Hanging deaths in US South recall painful history

A series of mysterious incidents have prompted difficult questions about race and justice

Claudia Lacy addresses a crowd at the First Baptist Church in Bladenboro, N.C., on Dec. 1, 2014, four months after her son was found hanging from a swing set.
Raul R. Rubiera / The Fayetteville Observer / AP

When a black teenager was found hanging from a swing set by a belt that was not his own one morning late last summer, the first thought by his friends, family, and community was that it wasn’t a suicide. Lennon Lacy, they believe, was lynched.

Now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched a probe into the death, which the coroner in Bladen County, North Carolina, initially ruled a suicide based on evidence his family says is circumstantial: that he was distraught over the recent death of his uncle.

“It’s nonsense. Yes he was depressed, but he was grieving just like his other siblings,” said Rev. Gregory Taylor, a family friend who gave the uncle’s eulogy the day before Lacy’s body was discovered in his hometown of Bladenboro. “In the African-American community where we deal with grief openly and emotionally, doesn’t mean we are clinically depressed.”

The Lacy death is not the first hanging death of a black person in the South in recent years that the FBI investigated as a possible hate crime, nor was it the last. In late March, when Otis Byrd, 54, was found hanging by a bedsheet in the woods of Claiborne County, Mississippi, the agency stepped in to take over the case. Like Lacy, Byrd showed no sign of despondency, friends said. He was reportedly getting his life back together after his parole in 2006 following more than two decades in state prison for a murder committed during a robbery. In April his family hired Michael Baden, an independent pathologist, to independently examine Byrd’s police, medical and autopsy records. Baden is known for his work on numerous high-profile cases, including the reinvestigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination and the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri.

Lynching is vigilante killing, typically by hanging, that is intended not only to punish the victim but also to transmit a larger message to others, warning them of a similar fate. Data varies for how many lynchings took place before the Civil Rights era: In February, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, released a report tabulating 3,959 victims of what they called “racial terror lynchings” of black men and women in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. The organization is planning a campaign to erect markers at the sites where the lynchings occurred.

Lynching in the Deep South was used to separate the races and prevent blacks from crossing societal lines or, in later years, from taking advantage of basic rights such as organizing and voting.

“You literally lived in fear of your life and that wasn’t a joke or a rare thing. It was pervasive,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. Potok says that for blacks in the South today, the legacy of lynching is never far in the distance, and concern often intensifies when a hanged body is found and the cause of death is not known.

“We are seeing the fruits of our poisonous history. These kinds of fears are so deep and so dark that they don’t go away,” he said.

Many hangings deaths of young black men in recent years have been called into suspicion both by family members and local chapters of the NAACP. They include 23-year-old Nick Naylor of Kemper County, Mississippi, who was found hanging by a leash from a tree in January 2003 after telling his family he was going out to walk his dogs. Another case involves 17-year-old Raynard Johnson of Marion County, Mississippi, who was found hanging from a tree in his own front yard in June 2000. The FBI was also called in to investigate that case, but findings were inconclusive.

The Lacy death is not the first hanging death of a black person in the South in recent years that the FBI investigated as a possible hate crime, and it wasn’t the last.

What connects these cases is that they took place in rural areas and involved young black men who didn’t leave behind a suicide note or behave in ways that suggested they were troubled. Often, there is circumstantial evidence that doesn’t match up. For example, Lacy’s body was found in response to a tip from a 911 caller who said she would cut him down. When authorities arrived, the belt used to hang him did not have any cuts and there were no beams on the swing set that Lacy could have used to climb high enough to hang himself. A report written by an independent pathologist hired by the NAACP challenges how local law enforcement handled the case and says the suicide finding by the county coroner is not conclusive.

Lacy had a girlfriend who was white, and Johnson and his brother were reportedly close to two white girls as well. For some, those details summon harsh memories of the infamous 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago teenager who was killed and dumped into a river in Money, Mississippi, after flirting with a white woman. His death, and the acquittal of the two men who later confessed to the act, is remembered as a galvanizing moment in the Civil Rights movement.

While these cases inflame tensions rooted in an earlier era, data show that hate crimes have fallen over the last decade. According to FBI statistics, the total number of incidents fell 26 percent between 2000 and 2013, to 5,928. Likewise, the Southern Law Poverty Center reports that the total number of hate groups in the US is down to 784, its lowest since 2005. The reason, they say, is that extremists have gone underground and now connect with one another online.

Yet despite a downturn in racially motivated crimes, general bigotry is becoming more pervasive in daily life, according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino. That’s because of a combination of factors, such as the mainstreaming of prejudice following the election of President Barack Obama and the rise of social media that gives users anonymity to freely spew hatred online, from Twitter to media message boards. News stories have also revealed that high-profile figures such as NBA owner Donald Sterling privately use language that demeans black people. In March, a video showing white University of Oklahoma students singing a song about lynching blacks corroborated data published in The Washington Post this month finding that members of the Millennial generation are as likely to be racist as their parents are.

As more of these stories appear, the more they confirm for some that overt racism is growing.

“People are more likely to tweet the ‘N-word’ than they are to burn a cross nowadays,” Levin said. “We’re much more likely to see a Donald Sterling than a Grand Wizard.”

Shaune Walters, left to right, Shawn Elliott Richardson and Cassandra Ottley link arms following a march to honor the memory of Lennon Lacy on Dec. 13, 2014, in Bladenboro, N.C
Andrew Craft / The Washington Post / Getty Images

The recent police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and North Charleston, South Carolina, have also confirmed fears among black people that the law enforcement tasked to investigate hangings are not to be trusted. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Ferguson police department, for example, revealed extreme racial bias in emails, including jokes targeting African-Americans.

Other instances are adding to the perception. In March, the assistant fire chief of Marion, Indiana, was suspended for tossing a noose at a black firefighter for a reason that was never explained. Marion is where two brothers were lynched in 1930, an incident that inspired the Billie Holiday protest song “Strange Fruit.”

For these reasons, Levin says blacks are justified for at least questioning whether or not a hanging could be a lynching.

In Bladenboro, located 40 miles south of Fayetteville, the majority of the town’s population of 1,750 people is white and just 19 percent of residents are black. Taylor of First Baptist Church of Bladenboro said that when nearly 800 people marched in December to protest law enforcement’s handling of the Lacy case, most of the town’s businesses closed early for the day.

He said the reaction proved whites in Bladenboro are “scared of the black people.” But he then suggested that the reverse is also true. Most of the blacks in town are employed by white business owners who have made it known that they are upset at the growing tension.

His church regularly holds local NAACP meetings to get updates on the FBI investigation. He says that people are prepared to accept the conclusion that Lacy died by suicide. What they need is an answer from someone they trust.

“We have confidence they will do a thorough investigation, that’s all we’ve been asking,” he said. “People are being patient.”

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