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Behind ‘Strange Fruit,’ Billie Holiday’s Anti-Lynching Anthem

When Billie Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” in 1939, the song was so bold for the time that she could sing it only in certain places where it was safe to do so.

The song likened the lynched bodies of Black people to “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary music executive, hailed it as “a declaration of war” and “the beginning of the civil rights movement.”

The song has garnered renewed attention since Andra Day was nominated for an Oscar for best actress for playing Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” The film, which debuted on Hulu in February, chronicles Holiday’s defiance in the face of the government’s efforts to suppress “Strange Fruit.” (Ms. Day lost to Frances McDormand at the Oscars on Sunday.)

Holiday popularized the song, causing many to believe she was responsible for its chilling lyrics. That notion was reinforced by the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues,” which suggests that Holiday, played by Diana Ross, wrote the song after witnessing a lynching.

In fact, the song was written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx.

Mr. Meeropol was moved to write it after seeing a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Ind., in 1930. The photograph, by Lawrence Beitler, shows two bodies hanging from a tree as a crowd of white people look on, some grinning. Thousands of copies of the photo were printed and sold, according to National Public Radio.

Read entire article at New York Times