Josh Edwards / The Vicksburg Evening Post / AP Photo

Black man's body found hanging from a tree in Mississippi

FBI, state and local authorities are investigating the death; NAACP calls for probe as a racial hate crime

Federal, state and local authorities are investigating the hanging death of a black man in Mississippi who had been missing for more than two weeks, the FBI said Thursday.

The man, who authorities did not identify, was found in a wooded area in Claiborne County in western Mississippi, about half a mile from his home, said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Pack in a statement.

The investigation involves the FBI, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's office. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is also involved.

The state chapter of the NAACP identified the man as Otis James Byrd, 54, and called for an investigation into his death as a hate crime.

“Considering Mr. Byrd’s body was found hanging from a tree, we are calling on Federal authorities to immediately investigate to determine whether his death is a result of a racial hate crime,” stated Derrick Johnson, State President Mississippi NAACP.

Lynching, or extrajudicial public execution by hanging, was not uncommon in parts of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to a report from the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) said its researchers documented nearly 4,000 lynchings of African-Americans in 12 states during the Jim Crow era — about 700 more than previous comprehensive studies have found.

The man was last seen March 2 and was reported missing by his family days later, Pack said adding that the cause of death has not been determined, and authorities aren't sure if it's a homicide or a suicide.

Jim Walker, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, told The Associated Press that the body was found by the department's officers while they were searching for Byrd, a resident of Port Gibson, Mississippi.

Walker said that about 25 minutes after the officers started the search, they found the body hanging in the woods about 200 yards from Byrd's house.

Walker said the body had "obvious signs" of decomposition, indicating it had been hanging there for more than one day.

The body was hanging from the tree by a sheet, about three feet off the ground, according to The Vicksburg Post.

Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas Sr. said a positive identification will not be available until the completion of an autopsy, which he said also should help determine whether the death was a homicide or a suicide. 

J.W. Mallett, the coroner, said the body had been sent to the state crime lab for an autopsy, and that visual identification was nearly impossible, according to Mississippi News Now.

Johnie Baker, 87, who owns the land where the body was found, did not accompany authorities on the search. He described it as an area of pecan and black walnut trees, frequented by hunters and home to several wild hogs.

The incident comes seven months after a 17-year-old black male named Lennon Lacy was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina, in a case local authorities initially ruled a suicide but which the FBI announced in December it was probing as suspicious.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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