There is no more powerful image in the South than that of a black man’s body hanging from a tree. Though the practice of lynching reached its peak during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea continues to haunt, explaining in part why the case of Otis Byrd has captured the nation’s attention.
Law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times that early results from the autopsy were leading investigators to believe the death was a suicide, though a final determination wasn’t expected until next week. “It looks like that,” said the official, who asked not to be identified, adding “that’s where they are headed” -- with a finding of suicide.
But regardless of the cause of death, a body found in such a way arouses strong emotions especially in rural Mississippi, with its history of racial strife and lynchings.
“I’m 57 years old and that’s the first time I’ve seen anything like that. I’ve never heard of a lynching in Claiborne County,” said Sheriff Marvin Lucas, who along with state and federal officials, is investigating Byrd’s death.
“In the South, we do have a history of whites lynching blacks. But this is 2015,” Lucas said.
A lynching is any illegal effort by a mob, usually associated in the South with white supremacist groups enforcing Jim Crow laws and mores that separated the races and were designed to keep blacks in an inferior position.
Estimates vary, but the studies show that there were 4,742 lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Of those, about 3,400 were lynchings of blacks and 1,297 were of whites, mainly allies of civil rights efforts, according to Mark Potok, senior fellow of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group. Mississippi has had the most lynchings, with 581.
The manner of death usually, but not always, involved hanging. Civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were shot to death for working for voting rights. Viola Liuzzo was shot to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama after the Selma march in 1965.
About seven months before Byrd’s death, the body of Lennon Lacy, a black 17-year-old, was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina. That case was initially ruled a suicide but the FBI recently said it was looking into the death.
The body of Frederick Jermaine Carter, 26, was found in 2010 hanging from an oak tree in the predominantly white North Greenwood area of Leflore County, Miss. That death was ruled a suicide, though the family questioned the decision.
There have been a handful of similar cases in the last decade, Potok said, but none were found to have been racially motivated killings, despite “real fears through the black communities around these deaths.”
“There have been rumors the men were dating white women, that police were covering up,” Potok said. “But there has never been a shred of evidence that these suicides were anything other than suicides.”
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