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.