James Cameron was a 16-year-old shoeshine boy in Marion, Ind., when an Aug. 6, 1930, incident -- and what he claims was divine intervention -- changed his life forever.
Cameron accepted a ride home that night in a 1926 Ford Roadster from his 18-year-old classmate, Tom Shipp. Another teen, 19-year-old Abram Smith, also was in the car.
By the end of the next night, Shipp and Smith would be dead -- beaten and then lynched by an angry mob. But Cameron escaped.
The three teenagers, all of whom were black, drove along the river. At some point, they came across a car and a white man named Claude Deeter, as well as an 18-year-old white woman named Mary Ball. Cameron said one of the other teenagers ordered him to rob the couple at gunpoint.
"I opened the door and I said, 'Stick them up,' and this white fellow gets out of the car, and he didn't recognize me because I had my hat pulled down," he recalled. "And I noticed him just like that. He was my friend, a real nice white fellow. I was his shoeshine boy.
"And his girlfriend got out of the car. Her face was so pale and lovely and frightened, and that scared me. So I took the gun, give it to one of my confederates. I said, 'Here, I'm not going to have anything to do with you guys.'
"And I left that scene of the crime. I had gone about two or three blocks when I heard some shots ring out -- bang, bang, bang. Well, I was foolish for being out there, but I sure in hell wasn't going to go back to see who was shooting who."
Sent to Jail
The three teens were arrested late that night and taken to the county jail, where they were held throughout the next day. By dusk, a rowdy crowd was gathering outside the jail, but the sheriff ordered his deputies not to use their weapons because women and children were in the crowd.
"I was still sore from the beating the police had given me," Cameron said. "Somebody came back and shook me and said, 'Wake up! Wake up! They're breaking the windows! They're trying to break into the jail!' And I got up and ran around the bullpen and looked out the window. From my second-floor perch, I could see the crowd below, and sure enough they were hollering, 'Turn them damn niggers over to us! We know how to treat them! We're going to hang every damn one of them!' "
James Madison, author of "Lynching in the Heartland," an account of the Marion incident, said the crowd, which grew to thousands of people, spun off several dozen people who became a lynch mob. "[They] actually did break into that jail through several steel doors and bars," he said. Then they removed the prisoners one by one: first Shipp, who was taken to the courthouse square and hanged from the bars of one of the jailhouse windows; then Smith, who was lynched by a rope thrown over the branch of a maple tree.
Cameron said the mob came for him next. "They were beating me and tearing me apart … clubs, fists, spitting on me, kicking me, cussing me out, calling me all kinds of names," he said. "It was awful."
He went on: "When they got me down to street level, the uniformed police was helping the mobster members, who had their robes and open-face hoods on. They were helping … to clear a path from the jail up to the courthouse square, which was just a half a block away. And one young lady was standing on the hood of an automobile that was parked on the jail lawn, and she was jumping up and down saying, 'Kill all the niggers! Kill all the niggers! Kill all the niggers!'
A Voice of Reason Offers Salvation
"And they beat me up to the tree where Tommy and Abe was hanging, and they put the rope around my neck, and they pushed me up under, and they was getting ready to hang me when I prayed to God," he said. "Now, when I said, 'Lord, have mercy and forgive me of my sins,' a voice from heaven came down like an echo and said, 'Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any killing or raping.'"
Madison said that several others testified about hearing a voice. "Mr. Cameron says it was the voice of an angel, and that's OK," he said. "Others say it was the voice of the head of the American Legion. Some others say it may have been Mary Ball's uncle, but several documents indicate a voice cried out he was innocent, that he should not be murdered."
Cameron said, "When things came back to normal, they took that rope off my neck, and they allowed me to stumble and stagger back to the jail."
A Changed Life
After the lynching, the local prosecutor declined to bring charges against anyone, but the state attorney general indicted seven alleged mob leaders and moved to impeach the sheriff. Two men were eventually tried at the same courthouse where the lynchings took place.
The men were acquitted, while Cameron was found guilty of being an accessory to murder and served five years in prison.
He went to prison a bitter man. "I wanted to kill white people," he said. "I didn't care whether they were babies or young or old or blind or crippled or crazy or nothing -- just grab little white babies by their feet and just slam their brains up against a telephone pole. I was just full of hatred. That's what I was -- I was full of hatred."
But he says he found God in prison, allowing him to conquer his bitterness and forgive the people of Marion, Ind. He also founded the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee dedicated to showing this ugly side of the American experience.
"They invited me back to Marion, gave me the keys to the city, put the red carpet out," he said. "And the governor gave me a pardon for my indiscretion as a young man. And I've been back there … 30 or 40 times in the last 25 or 30 years."
He said people there have admitted to being in the crowd that night. "They say, 'I was standing here, and this was what happened around me and everything.' And, 'My uncle took me there. I was 13 years old,' or 'I was 15 years old, and this was what happened. We saw them when they brought you out of jail and everything, yeah.' "
"They were just silent witnesses," he added. "They were the ones who gave their consent by not doing anything to stop it."
ABC News' Michel Martin reported this story for 'Nightline.'