Despite evidence to the contrary, rumors persist that foul play was behind the deaths of four black men found hanged in Mississippi since 2000.
James Varney, Times-Picayune (LA), Jun. 20
“It sure seems like there’s a pattern here to me. The Mississippi FBI doesn’t want to investigate these cases thoroughly. You can’t ask the Mississippi FBI anyway; that’s like asking the fox to look into the chicken coop.”
— BEN CHANEY
PORTERVILLE, MISS. — They are the hanging trees: a pair of pecans, a gum and an oak, the last hidden in a thicket near a muddy stream. But were the corpses found dangling from their boughs men who had reached an emotional nadir and chosen to end their own lives, or icons of an old and evil Southern tradition: lynching?
Nick Naylor was found hanging from an oak in Kemper County in January 2003. His death shocked residents accustomed to seeing the strapping 23-year-old walking his hounds along the dusty roads that thread through the woods surrounding his family’s trailer in the shadow of an Old Highway 45 overpass. One of the dog’s chains was tied around Naylor’s neck.
The question is, who knotted it?
“I don’t know what happened, but he didn’t kill himself,” said Naylor’s mother, Rita. “Anyone will tell you the same thing: He was a nice boy; he’d help anyone he could.” She pondered her son’s demise a moment and shook her head.
“I think it was white people, I really do,” she said.
Her conviction is echoed by other black residents of Porterville. The belief that racial hatred still breeds strange fruit in Mississippi trees is shared by some relatives and friends of the three other black men known to have met that fate in different Mississippi counties since 2000, most recently in April in Woodville.
In each case, authorities have ruled the death a suicide. But although there is no concrete evidence showing a crime was committed in any of the incidents — indeed, there is evidence in all of them supporting the suicide theory — Mississippi’s history of nightriders and racial murders hangs over the discussion, polarizing opinion along racial lines.
Raynard Johnson was 17 years old, successful in school and exhibiting a lust for life, when authorities say he walked outside his Kokomo home one June night in 2000 and wrapped one end of a belt around his neck and the other around the branch of a small pecan tree in his front yard.
James McDaniels, 60, had an exemplary work record with a Jackson funeral home when he was found hanging from a gum tree on the edge of the Cedar Lawn Cemetery one August morning in 2002.
And Roy Veal was a familiar figure in the Wilkinson County clerk of courts office, researching a lawsuit to defend his family’s land, when turkey hunters in April found the 55-year-old hanging from a massive pecan tree.
Investigators and acquaintances said evidence, most of it unearthed posthumously, existed that three of the men — all but Johnson — had personal problems, ranging from romantic tensions to money worries. But none of the four talked openly about spiraling depression, the most common predictor of suicide, or were known to have sought treatment for it.
On the other hand, none of the incidents bore the grisly hallmarks of a lynching: no signs of violence, for example, or evidence that anyone else — let alone a lynching party — was present at the scene.
Lynching is murder, but it is also a symbolic act, a warning to others. Friends and family are quick to point out such terrorism can be accomplished at gunpoint, leaving no sign of violence other than the death itself. Authorities counter with the observation that no group or individual has come forward to underscore the message by claiming credit.
“There’s absolutely nothing I’ve seen to support the theory these are murders, and we need to be very careful in leaping to the conclusion these were lynchings,” said Mark Potok, editor of “Intelligence Report,” a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has gained a national reputation for its success in mercilessly tracking and destroying hate groups that have a predilection for killing minority males.
“These things are coming out of areas that have truly terrible histories, and these stories are going around, there’s no doubt about that,” Potok said. “But they’ve become like urban legends on steroids. It’s reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson case in that we see again how divided black people and white people are in their perception of the reality.”
Authorities insist there should be no such schism. Naylor, they say, had to be a suicide. He was a big man, and it would have taken more than one or two men to swing him from a tree. Neither his hands nor his feet were bound, there was no indication of a struggle, and police found what they characterized as a suicide note in his pocket.
“I was the first one on the scene, and there was nothing there indicating a crime, no tracks, nothing,” Kemper County Sheriff Samuel Tisdale said.
But Rita Naylor said the note wasn’t in her son’s handwriting, and the family has a photo of Nick in his casket with a slightly swollen right eye. Tisdale insists the grieving mother is simply wrong about the handwriting. As for the swelling, he says it was caused by the chain, not by a tussle.
Kemper County’s sheriff hardly embodies the hoary caricature of a Mississippi cop doing his best to cover up a lynching. For one thing, Tisdale is black. For another, he grew up in nearby Philadelphia, Miss., where, 40 years ago this month, three civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner — were murdered by segregationists. It was one of the most explosive incidents of the tumultuous Freedom Summer that eventually led to a more modern and integrated Mississippi. Tisdale, 52, said he had friends lynched south of Porterville in the 1970s, men found dangling from trees with their genitals ripped out. After a desultory investigation, authorities announced they had been hit by cars.
“If somebody is going around hanging black people, I want to know about that,” he said. It is inconceivable to him that Naylor, or any other black Mississippian, could be killed in such fashion with no sign of a fight.
“They’d have to shoot me first,” he said. “I’d have torn up forty acres before anyone put me in a tree.”
In the thoughts of many
Lynching, whether by hanging or other means, would be on Mississippians’ minds this year even without the four deaths. The anniversary of the Freedom Summer is one reason. Another is the decision by prosecutors to reopen an investigation into Emmett Till’s 1955 murder, in which a Chicago teenager visiting a small Mississippi town for the summer was lynched after allegedly whistling at a white shopkeeper’s wife.
A powerful photo exhibit now running at Jackson State University defines its subject, lynching, as “an extra-judicial killing that involves three or more perpetrators.” But what the pictures in the show, “Without Sanctuary,” also make clear is that, in their heyday, lynchings typically were accompanied by wanton violence and that the community, and sometimes the perpetrators themselves, rarely made an effort to conceal what had happened. In the vintage photographs on display, grinning crowds gather around victims who have been whipped or charred alive. Sometimes the victims’ limbs are twisted at grotesque angles, and almost invariably chains or ropes have cut into their wrists and ankles.
Monique Guillory, the Jackson State administrator who brought “Without Sanctuary” to the campus, has heard of the latter-day hangings and the irrepressible rumor that they, too, are lynchings. It’s a theory she can’t entirely dismiss. “There may be a probability or even a likelihood that these are all suicides,” she said, “but there is seemingly an inordinate number of African-American males choosing to hang themselves.”
As to the differences between the old-style lynchings in the photo exhibit and the absence of mutilation and other signs of savagery in the recent hangings, Guillory notes that many African-Americans in the state think hate groups may have become more surreptitious as their ideas become less mainstream. That could explain the relatively sanitary style of the recent killings: “For the very practical reason that you aren’t able to do it in the open anymore,” Guillory said.
“Fortunately,” she said, “I think society has changed enough that if it were known that the Klan, say, did this, there would be an outcry and they wouldn’t be able to get away with it. You know that racism isn’t going to play itself out like it did 60 years ago, but it hasn’t disappeared either.”
Guillory’s analysis hews to historical logic, but those more familiar with the cases say it doesn’t fit them.
“There was so much evidence pointing to this as a suicide,” said Danny Knight, who handled Naylor’s case for the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. Kemper County convened a grand jury after Naylor’s body was discovered, and Knight led the majority-black group into the Hopewell Road woods to the site.
Less than a mile away in downtown Porterville, black men sat recently on a porch in the shimmering summer heat, gazing at rusted boxcars and espousing their certainty that Naylor was murdered.
“They closed the case as a suicide, but he wouldn’t have done that,” said Johnny Jackson, 61, who is convinced that angry hunters attacked Naylor for disturbing their game. “I thought it from the beginning, and I still think that.”
Knight countered with equal conviction.
“Nothing was disturbed,” he said. “You could see where he had climbed up the tree. It was tragic, but for some reason a lot of families don’t want to acknowledge it was suicide.”
If the rumor mill is churning vigorously among black Mississippians, it may be in part because authorities have retreated into silence rather than argue their findings more publicly. The Hinds County coroner who handled McDaniels’ death in a Jackson cemetery, said through an assistant that the case is closed and declined to return several phone calls. Elsewhere, Wilkinson County Sheriff Reginald Jackson is no longer talking about the Veal case, and the FBI rejected an interview request.
Knight, for his part, contends he was determinedly forthcoming about the Naylor case. “I sat down with the family, I kept the NAACP abreast of what was happening in the case. But it’s true, there’s a race element here. You do run up against that problem that the African-American community has some issues with the word of law enforcement. Basically, some on the white side won’t believe it, while some on the black side won’t believe it, plus say it’s a coverup.”
Suicide facts, theories
Veal’s death is a case in point. Since his body was discovered, rumors and fictionalized details spread mostly on the Internet have fueled suspicion. Weeks have passed and no agency claims to be in charge. At first, Sheriff Jackson left no doubt he and his deputies, all of whom are black, thought Veal’s death was a suicide. Derek Johnson, who heads the NAACP in Mississippi, said he was satisfied after a two-hour meeting with Jackson that Veal had killed himself.
Now, however, Jackson won’t return phone calls. His office provides only a tape-recorded message that says the FBI is handling matters. The FBI’s Jackson office, however, denies it. In a May 19 letter, acting special agent in charge William Jenkins said all the deaths were suicides. Further, the FBI was “apprised of all developments” in the four cases to determine whether any crimes were committed and whether a federal investigation was warranted, the letter said.
The FBI’s conclusion: No evidence of criminal activity; no need for a probe. Jenkins’ certitude, however, has not converted skeptics. One of them is Ben Chaney, brother of the Chaney killed in 1964. Chaney, who is black — Goodman and Schwerner were white — runs a civil rights organization in New York named after his brother, the James Earl Chaney Foundation. The group assisted a federal investigation in 1993 into more than 43 Mississippi jail hangings, most involving black prisoners. To the dismay of prisoner rights groups, the probe concluded the rash of hanging deaths were suicides and blamed them on jail crowding and other conditions. Chaney plans to attend an anniversary ceremony today for his brother and the other Philadelphia victims, and said he will then open an office in Meridian to examine the suicides.
“It sure seems like there’s a pattern here to me,” Chaney said. “The Mississippi FBI doesn’t want to investigate these cases thoroughly. You can’t ask the Mississippi FBI anyway; that’s like asking the fox to look into the chicken coop.”
John Steele also grew up in Philadelphia, Miss., in the 1960s. Steele, who lives in California, is organizing a memorial there for one of the several black churches torched during that time. He thinks the recent hangings are an extension of those that occurred in the jails. His theory is that the men were murdered, then strung up to make it look like a suicide.
While he has no evidence to buttress his theory, he said he’s been handicapped by no longer being in Mississippi. He left in 2002 after he says people tried three times to run him off the road in Neshoba County and then left a dead raccoon with a rope tied around its neck on his front lawn.
“We decided it was best I moved out of there,” he said. “We believe this is the Klan doing this.”
Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan is still around. Its members marched in Philadelphia this year, and planned a march in Kemper County two years ago, but they are a malleable group compared with the fiery cloaked killers of yore. “I talked to them on the phone and told them I’d appreciate it if they didn’t come, and they didn’t,” Sheriff Tisdale recalled.
The Klan chapters in Mississippi today aren’t doing much more than heightening local tension, Potok said. The modern Klan, he said, generally eschews lethal tactics and the increased likelihood they’ll get prosecuted for them.
“It’s very unusual for groups like the Klan to be involved in murders now,” Potok said, citing incidents in which Klan factions or other hate groups were dismantled or rendered defunct by ensuing investigations. “You just don’t see groups, outside of crime families, planning many major felonies anymore.”
On the other hand, as Guillory said, “there isn’t a whole lot of evidence supporting suicide either.”
“These happened in small towns, country places where people know each other,” she said. “And these were people just living their lives who suddenly did this? To tell you the truth, if there was someone there saying, ‘We knew that boy was up to no good,’ I’d feel better.”
Although statistics on methods of suicide aren’t tracked, the number of them is. And the statistics make these Mississippi cases seem even more uncommon.
“It’s much rarer with blacks than it is with whites,” said Ken Kochanic, who reviews mortality data for the statistics branch of the National Institutes of Health. “In the black community, it’s not as accepted, it’s seen as something you just don’t do.”
Nationwide statistics, however, show that while suicide has decreased as a cause of death overall, it has inched up among black men. In 1950, for example, the suicide rate for American males was 21.2 per 100,000; the rate declined to 18.2 in 2001, the last year for which the NIH statistics are available. Although the suicide rates for black men overall are much lower, they do show an increase of more than 70 percent between 1950 and 1990, when the rate topped 12 per 100,000 residents. It tapered off to 10 per 100,000 residents in 2000 and 9.8 in 2001, according to NIH tables.
Mississippi’s rate of black male suicide has roughly tracked the national trend, rising from 7.6 per 100,000 in 1979 to 11.2 and 10.1 in 1999 and 2000, respectively. Still, those rates are down from the peak years of 1991 to 1995, when the age-adjusted rate topped 12, and 2001 showed another drop to 7.8, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Yet another component of lynching as defined in the Jackson State exhibit seems missing from most of the recent cases. It is that “the victim is alleged to have committed a crime or broken a social code.” In Naylor’s case, family members believe that his habit of tramping around in the woods with his dogs, scaring off game, irritated a local hunting club to the point the hunters strung him up. With Veal, conspiracy thinkers say a supposed lust for untapped oil on the family property drove the killers. Myriad Web sites proclaim Veal’s death a lynching, one stemming from land disputes between white and black people that have percolated for generations.
In McDaniels’ death, however, that key element is lacking. There is no evidence he had done anything, criminal or otherwise, that would have triggered a lynching.
Today, the Cedar Lawn Cemetery sits in emerald serenity in Jackson’s southwest corner. Its caretaker staff is composed exclusively of black men, who retreat from the afternoon sun and gather in a garage, their green uniforms faded and weathered with sweat at cuff and collar. Most of them flash inscrutable smiles when a white man shows up and asks if they thought McDaniels committed suicide.
“You can’t never tell about people,” said Sherman Johnson, the 75-year-old cemetery worker who discovered McDaniels’ body hanging from a tree along the cemetery’s western edge. “I wonder sometimes, but you or me could snap and a man’s supposed to talk about what he knows and I don’t know whether he did or didn’t.”
One of McDaniels’ best friends, 35-year-old Leon Sandirfer, thinks the official version is correct.
“When I came down here that morning and was looking at him myself, I said, ‘Yes, I think he killed himself,’” Sandirfer recalled, gazing at the tree, which has been trimmed back and looks hardly strong enough to support a grown man’s weight.
“Just from knowing him, I’d say no one was going to get up on him,” Sandirfer said with a smile. “He was kind of an ornery fellow, and he’d have had to already been dead before he’d let somebody do that to him.”
What’s more, some familiar with McDaniels’ personal situation say privately that he may have been profoundly depressed. Although his employers at the Wright-Ferguson Funeral Home praised his work, he reportedly moonlighted as a janitor and that work was not going well. In addition, he reportedly was trying to juggle romantic ties to three women.
Romantic complications also are woven into accounts of Raynard Johnson’s last hours. To this day, his family members never use the word “suicide.” They speak of it as a murder and hark back to associated events as occurring “around the time Raynard was killed.”
It was widely known that Johnson had a romantic interest in one or more local white girls. Today, at least one white resident still thinks those entanglements, rather than inexorable depression, led to his death.
“He was the nicest kid, there’s no way he hanged himself,” said the resident, who requested anonymity. “I think he got into a fight because he was dating a white girl, they killed him, and then they hung him up there to distract attention from what they did.”
But interracial dating is not that unusual today in Marion County, according to several residents, black and white. Johnson’s brother and best friend, Roger Johnson, depicts their boyhood as idyllic. They hunted deer in the woods around the family home and built a shack that became a kind of clubhouse for friends of both races.
Roger Johnson, 25, thinks white men waylaid his brother outside his front door because some of his dates were white girls. There is no love lost between him and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Roger said; some of the deputies were hostile to the Johnson brothers’ romantic successes. Johnson described a hasty local investigation, and said his brother’s key ring, minus his house keys, were found in a car stripped for parts in the back yard. His body was suspended from a belt the family swears he didn’t own.
“Suicide is out of the question,” Johnson said, studying the tree outside the home, which the Johnsons have since left and which now stands dilapidated. “I think it was the Klan. There’s a lot of them around here, and the Klan’s not like it used to be. It’s more secretive now and not burning crosses and all that crap.”
Despite the family’s certainty, at least three autopsy reports, one done by a New Orleans doctor hired by the Johnsons, all ruled the death a suicide. Again, there was no evidence of a brawl, no outward signs of violence on the young man’s body, no tire tracks or footprints leading investigators to think another person was at the tree that night.
But nothing will convince the family that a vigorous young man, successful at school as well as in his social life, would walk outside and hang himself.
“Hell, no,” another brother, Rondell Johnson, said in disgust when asked if he thought his brother took his own life. That said, he saw no point in further discussion. His parting shot: “This is Mississippi and ain’t nothing going to change that.”
As the sun began to set and Roger Johnson turned back to the car that had brought him to the abandoned home where his brother died, he said he holds no animus against white people in general for what he thinks happened. And he quickly dismissed the suggestion that, as with the black-white split over O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence, race is predictive of the divergent views on Mississippi’s curious cluster of hanging deaths.
“Oh, c’mon,” he said, dismissing the analogy. “You know damn well O.J. killed those people.”