WASHINGTON -- At his first full-fledged White House news conference in March 1993, President Clinton was asked what he might do about a suspicious rash of hangings in the Magnolia State. Since 1987, there had been 47 deaths attributed to "suicide by hanging" in Mississippi jails -- most of them young black people.
The president said he would consider a federal investigation into the cases and, in fact, one month later, Janet Reno launched a Justice Department probe.
Responding to the prospect of a federal investigation, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., gave the idea a half-hearted welcome. "I have no problem with it," he said, "as long as it's not done in such a way to try to once again infer that there's something sinister going on with regard to Mississippi."
I wonder if Lott, who implied that there is nothing particularly afoul in Mississippi, might now have reason to infer that sinister forces are, in fact, at work. Wonder if the way Raynard Johnson died isn't cause for alarm.
The kid was 17. He was a good student. He had just made the starting lineup of his high school football team. He had just bought a computer. In short, the absolute opposite behavior of someone who was thinking of ending it all.
Yet there he was last month, hanging from a pecan tree in the front yard of his home in Kokomo. Dead, of course. Hanged by a belt. Whose belt, no one seems to know, but it did not belong to Raynard.
The official word in Kokomo? Suicide. The rather loud whisper there? Raynard was murdered, probably in retaliation for dating white girls.
It should come as no surprise that the Rev. Jesse Jackson is on the case. He can usually be found where a racial hive is stirring. On Sunday, he led several hundred demonstrators in a march for justice. They want a full investigation into Raynard's death. Because Jackson was there, the case has drawn considerable national attention in the media.
Jackson's presence upsets a lot of people who see him as nothing more than a rabble-rouser, a troublemaker and -- to use a term I've heard all my life from fellow Southerners who resent such activists -- an "outside agitator."
Jackson may be none of those things or all of them. Doesn't matter. Doesn't change the fact that a young American man is gone and that, awful as it is, a racist murder is more feasible than out-of-the-blue suicide.
If authorities can believe that a happy, healthy and forward-moving young man might hang himself in his mama's front yard, from his daddy's pecan tree, with who-knows-whose belt around his neck, without warning, without hint or clue, without writing a note or saying a word or even leaving a trail of circumstance, then how on earth can they not believe that racist devils, fired up by jealousy and insecurity, might have sneaked up on someone they saw as a threat?
The whole of America should be marching and demanding justice in this case. It is an American child who is dead. Another one. And we owe it to what youth and futures and goodness are supposed to be about to look into how this one came to leave us.
If we are satisfied with a suicide ruling, if we won't commit the time and energy and other resources it will take to dig out the truth of this child's death, then let's not ever bother again saying that we care for our children, that we, as a society, are their providers, their defenders and their protectors.
This case implies there is something sinister in Kokomo. If we turn our backs on the pursuit of justice for Raynard Johnson, we can infer that there is something sinister in America.
Deborah Mathis is a columnist with Tribune Media Services.
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