James Cameron, Hero

I’m fascinated by stories of forgiveness, and I just discovered another one that needs to be told: the biography of James Cameron.

When he was 16, he and a couple slightly older friends decided one night to pull a carjacking. His buddies gave him a gun. But when he approached the young unsuspecting couple sitting in a parked car on the side of the road, he recognized the young man, panicked, and started running; he didn’t stop until he got home, but, not long after he fled the site, he heard gunshots. His buddies had shot the young man, and he died. Cameron and his buddies were arrested later that night and thrown into jail. The next night, a crowd of angry citizens surrounded the jail, broke in, and dragged out Cameron and his buddies. His buddies were both lynched. The mob leaders, many affiliated with the local KKK, had the rope around Cameron’s neck too, ready to hoist him from a tree branch in the town square, but miraculously they changed their minds and let him return to the jail.

By now you’ve figured out that Cameron and his buddies were African-American. But would you have guessed that this happened in Marion, Indiana? It sounds like another story from the deep South, but it occurred in the Midwest heartland, in 1930.

Based on a coerced confession, James Cameron was convicted by an all-white jury of accessory to murder and sentenced to prison. He was 16, and he served nearly five years, witnessing more abuse and violence while in prison. He could have emerged an angry, hardened man, but he didn’t. While in prison, he went through phases where he felt hatred towards all white people, where he vowed to seek revenge as soon as he was released, where he planned to devote his life to crime. But he was also starting to see God, in the beauty of creation, in his mother’s love, in the kindness of a sheriff who went out of his way to befriend him. As he says, “I was beginning to heal.” He came to a point where he realized that not all white people were bad, but he felt like he couldn’t acknowledge that to anyone but his mother, because it would look like betrayal.

After serving his two-year minimum, and despite being a model prisoner, he kept being denied parole. (He later learned that one member of the parole board was a KKK leader.) At first, he was bitter, but he began reading his Bible, finding comfort in the Psalms. He finally promised God that, once released, he would put aside all thoughts of committing crimes: “I would be the kind of person God wanted me to be.”

Cameron kept that vow. He devoted the rest of his life to racial justice, serving for years as a leader in the NAACP, and establishing what he called America’s Black Holocaust Museum. He was a model husband, father and citizen. Decades after his conviction, he petitioned the Indiana governor and was granted a pardon. And the brother of the gunshot victim was able to forgive Cameron.

Cameron tells his story in his autobiography, A Time of Terror. It’s not preachy, or evangelistic. It’s not even that religious; it’s a matter-of-fact account of an amazing story. Cameron doesn’t portray himself as either a hero or a pitiful victim, but in my view, his ability to forgive is heroic. He modeled Jesus’ command in the Lord’s Prayer, “… we forgive those who trespass against us.”

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