Colson: Strange fruit hang again from southern trees
A black man named Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree last week in a rural section of western Mississippi.
A quick search of the Internet shows that this was the second time, as far as we know, that a black man was hanged in the south within the past year.
The first was in North Carolina, in August of 2014, when a 17-year-old boy named Lennon Lacy was found hanging from a swing set in the town of Bladenboro.
Lacy was a popular high school football player, according to published reports, and said to be an unlikely candidate for suicide. Nevertheless, the local law concluded that he hanged himself, citing a telephone call to police from a 52-year-old woman who said she saw it happen. Local cops also decided he killed himself because he was upset by the recent death of an uncle he was close to, though Lacy’s mother rejected that idea completely.
Turned out Lacy was dating an older white woman from the same town, which some said could have been a motive for a lynching.
And an independent investigator reportedly found lots of holes in the work done by local and state law enforcement, such as the lack of anything for young Lacy to stand on while tying the belt that hung him onto a beam that stood 7 1/2 feet off the ground. Lacy was only 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
His family also said they never saw that belt before, nor the white, size 10 1/2 shoes he was wearing when he died. His size-12 Air Jordans had disappeared.
Plus, according to a published update on the matter, a state investigator threatened to take away the camera of the medical examiner who responded to the scene if the examiner took any photos of the young man’s body. So there are no photos of how he was found. And the state investigator also said there would be no autopsy performed on Lacy’s body.
The FBI announced at the end of last year that they weren’t convinced Lacy hung himself, and the investigation continues.
In the case of Otis Byrd, there also are many questions.
He went missing on March 2, when he reportedly was dropped off by a friend at a casino in Vicksburg, something he apparently did now and then.
His family reported him missing about a week later, but state authorities were not notified until a week after that, and he wasn’t found until March 19, hanging by a rope made of bedsheets from a tree in a dense forest about a half a mile from his home.
As with Tracy’s death, local authorities are trying to wrap the case up as a suicide, but others aren’t so sure that is what happened.
I don’t know what to think, but I certainly am appalled by the news that strange fruit are once again hanging from trees in the south. For those unfamiliar with the term, it was the title of a song recorded in 1939 by Billie Holliday. It was written two years earlier as a poem by a teacher named Abel Meeropol, to protest lynchings of black Americans.
To be sure, neither of these cases may turn out to have been a lynching, but the places where they happened were once famous for such ugly demonstrations of man’s inhumanity to man. And these historic lynchings went hand in hand with that bizarrely American institution, legalized, institutional slavery, which arose with the cotton industry in the 1700s and 1800s.
It was the institution of slavery that allowed the cotton industry to thrive, and thereby permitted cotton planters to live a wealthy, leisurely and profligate lifestyle.
And it likely was anger over the end of that lifestyle that led to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War, along with the wholesale lynching of black men.
According to a new report out this year, there were nearly 4,000 “racial terror lynchings” in a dozen southern states between 1877 and 1952. That’s a lot of strange fruit.
Anyway, to return to the present, the timing of these recent incidents could not be much worse. The U.S. economy is staggering along after the recession, the number of poor people is rising, and the gap between rich and poor is widening, along with a growing generalized sense of anger and frustration that nearly always has accompanied such times.
Add to that powderkeg the mounting frustration and rage about continuing racial inequality, and the sum of it all is not a pleasant prospect.
No wonder the local law is desperately trying to squash any idea that the hanging of two black men was the work of lynch mobs.
Because if that idea starts to grow it could easily take on a life of its own, regardless of whether the evidence points instead to suicide, and that could lead to an outpouring of the kind of rage we haven’t seen on a large scale since the middle of the last century.
And there’s no telling where that might take us.
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