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The Hanging Death of a Black Man Stirred Up Old Racial Fears in Mississippi

When 54-year-old Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree in this former hotbed of racial terrorism, many people suspected foul play—even though the authorities say his death was a suicide.

When Claiborne County Sheriff Marvin Lucas saw a black man's body hanging from a locust tree on the outskirts of Port Gibson, Mississippi, in March, the possibility of a lynching immediately came to mind.

Lucas, who is black, later said that he had no particular reason to believe 54-year-old Otis James Byrd had been lynched, and that he had personally never heard of a lynching in his county. But because black lynchings are seared into Mississippi's history, the thought was inescapable.

"It's still Mississippi," Lucas told VICE. "We've still got that shadow from the past."

The state holds the record for the largest number of lynchings in the United States—581—with the most recent documented case dating to 1959, when Mack Charles Parker, accused of raping a white woman in Pearl River County, was dragged from his jail cell by a mob, beaten, and shot to death, according to the Mississippi Civil Rights Project.

The possibility that Byrd's death was just that sort of hate crime loomed over the investigation by local, state, and federal law enforcement agents, led by the US Justice Department, which concluded on Friday that no crime was committed.

But closure isn't quite that simple. Early on, Lucas predicted that some would not be convinced even if the feds ruled out the possibility of murder. Indeed, in a place like Mississippi, racial profiling can go the other way: When a black man is found hanging from a tree, suspicion inevitably turns to whites.

Officials with the FBI and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) pursued every lead and regularly met with Byrd's family during the investigation, according to Don Alway, special agent in charge of the FBI in Mississippi, who told the Associated Press on April 8 that investigators had shared Byrd's autopsy results with his relatives. At that time Alway did not publicly disclose the results, and the family hired attorney Dennis Sweet, as well as their own investigator.

Sweet responded to Friday's DOJ announcement by telling VICE, "The family does not believe that it was a suicide. The family believes that Byrd was murdered. We will continue to do our own independent investigation."

Lucas, who undertook the initial investigation before bringing in state and federal authorities, said that if an independent probe produced new evidence that pointed to the possibility of a crime, he would support reopening the case. "Of course," he said. "Ain't no doubt. If there was something that was brought to light, we'd open it up in a heartbeat."

But the Sheriff added that based upon the information available, he did not believe a crime occurred. "There was no evidence of any kind of homicide, illegal activity, or that any law had been broken," he said. "There was no indication that any crime had been committed."

Still, rumors and conspiracy theories have abounded in Byrd's case. On comment sections in stories about his death and elsewhere, you can find speculation that he was killed by someone to whom he owed money, or in retribution—presumably by whites—for a murder he committed and was convicted of in 1980.

On VICE News: Motive Still a Mystery in Killing of Two Mississippi Police Officers

It's not surprising that such a sense of unease and distrust lingers in the air. Suspicions still hover over the death of black teenager Raynard Johnson, whose body was found hanging by a belt in the yard of his family's home in Kokomo, Mississippi, in June 2000. This despite the fact that two autopsies—one paid for by his family, who suspected lynching—concluded that his death was consistent with a suicide. Jesse Jackson even led a national protest over Johnson's death, and brought the mother of Mississippi's most infamous lynching victim, Emmett Till, along with him to Kokomo to make his point.

A similar scenario played out after Frederick Jermaine Carter, a 26-year-old black man with a history of mental illness, was found hanging from an oak tree in a predominantly white neighborhood of Greenwood, Mississippi, in 2010. Local law enforcement officials found no evidence that anyone else was involved.

Byrd's own story is complex. The 54-year-old was an ex-convict who was convicted for shooting to death a rural Claiborne County storeowner named Lucille Trim, who was white, during a 1980 robbery in which he stole $101—money he later said he needed to settle a debt with his parole officer. Byrd served more than 25 years for the crime before being paroled in 2006. In the years since, he had apparently been a frequent gambler at area riverboat casinos, and, according to Lucas, disappeared after visiting a Vicksburg casino twice on March 2. He was reportedly behind on his rent and faced the possibility of having to move out of his home.

According to Lucas, authorities initially believed Byrd had gone missing at the casino, but later found that he had disappeared after his son drove him home.

Byrd's family filed a missing persons report six days after his disappearance, and Lucas and a wildlife conservation officer found his body a week later, on March 19, not far from his rented home. Byrd's family at the time saidsuicide was unlikely because he had started going to church again and seemed to be turning his life around.

Even for people who never knew Byrd, the specter of his body hanging from a tree with a bed sheet tied around his neck presented a disturbingly familiar historical tableau.

Lynching was once a frequent spectacle across the South, often attended by large crowds. The Jackson Daily News even ran a headline in 1919 announcing "John Hartfield Will Be Lynched by Ellisville Mob At 5 O'Clock This Afternoon" (a New Orleans States Item article about the same event proclaimed, "3,000 To Burn Negro"). Lynching is customarily defined as a premeditated killing, typically by hanging, by two or more people operating outside the law. Although it is most often associated in the US with white-on-black murders, it can theoretically involve anyone, for any reason.

Of course, even when murder is proved, racial killings do not always fall into the category of lynchings. Was it a lynching when white teens intentionally ran over James Craig Anderson, who is black, in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2011? What about the murders of voting rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County in the summer of 1964, when the men were shot to death by the Ku Klux Klan—an episode that formed the basis for the movie Mississippi Burning? Those cases are not typically included in the list.

Most notorious among past Mississippi lynchings was the case of Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was brutally killed by white men while visiting family members in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. Till's murder sparked outrage across the US and beyond and helped fuel the nascent Civil Rights movement. His death was commemorated in a ceremony on March 21, 2015, at the newly restored courthouse in Sumner, where his killers went free in 1955. In reporting on the ceremony, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger noted that local residents had apologized to the Till family in 2007, saying, "We are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved one. We the citizens of Tallahatchie County acknowledge the horrific nature of this crime. Its legacy has haunted our community. We need to understand the system that encouraged these events and others like them to occur so that we can ensure that it never happens again."

White Mississippians often point to such attempts at reconciliation as evidence that the state has changed, and say media coverage typically portrays a dated racial paradigm. But cases like Byrd's raise questions about whether "it" could happen again. And, as if to confirm the possibility, a federal grand jury on March 27 indicted former University of Mississippi freshman Graeme Phillip Harris for hanging a noose and an old Georgia state flag with a Confederate emblem on a statue honoring James Meredith, the first black student to attend the university.

Estimates of the number of lynchings that have occurred in the US vary, but Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the LA Times after Byrd's death that the best numbers indicate there were 4,742 lynchings nationwide between 1882 and 1968. Of those, about 3,400 victims were black, and 1,297 white. Potok added that there have been cases similar to Byrd's in recent years, but that none have turned out to be racially motivated killings, despite what he described as "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 told the newspaper. "But there has never been a shred of evidence that these suicides were anything other than suicides."

With blacks comprising 84 percent of its population—the third-highest proportion of any county in America—Claiborne might not seem like a potential site for lynching. Nearly all the elected officials in the county and in the city of Port Gibson are black, and despite past episodes of racial tumult, including a long-running black boycott of white-owned stores during the civil rights era, lynching has historically not been part of the equation.

But the precedent for racially motivated violence is never far beneath the surface in Mississippi, and despite its black majority, Port Gibson is a town where old times linger. Leafy Church Street is lined with antebellum mansions, and a statue of a Confederate soldier stands sentinel before the county courthouse.

Lucas, the Sheriff, acknowledged that the hanging of a black man in Mississippi will inevitably evoke the specter of lynching for years to come.

"It'll take years—maybe 50 years, a couple of generation—to remove the shadow," he said. "But time will take care of that. The truth is, race is no longer a big issue with us. I go to church with whites. We don't have any problem at all. We have dinner together. Blacks and whites talk together here. I say, don't let what happened in the 40s and 50s overshadow that."

With additional reporting by Zachary Oren Smith

Alan Huffman is a freelance journalist and the author of five nonfiction books, most recently Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer. Follow him on Twitter.