Black History Month: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and the Civil Rights Movement

Photo by William Gottlieb.

Tonight on All Night Jazz, for Black History Month, Steve Splane recalls how a single song, performed by singer Billie Holiday, helped spur the civil rights movement.

By Ryan Scates/WUSF

“Strange Fruit” is a towering, legendary song in the history of black music and one with an interesting history.

The song, which originated as a poem, was written by Abel Meeropol, a child of Russian-Jewish immigrants and a member of the American Communist Party.

Meeropol was inspired to write the poem after seeing a photograph, taken by Lawrence Beitler, of a 1930 lynching in Indiana.

Holiday first performed and recorded the song in 1939. It would become her signature song.

“Strange Fruit” depicted one of the most horrific blights in American history, in stark graphic detail.

Southern trees bearing a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Described by David Margolick in his book “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” as “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement” and by famed songwriter E.Y. Harburg as “a historic document,” “Strange Fruit” was a revolutionary and bold call to action against racism thanks to this dark, moody performance by Holiday.