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African-American Man Hanging From Tree Sparks Concern and Caution

03/19/2015 07:51 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015
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A Deeply Disturbing Discovery in the Woods

The tragic discovery of a missing African-American man's body hanging from a tree in rural Claiborne County, Mississippi is now being investigated by both state and federal authorities. The man identified as Otis Byrd, 54, went missing on March 2 according to the Clarion Ledger newspaper. The NAACP has requested federal involvement in the matter, and authorities have yet to determine whether the death is the result of a homicide or suicide. The county Sheriff Marvin Lucas, a former NAACP official, said the man was found hanging by a bed sheet.

The FBI reports that the body was discovered today during an area search near his home by officers from the Claiborne Sheriff's Department and the Mississippi Wildlife Fisheries and Parks agency. Claiborne County with 9,600 residents sits southwest of the state capital of Jackson near Louisiana.

CNN Justice Reporter Evan Perez wrote that Mr. Byrd was reported missing March 8 and that an FBI Forensics team is on site along with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation after a request from the Sheriff's Department. Both agencies have overlapping jurisdiction, with the FBI's authority coming under various laws including the 2010 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, 18 U.S. Code §249, which punishes many types of racial and other hate crimes federally. The Clarion Ledger reports that Mr. Byrd was last seen at a casino and that he was paroled in 2006 after serving over two decades in state prison for murder during a robbery. CNN reports that the victim was a white woman.

While there has been no determination at all about whether the death is even a criminal act, let alone what motive may exist if it is, such a horrific scene strikes a deep emotional chord in a state and nation traumatized by a lengthy history of racial violence perpetrated by lynch mobs against African-Americans. While urging caution National Urban League President Marc Morial told CNN, "We need to get all the facts...[as] the method used here reminds us of one the most heinous periods in American life."

The Magnolia State's Troubled Past and Murky Present
During the civil rights era Mississippi was known for some of the worst instances of bigoted brutality. These included race riots, mass cross burnings and the killings of teenager Emmett Till, NAACP activist Medgar Evers, as well as three civil rights workers during a Freedom Summer voting drive in 1964. Community leaders and government officials during those dark days were often complicit with hate groups. According to the Equal Justice Initiative Mississippi ranked second in both per capita and total number of racial lynchings from 1877-1950 with 576, second only to larger Georgia with 586.

Many of those lynchings were in retaliation for everything from disputes to alleged social slights to accused or made up crimes. This January, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded its prosecution of several white residents involved in the racially motivated "thrill" killing of African-American James Craig Anderson in June 2011. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that there were 22 hate groups in the state in 2014 including neo-Nazi and Klan groups, although most hate crimes do not involve hate groups.

Despite its violent history, Mississippi today has the fewest per capita number of reported hate crimes of any state in the FBI's hate crime reporting program -- Hawaii does not participate. In 2013 Mississippi, with 2.9 million residents reported only one person directed hate crime, out of four total, down from a total of 19 in 2012. Nationally, there were 5,928 reported hate crime incidents in 2013 and only five bias homicides. Other federal estimates put the number of hate crimes closer to 200,000.

Only two Mississippi agencies submitted incident reports to the FBI, and agencies covering half of the state's population didn't participate at all. Only Wyoming with one fifth the population reported less incidents in 2013. Neighboring Arkansas, also with 2.9 million residents reported 34 hate crimes in 2013. Mississippi's numbers are all the more stark, as it has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any state -- the group most targeted for hate crime. Of all hate crimes 48.5 percent are racially motivated, and 2/3 of those are directed against African-Americans.

Unfortunately with horrendous events like the one involving Mr. Byrd's unsolved death in Mississippi, answers trickle out later, while fearful and painful memories come first, in torrents.