Though it was only recorded seventy years ago, "Strange Fruit" describes a world that's quite a bit different from our own. It was a product of the Jim Crow Era, a time when lynch mobs upheld white supremacy by terrorizing blacks who challenged the racial order of the day or even looked the wrong way at a white person. Lynchings were often staged as a kind of public spectacle, violently sending the message that African-Americans could have no sanctuary from white power. As Dr. C.T. Vivian, Reverend and Civil Rights activist describes, "You hung somebody. You had no real evidence that they had done anything. But you hung them. You even brought a crowd in. To enjoy this event. Then you would not only hang them by the neck, but you wanted to rip open their bodies, and did so. You burned them, put a fire under them. Often you skinned off their very faces. And this was met with applause; the crowd loved it, they were anxious to do it. And men taught their sons, 'This is what you do to them.' I don't know any kind of savagery that is worse than this."
According to figures kept by the Tuskegee Institute, of the 3,833 lynchings between 1889 and 1940, ninety percent were in the south, and four fifths of those lynched were black. These figures are conservative, to say the least. For several generations, every black person in America had to live with the constant fear that one transgression of the rules of racial order could lead straight to murder and mutilation.
While "Strange Fruit" represents a peak in the American awareness of lynchings, the anti-lynching movement of which it was a part began years earlier. The Tuskegee Institute's simple documentation of lynchings, which began in 1888, was an early form of anti-lynching activism. The journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett began an anti-lynching campaign in 1892, after friends of hers were lynched for opening a grocery store in competition with a white-owned business. She later joined the NAACP (which formed in 1909) and continued to speak out against lynching there. W.E.B. Du Bois famously flew a flag outside his New York City office with the words "Another Lynching Today" every time a lynching occurred. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of the 1920s and the later Costigan-Wagner Bill were both federal anti-lynching laws blocked from passing Congress by Southern legislators.
Perhaps more notable than any other form of anti-lynching activism were the anti-lynching efforts seen in the arts. Plays were written—ten between 1916 and 1935. In 1936, the NAACP organized two shows of artwork titled "An Art Commentary on Lynching" which were well received. But Meeropol and Holiday's "Strange Fruit" was by far the most successful; perhaps because the song was so blunt, so bitter, so straightforward (and so darkly beautiful) while also fitting neatly into the pop format. Unlike art exhibits and plays, pop music carried no air of intellectualism to turn off general audiences.