*Carr, Cynthia, "Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, A Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America", 2007, Random House.

External links

* [http://www.blackholocaustmuseum.org/ Black Holocaust Museum]
* [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/12/AR2006061201594.html "Obituary of James Cameron"] , The "Washington Post"

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