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Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: How 'Strange Fruit' Became a symbol for social change in the 20th century

An essay by Kelsey Edwards

In A-level poetry, Kelsey discovered that Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem Strange Fruit, links back to an earlier poem: a song by Billie Holiday, an important figure in the black civil rights movement of America, both because of her music and her own experiences of prejudice. But the story didn’t begin there. In this essay, Kelsey investigates the harrowing experiences of poets over a period of 45 years to understand how two words became a symbol for social change through their reception in wider society.

Giving a voice to the voiceless: How 'Strange Fruit' became a symbol for social change in the 20th century

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Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, 1930 (Beitler)

            On August 7th, 1930, two African American men were lynched in Marion, Indiana. Their names were Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, and they had been accused and convicted without evidence. The supposed crimes: armed robbery, murder, and rape (Madison pg.4-13). To this day, authorities have been unable to sufficiently prove what happened, and to what extent the boys were guilty. A mob of thousands reportedly broke into the prison and beat, dragged, and hanged them[1]. It was on this day, August 7th, 1930, that Lawrence Beitler photographed the event. That photo, of two African American young men strung from a tree, became the inspiration for Abel Meeropol’s 1937 Strange Fruit, known then as Bitter Fruit. Two years later, Billie Holiday performed the poem at Café Society, marking both the poem and her as leading figures in the black civil rights movement. Thirty six years later, Seamus Heaney published his own Strange Fruit, speaking of the horrors of the Irish Troubles. In all, this essay will discuss how Strange Fruit became a symbol for social change in the 20th century, exploring how two words have retold different versions of the same story over a course of 45 years to end blame culture. Beitler, Meeropol, Holiday and Heaney may all come from different backgrounds, but are united in how they highlight the suffering of the innocent and cause real change: by giving a voice to the voiceless.

            Before looking at Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, it is important to understand how wide-reaching the photograph that inspired him was. The photographer, Lawrence Beitler, was 44 at the time of the Marion Lynching, and Indiana had just seen a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Between 1921-1928, they had ‘at least three million and perhaps as many as six million members’ (Moore 1), making it fair to assume that racial and political attitudes were tense. Even after the resurgence ended, attitudes hadn’t fully dissipated. As such, Beitler’s photograph was likely used to ‘celebrate white supremacy and terrorize black Americans’ (Rushdy 73). In fact, the Marion branch leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, or NAACP, was so concerned by the quantity of copies being sold to white men that she threatened to initiate court proceedings against Beitler (Rushdy 73). Whatever Beitler’s own stance, his photograph now symbolises the blame culture and racial discrimination that existed in America in the early 20th century. Smith and Shipp’s bodies may have been cut down from the tree, but the photo ensures that their story remains.

            Sylvia Plath’s Cut also demonstrates the racial discrimination in America, with the poet comparing her own anguish to harrowing, sensitive events that are historically and culturally significant. Her work is intensely autobiographical. By drawing on universally known tragedies, readers can understand what Plath feels. Cut, for example, explores the ‘thrill’ of the speaker, who has sliced ‘thumb instead of an onion’ (Plath 23). The thrill of an injury is twisted but accepted because of the presumption that it happened in a kitchen setting. However, this is never made clear, and the content quickly escalates by remarking that the sliced thumb was the scalp axed by an Indian (Plath 23). The history of scalping is culturally complex, as well as the history between Native Americans and the colonisers that are generally considered ‘Americans’ today.

            If the above wasn’t racially tense enough, the thumb is then reminiscent of ‘The stain on your / Gauz Ku Klux Klan / Babushka’ (Plath 24). The speaker compares their bloodied finger to a stain on the uniform of the ‘southern racial terrorist’ (Moore 1) that is the KKK. The escalation, though severe, comes naturally in the poem. This parallels the ease of blame culture: the speaker places the blame of the incident on the ‘you’ already affiliated with violence. Suddenly, the speaker’s ‘thrill’ at nicking the thumb is synonymous with what ‘stain[s]’ clothing. It is not known if Plath’s intention was to highlight the ease and injustice of blame culture, though this is my interpretation of Cut. Just as the reader understands the speaker’s pleasure in accidental injury, they understand the history of racially motivated attacks going unchecked. Plath’s speaker, and society, has become desensitised, which must change. The reader sympathises more with someone who nicks their finger than with the victims of social injustice, who have been historically oppressed and their stories altered. The claim that an Indian axed someone’s scalp, presumably in attack, is highly insensitive. Likewise, the focus on a stained headscarf undermines the political and social disorder that the KKK inflicted, not just through violence but through targeted attacks within communities.

            Moving onto the title that became a symbol for social change, Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit was published in 1937 in response to him seeing Beitler’s photograph, which ‘haunted him for days’ (Todd 274). Being of a minority himself- the son of two Russian Jewish immigrants- and a Communist, Meeropol was all too familiar with social, racial, and political discrimination. Perhaps this was why he wrote under the pen name Lewis Allan, which sounded more ethnically appropriate for the Bronx, New York[2]. Perhaps this motivated him to become a schoolteacher and activist, using his screenwriting and lyric-writing skills to protest against social injustices.


            Strange Fruit is arguably Meeropol’s most famous work, because of its association with Billie Holiday. The poem, originally called Bitter Fruit, explores the ‘strange fruit’, or black bodies, that hang on a ‘southern tree’ (Todd 274). Considering Strange Fruit was written in response to Beitler’s photograph, it is reasonable to assume that the strange fruit are the bodies of Abe Smith and Thomas Shipp. The poet himself said ‘I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching, injustice, and the people who perpetrate it’ (Clark 183), though I doubt he could have predicted how his poem would become a symbol for social change, especially in giving a voice to the voiceless. Even now, 85 years on, Strange Fruit is still relevant. In American Protest Literature, for example, a chapter is named “Strange Fruit” (Todd vii)., showing just how important the poem is, especially retrospectively. Although lynching had largely subsided by 1937, when the poem was written, it demonstrates just how engrained photographs, and the events that they capture, can be in the minds of people. Seven years after the lynching, seven hundred miles from Marion, and the image still circulated.

            Whatever Meeropol’s reasons for changing the title, the shift was small but important. ‘Strange Fruit’ is more evocative than ‘Bitter Fruit’, especially considering the connotations of each. ‘Strange’ captures the otherworldliness of lynching, and the alienation of minorities compared to the American majority. The clashing images of ‘fruit’ and ‘bodies’ on a tree amplify how the latter does not belong there and should not be there, and yet they are. ‘Strange’ links to othering, the unnatural, and the dangerously unknown. This is how, in the 20th century, many Caucasians likely perceived those not of their ethnic group. ‘Bitter’, whilst still negative, dramatically shifts one’s interpretation of the poem. Its connotations- unpleasant, pungent, distasteful- suggest disapproval more than anything. It also suggests a dislike for the bodies, which could wrongly be interpreted as Meeropol’s own belief. ‘Bitter’ as an emotion also links to anger, hatred, disgust, leading me to wonder who is feeling bitter? Is it Meeropol? The lynchers? Or those who suffer? Strange Fruit, I believe, suits the poem better, highlighting the othering of the black community without any emotions being overtly attached.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the popular trees.


Pastoral scene of the gallant south,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.


Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.


            Holiday knew that such a controversial poem could only be performed somewhere equally revolutionary: Café Society. It ‘mocked the empty celebrity worship, right wing politics, and racial discrimination’ (Margolick 96) that other clubs had. Until singing Strange Fruit, Holiday was ‘known only to hardcore jazz-buffs’ (Trilling-Josephson 4). What led her to perform Strange Fruit is unclear: articles dispute whether Meeropol approached her specifically or whether Josephson heard the poem at a political meeting and thought it suited Holiday. Whatever the circumstances, she transformed it entirely: the stories of Abe Smith and Thomas Shipp came alive once more, and Meeropol’s hatred for lynching became the unanimous opinion in the club. Holiday’s performance of Strange Fruit, I believe, became the focal point of the black civil rights movement of the 1930s.

            It wasn’t as though Meeropol’s poem was the first to address black racism that was aimed at Caucasians -Andy Razaf’s Black and Blues song in 1929, for one- though it was the first to be so unrelentingly apparent. ‘Before Meeropol and Holiday came along, no one had ever confronted the subject so directly’ (Margolick 99), wrote David Margolick. A columnist for The New York Post hailed it ‘a fantastically perfect work of art, one which reversed the usual relationship between a black entertainer and her white audience’ (Margolick 101). From its recording in mid-1939, Strange Fruit took off: it became the title for novels and columns, inspired other protest songs, and forced Caucasian Americans to confront their history of blame culture and discrimination.


            But Holiday’s popularity wasn’t contained to the black civil rights movement. Frank O’Hara, an American writer, musician, and poet, published The Day Lady Died in his “Lunch Poems” collection of 1964. The nickname, Lady Day, supposedly came from her friend and music partner, Leslie Young. The poem itself differs greatly in tone from the Strange Fruit that Holiday performed. It is conversational and sequential, presumably exploring the events up to when the speaker heard of Billie Holiday’s death.  I find it interesting how Frank O’Hara, who was most successful at the end of his life, in the 1960s, was seemingly so touched to hear of her death. Was it because of his interest in jazz music? Was it because he believed in her cause? Was it because she was a public figure? And why did he publish so detailed a poem 5 years after Holiday’s death? Whatever the answer, The Day Lady Died marks just how influential Strange Fruit was, and how it succeeded in forcing Americans to re-evaluate their treatment of minorities. Truly, it became a symbol for social change.

            In my own unpublished poem, 10:57 to Tile Hill, I react to a tragic event. It isn’t comparable to America’s history of racism and blame culture, but I see a similarity to O’Hara’s poem in the sincerity and rawness of both. O’Hara recalls his day as it happens, whilst I was humbled with immense relief.

The train to Birmingham is delayed;

a man at Rugby was hit by a train.

Thoughts and prayers to those involved

and thank God that I am here still safe.

So, while others may huff and puff

and complain about how they’re in a rush,

I am thankful to still be here,

and know that everyone is doing their best.

            I include my own poetry to demonstrate how malleable the form is: it is not written for any set occasion, can explore any topic, span any time period and, most importantly, captures emotions in endless ways. Every poem is unique, even if the words aren’t. That’s why, though Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit with his own intentions in mind, I consider it different to Holiday’s rendition. Hers had a musical accompaniment, but the fundamental difference is the change of speaker. Every speaker tells a poem differently, as I’ve learnt in my study at Warwick University.

            Moving on, Seamus Heaney’s 1975 Strange Fruit might not directly relate to Meeropol’s poem, but it does similarly show the continuity and aftermath of violence, this time in a different context. It was inspired by a museum display of pre-historic bodies exhumed from a bog in Denmark, their skin preserved yet twisted. Strange Fruit expands on Heaney’s reaction to them. He sees a girl as ‘Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible’ (Heaney 12), though the cause is not expanded on. The head, I believe, bridges the gap between ancient and contemporary violence. Considering the context of Heaney’s life- the prolific Irish Troubles that peaked in the 1970s- Heaney is connecting the torture of the girl to the murders of the innocent and unaware in the Irish conflict. By unaware, I mean the young boys who signed up as soldiers or rebels without really understanding the cause that they were fighting for, for signing away their lives because of religious and political disputes between governments.


Here is the girl's head like an exhumed gourd.
Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.
They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair
And made an exhibition of its coil,
Let the air at her leathery beauty.
Pash of tallow, perishable treasure:
Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,
Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings.
Diodorus Siculus confessed
His gradual ease among the likes of this:
Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.

            Heaney, like Meeropol, is haunted by the image of a head. It looks, to him, like an ‘exhumed gourd’ (Heaney 12). ‘Strange Fruit’ might not be directly referenced in the poem, but the content certainly creates an image of one. A gourd, a twisted marrow, is no natural shape for a human head. The ‘leathery beauty’ and ‘wet fern’ of hair are equally unnatural, and undesirable. Heaney, I believe, is trying to give a voice to the voiceless- the deceased- just as Meeropol did. Society may have rejected the girl, but Heaney feels ‘reverence’.


            When Strange Fruit was published, Heaney was already a famous poet. His first collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966), marked him as a leading poet both in his generation and in Ireland. The collection explores Heaney’s upbringing, focusing on the natural world, Irish traditions, and his relationship with his community. ‘North’, his 1975 collection featuring Strange Fruit, is more politically focused. Heaney, now grounded as a voice of the nation, felt a pressure to discuss the conflicts around him. Heaney’s approach, which I deeply admire, was to explore the Troubles by detaching himself entirely from them: by using extended metaphors to discuss the horrors and injustices of war. Strange Fruit is one example, but Punishment and The Tollund Man also come to mind.

            Heaney’s Strange Fruit undeniably caused social change in Ireland in the mid-late 20th century. Irish playwright Frank McGuinness noted that ‘during the darkest days of the Northern Ireland conflict, he was our conscience: a conscience that was accurate and precise in how it articulated what was happening’ (Russel 69), demonstrating how widely resonating his work was. His exploration of the bog bodies forced readers to confront their own attitudes towards murder;; their desensitisation to violence and injustice. It also highlighted the ease of blame culture, of having a scapegoat. If that wasn’t enough, entire books have been written in Heaney’s honour, Seamus Heaney and the Classics: Bann Valley Muses for one. It explores Heaney’s place in poetry, as well as linking him to classical Greek writers. For certain, Heaney has secured his place in history as a figurehead, with poems like Strange Fruit giving a voice to the voiceless and making the common people feel represented in the face of government leadership.

            Strange Fruit has certainly made strides in social change for the better, but that doesn't erase the countless examples of oppression, injustice and violence that spanned across America and Britain in the 20th century. The change caused by a protest song doesn’t excuse the treatment against minorities and will never make up for it. There is still more to do. That being said, who could have predicted that two words would hold such power? From Beitler’s photograph to Meeropol’s protest poem, from Plath’s quick reference to the KKK to Holiday’s stunned-silence audience, from O’Hara’s touching tribute to Heaney’s enlightening voice, ‘Strange Fruit’ has impacted millions over the course of 45 years.

            Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp never should have been convicted without solid evidence, let alone lynched. But if a local photographer hadn’t captured the aftermath, social change in the 20th century might have taken a very different path. Beitler might have wanted a bit of fame for himself, Meeropol to use his emotions to fuel his activism, Holiday a song to sing with meaning, and Heaney to highlight the continuity of violence, but all key figures unknowingly collaborated to cause mass change: to give a voice to the voiceless. Certainly, I will carry their stories with me.


[1] For those interested in the alleged crimes of Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, as well as their treatment, execution and how this fuels into America’s blame culture, I highly recommend A Lynching in the heartland: race and memory in America for further reading. A reference to the text can be found in the bibliography below.

[2] This biographical information came from the online archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Though brief, I’d recommend reading it, as finding details of his life was surprisingly hard. It seems that Holiday’s Strange Fruit overshadows most details on Meeropol and his own work.






Beitler, Lawrence. Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930. Black Past, 25 April 2023, (


Madison, James H. A Lynching in the heartland: race and memory in America. Palgrave, New York, 2001, pg.4-18


More, Leonard J. Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. University of North Carolina Press, London, 1991


Rushdy, Ashraf. A. The End of American Lynching. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J, 2012. Pg. 73


Rushdy, Ashraf. A. The End of American Lynching. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J, 2012. Pg. 73


Rushdy, Ashraf. A. The End of American Lynching. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J, 2012. Pg. 72


Plath, Sylvia. “Cut”. Ariel. Faber and Faber, 1965. Pg. 23


Plath, Sylvia. “Cut”. Ariel. Faber and Faber, 1965. Pg. 23


Plath, Sylvia. “Cut”. Ariel. Faber and Faber, 1965. Pg. 24


Todd, Zoe. American Protest Literature. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 2006. Pg. 274


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Abel Meeropol “Bitter Fruit”. Perspectives USHMM, Abel Meeropol: "Bitter Fruit" | Experiencing History: Holocaust Sources in Context (, 3 May 2023


Todd, Zoe. American Protest Literature. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 2006. Pg. 274


Clark, Jeff “Strange Fruit”. Library Journal, vol 128, no. 10, 2003, pp.183


Todd, Zoe. American Protest Literature. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 2006. Pg. vii


Abel, Meeropol “Strange Fruit”, American Protest Literature, edited by Zoe Todd. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 2006. Pg. 275


Edwards, Kelsey. The Real Social Activist. Unpublished, Coventry, 2022


Gibbs, Brian “Strange Fruit”. Teaching the Present and Past of Racial Violence in the Rural South. Equity and Excellence in Education, vol. 54, no. 2, 2021, pp. 165-181


Josephson, Barney, Dan Morgenstern, and Terry Trilling-Josephson. Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, [Illinois], 2009. Pg. 9


Josephson, Barney, Dan Morgenstern, and Terry Trilling-Josephson. Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, [Illinois], 2009. Pg. 9


Margolick, David. “Performance as a Force for Change: The Case of Billie Holiday and ‘Strange Fruit.’” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, vol. 11, no. 1, 1999, pp. 91–109. JSTOR, Accessed 15 May 2023. Pg. 96


Josephson, Barney, Dan Morgenstern, and Terry Trilling-Josephson. Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, [Illinois], 2009. Pg. 4


Margolick, David. “Performance as a Force for Change: The Case of Billie Holiday and ‘Strange Fruit.’” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, vol. 11, no. 1, 1999, pp. 91–109. JSTOR, Accessed 15 May 2023. Pg. 99


Margolick, David. “Performance as a Force for Change: The Case of Billie Holiday and ‘Strange Fruit.’” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, vol. 11, no. 1, 1999, pp. 91–109. JSTOR, Accessed 15 May 2023. Pg. 101


O’Hara, Frank. Lunch Poems. Vol. no 10. City Lights, San Francisco, 1964.


Edwards, Kelsey. 10:57 to Tile Hill, unpublished, Coventry, 2023.


Heaney, Seamus. “Strange Fruit” North. Faber, London, 1975. Pg. 12


Heaney, Seamus. “Strange Fruit” North. Faber, London, 1975. Pg. 12


Russel, Richard R. Seamus Heaney: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2016. Pg. 69


Seamus Heaney and the Classics: Bann Valley Muses. Edited by S. J Harrison, Fiona Macintosh, and helen Eastman. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019

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About Kelsey

Kelsey has recently completed her second year as an English Literature with Creative Writing student at the University of Warwick. She enjoys travel, gaming and, of course, poetry.

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