James Cameron (activist)
James Cameron (February 25, 1914 – June 11, 2006) was an American civil rights activist. In the 1940s, he founded three chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 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.
Early life and education
Cameron was born February 25, 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, 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 an armed robbery attempt, and with the rape of his girlfriend. (The latter charge was dropped.) Cameron said he ran away before the man was killed. They were caught quickly and charged with the murder.
Cameron and his two friends were taken from where they were being held in jail and lynched by a mob of 12,000-15,000 at the Grant County Courthouse Square. They were hanged from a tree on the square. Cameron witnessed the deaths of his friends but somehow was saved. 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 lynching of Cameron’s friends.
Cameron was convicted at trial in 1931 as an accessory before the fact to the murder of Deeter, and served four years of his sentence in a state prison. After he was paroled, Cameron moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked at Stroh Brewery Company and attended Wayne State University.
In 1991 Cameron was pardoned by the state of Indiana.
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, he founded 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.
He also served as the Indiana State Director of Civil Liberties from 1942 to 1950. In this capacity, Cameron reported to Governor of Indiana Henry Schricker 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. He faced violence and death threats because of his work.
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 Martin Luther King, Jr., and the second with King’s widow Coretta and Jesse Jackson.
Cameron studied history on his own and lectured on the African-American experience. From 1955 to 1989, he 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". In 1982 he published his memoir, A Time of Terror: A Survivor's Story.
After being inspired by a visit with his wife to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel, Cameron founded America's Black Holocaust Museum in 1988. He used material from his collections to document the struggles of African Americans in the United States, from slavery through lynchings, and civil rights. When he first started collecting materials about slavery, he kept it in his basement. Working with others to build support for the museum, he was aided by philanthropist Daniel Bader.
The museum started as a grassroots effort and became one of the largest African-American museums in the country. In 2008, the museum closed because of financial problems. It reopened on Cameron's birthday, February 25, 2012, as a virtual museum.
Cameron and his wife, Virginia Hamilton, had five children. He died on June 11, 2006, at the age of 92, from congestive heart failure. He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Milwaukee. At the time of his death, two sons, David and James, had died. He was survived by his wife Virginia and three children: Virgil, Walter, and Dolores Cameron, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Legacy and honors
- Wisconsin Public Television produced a documentary entitled 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.[dead link]
- Milwaukee added his name to four blocks of West North Avenue, from North King Drive to North 7th Street.
- Cameron, James. A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story, self-published, 1982; reprinted Black Classics Press, 1994.
- "Obituary of James Cameron", The Washington Post, 12 June 2006, accessed 14 July 2008
- David Bradley, "Anatomy of a Murder", The Nation, 24 May 2006, accessed 15 July 2008
- James Cameron Holocaust Museum founder, African American Registry, 2006, accessed 15 July 2008
- "Our Founder", America's Black Holocaust Museum, accessed 15 July 2008
- Meg Jones, Leonard Sykes, Jr., and Amy Rabideau Silvers, "Cameron brought light to racial injustices", Milwaukee Sentinel Journal, 11 June 2006, accessed 15 July 2008
- "Director of America's Black Holocaust Museum to Speak at MSU", Michigan State University News, 11 September 2003, accessed 15 July 2008
- Sandler, Larry (2006-08-30). "Street could be renamed for good Samaritan who died". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Carr, Cynthia, Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, A Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America, 2007, Random House.
- America's Black Holocaust Museum
- "Obituary of James Cameron" - Washington Post
- James Cameron's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- David J. Marcou. "Challenger & Nurturer: Wisconsin Civil Rights Pioneer James Cameron (1914-2006)"