Strange Fruit Part Two: They Want To Legalize Lynching

The return of strange and bitter crops

Savannah Worley
Momentum
Published in
5 min readMar 3

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A black-and-white picture of a noose hanging from a wooden beam. The picture was taken at the Austin County Jail Museum in Bellville, TX.
A noose hanging in the Austin County Jail Museum in Bellville, TX. Patrick Feller from Humble, Texas, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On February 28, in the year 2023, the Tennessee House Criminal Justice Committee was having a polite conversation about how to kill death row inmates. As they were discussing executing inmates by firing squad, a method not allowed in Tennessee or in any other civilized society, Representative Paul Sherrell had another abhorrent idea as to how to kill people as punishment.

“Could I put an amendment on that, that would include hanging by a tree also?” he inquired. He said it as if he was discussing the weather — in a conversational tone with no shame detected. He added he would also sign onto the crude “kill prisoners by a death squad” bill.

I must admit I did not watch the entire meeting — I was unable to find a source that contained it. However, nobody immediately told Sherrell to shut the fuck up when they were morally obligated to do so, which would have been when Sherrell said the words, “hanging by a tree.” Perhaps this is because we are talking about a group of people who want people to be killed by a firing squad. Sherrell released a fauxpology the next day, saying he used “poor judgment” in making his comments. Indeed, he used poor judgment — people typically hide their sadistic racist ideas. He said he was sorry “to anyone who may have been hurt or offended.” Sincerity seems to be lacking in his apology.

The question is — did he mean “hanging” or “lynching?” “Hanging” is more official — it’s carried out by the state as punishment for a crime. “Lynching” involves a mob, not necessarily the state. However, as Michael Daly from the Daily Beast pointed out, Sherrell said “tree,” not “gallows.” Often, when those who live in the U.S. picture a noose dangling from a tree limb, the word that comes to mind is “lynching.” It’s therefore not unreasonable to conclude Sherrell was asking for lynching to be legalized. And, of course, when we think of lynching, we typically imagine a Black person as the victim. Lynching is a racialized method of murder, after all.

When Sherrell talked about lynching, my bet is that he was picturing a Black person. As the song “Strange Fruit” portrays, he was gleefully picturing “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.”

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Savannah Worley
Momentum

Essayist who writes about social justice, racism, and mental health | she/her | Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/skworley