News / USA

    Mississippi Hanging Death Raises Lynching Specter

    Otis Byrd, 54, is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the Mississippi Department of Corrections in Jackson, March 20, 2015.
    Otis Byrd, 54, is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the Mississippi Department of Corrections in Jackson, March 20, 2015.
    Molly McKitterick

    Authorities in the Southern U.S. state of Mississippi are trying to determine whether a black man found hanging by a bed sheet Thursday about a half-mile from his rural home committed suicide or was lynched.

    Lynching is the practice of killing - usually by hanging - outside of the legal system.  It is different from homicide in that it is intended to spread terror among a certain population.

    Lynching has a long and ugly history in the United States where it was notably used to persecute black Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Otis Byrd, 54, had been last seen March 2 at a casino in Vicksburg, about 36 miles from Port Gibson, where he lived. Port Gibson is a town of just over 1,500 people in Claiborne County, near the western border of Mississippi.

    On March 8, his family reported his absence to local authorities, who organized a search. Wildlife officials were looking for Byrd as part of the search when they found him deep in the woods, hanging from a branch at least 12 feet from the ground.

    The Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called on federal authorities "to immediately investigate the hanging death of Mr. Otis Byrd to determine whether or not his death is the result of a hate crime.”

    The federal government responded quickly Thursday. The FBI sent a forensics team to the scene, and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney's office also began investigating.

    "We simply don't know enough facts," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told television network MSNBC on Thursday. "We do have substantial federal presence to determine what the facts are."

    Byrd was well-known to local law enforcement officials. He was convicted in 1980 of murdering a woman and had served almost 26 years in prison before his release. Since then, he had been required to check in with the Claiborne County sheriff as a condition of his parole.

    His hanging came seven months after a 17-year-old black teenager was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina. Authorities initially ruled Lennon Lacy's death a suicide, but the FBI continues to investigate the case.

    Lynching — the extrajudicial killing of a person, generally by an informal group — has a long and ugly history in the United States. It was notably used to persecute blacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then largely vanished in the 1960s.

    The practice is associated with economic stress and social flux. It was most prevalent in Southern states with large black populations where the American Civil War caused social and economic upheaval.

    The archives of the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University in Alabama, have recorded that between 1882 and 1968,  3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched.

    During that time, every U.S. state experienced at least one lynching. In Mississippi, there were 581 — more than in any other state.

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    Comment Sorting
    by: Markus Magness
    March 22, 2015 12:24 PM
    Having been taught to believe all lynchings were done by whites to kill blacks in the south I grew up indoctrinated to believe all southerners are racist.
    It makes me angry how badly I was duped, and so many others. No one EVER taught me Lynching was a common method to dispense "justice" among all people, black or white.
    Not even half the lynchings of blacks were done by whites.
    The worst to come from this is that blacks from my era were taught to believe the same thing. Its no wonder they play the victim card so often....they were taught they are "victims".
    In Response

    by: Starr from: Fl
    April 16, 2015 9:47 PM
    How could you say it wasn't taught to you? Perhaps you was absent that week. Every old and even recent cowboy movie has the rustler being "strung up" The term " string him up boys" is a cliché. Your lack of knowledge is because of personal lacking, and not because of the, admittedly less than adequate school system

    by: jason from: texas
    March 20, 2015 10:44 PM
    This article is a bit misleading about lynching and its origins. The police force we have today evolved because of lynchings.
    Lynching is how communities dealt with crime(s), far before the 18th century and the birth of the United States. Because of so many lynchings of innocent people and the cruelty it imposed, policing was eventually introduced. Lynchings absolutely did not start over racism.

    - Academic Science graduate of Criminal Justice

    by: steve from: mich
    March 20, 2015 10:18 PM
    A loss of life is traject to someone somewheres all of the time. Don't play games, put forensics to work right away and stop the speculation.

    by: chaplain Detwiler from: york Haven PA
    March 20, 2015 10:07 PM
    Seems there is nothing wrong with looking for information online as well as checking library for useful books BUT don't assume lynching your resources make it seem that is what you wanted because his prison term and his race the comments to keep the pot boiling between bulk and whites stinks.

    by: Charles M from: VA
    March 20, 2015 9:10 PM
    It is irresponsible to run a headline inferring that this could be a lynching when, late in the article, it points out that lynching went away in the 60's. Yes, of course, there is a remote possibility that this was a lynching but, since that practice hasn't been seen in the US for 50 YEARS, the odds are vanishingly small. Far more likely that he committed suicide, but that doesn't fit the VOA mindset that race relations in the US haven't improved since the 60's.

    VOA is supposed to provide honest reporting o the world with some context to enable foreign audiences to understand the US. Instead, this article promotes misunderstanding by inserting the author's (and presumably the editors') biases. You do the US a disservice.
    In Response

    by: Charles M from: VA
    March 22, 2015 2:18 AM
    James Russell Nemitz: Look at paragraph 11 which states (not infers): "It was notably used to persecute blacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then largely vanished in the 1960s."

    It seems that you were more intent on your ad hominem attack on me than actually reading the article.

    No one says we are perfect, but I've lived in eight countries around the world during my working life and the US is by far the most enlightened in terms of race relations and equality of the sexes. The fact is that lynching is a awful part of our past, but it is truly a part of our past. The VOA shares your mindset that it is not, but that is not borne out in the crime statistics published by the DoJ or any other reputable research institution. The world evolves but some people do not.
    In Response

    by: James Russell Nemitz from: Houston TX
    March 20, 2015 11:02 PM
    Firstly, the article does not state or even infer that lynching ended 50 years ago. It simply referenced a study by Tuskegee University that ended its studies timeline in 1968 and then also referenced that during that time frame Mississippi had the worst record of lynching in the country. It is irresponsible not to investigate this or any similar death as a hate crime. I think that we all, especially we white americans, would like to think that our "Great Nation" has grown past our very racist past, but all we have to do is look at the news to see that we are far less evolved as nation than we think. It is unfortunately people like yourself who live with biased blinders on who keep us from truely growing from our past nightmarish mistakes.

    by: Robert Parent from: United States
    March 20, 2015 8:30 PM
    Rene Marie does a great new rendition of the song "Strange Fruit". If you never heard Billie Holliday's version ...or even if you have.... This is a great new version. I highly recommend!

    by: John
    March 20, 2015 8:24 PM
    "Byrd was well-known to local law enforcement officials. He was convicted in 1980 of murdering a woman and had served almost 26 years in prison before his release."
    Frankly, his earlier biography makes it hard to care whether he hanged himself or was hanged by someone.
    In Response

    by: Cindy
    March 23, 2015 9:31 AM
    Well, you fell for the distraction. He served his time and his life matters. I am thankful that they are investigating this by the FBI.
    In Response

    by: Markus Magness
    March 22, 2015 12:36 PM

    And people like you continue to ignore personal responsibility. I am sure criminals are very glad they have a wonderful person like you to help them feel more comfortable to commit crime.
    Please don't talk of this country like you are a patriot, you are not.
    In Response

    by: Tina from: USA
    March 20, 2015 9:52 PM
    It is a disgrace to say that about another human being. This man mattered to his family and friends. You nor I are perfect, so if you died would it matter to people who loved you? This is why hate is so prevalent in our country. It's a shame people feel they can deem who is worthy of living and those not. SMH!!
    In Response

    by: Jason from: Virginia
    March 20, 2015 9:41 PM
    I feel the same way....he might have met his end at the hands of his murder victims family and loved ones...revenge and payback are quite certainly possible and logical conclusions

    by: Sarah Carmichael from: earth
    March 20, 2015 8:24 PM
    since we don't know the facts I'm just going to say this in general.... If it were a lynching it is a disgrace and should be condemned by Americans. Acts of hate. We are not going back to a time when this was the norm. Shame on anyone taking delight in deaths of any kind.
    In Response

    by: Tina from: USA
    March 20, 2015 9:59 PM
    Sarah, I couldn't agree with you more!! It seems like if you are not wealthy and worthwhile in society, than you do not matter. It has become a sad, sad world we now live in.

    by: CHARLIE from: California
    March 20, 2015 8:20 PM
    A 19 year old White girl was burned alive near Pianola Mississippi last year. There are no clues and there was no FBI investigation.
    In Response

    by: Tina from: USA
    March 20, 2015 9:56 PM
    Charlie, I feel that is so wrong. Her life mattered to someone! It is such a shame no one cared enough to investigate and attempt to bring some type of justice for this young woman. So sad.

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