Sar-ron Beverly knew about nooses from family stories and historical photos. But he never understood their power until he walked into his boss' Fairfield office one day and saw one hanging from the ceiling, in front of a bookshelf and a family portrait.
"It was just too much," said Beverly, 30. "I'm from Mississippi. My grandparents moved to California to get away from this stuff.
"A hangman's noose shows the ultimate hatred for African Americans."
Since a noose hanging in a schoolyard triggered a civil rights firestorm this summer in Jena, La., there's been a resurgence of nooses across the United States. They've been found in a post office, in a hospital, on a professor's door, in a Coast Guard cadet's bag, in a fire station and on a bronze sculpture of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.
Historians and academics are examining why the noose is resurfacing and trying to explain its current cultural significance. Some say the symbol will always represent hate and proves that racism still exists in America. Others say the nooses are meaningless pranks.
Whatever the case, the fear and anger that a noose incites among African Americans are real.
Between 1882 and 1968, there were a documented 4,743 lynchings in the United States, and most victims were black men. Victims were usually beaten and hanged, often in public squares. White families would watch and take photos. No one was ever convicted of murder in connection with any of the deaths.
"Many white people are unaware of the incredible power of the lynching story for African Americans," said Sherrilyn Ifill, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and a former civil rights attorney. "Lynching was a message crime. It served to tell the black community that there were boundaries. Don't get too educated. Don't vote. Don't get too wealthy. Don't look at a white woman.
"It was not just used to punish an individual, but to serve as a threat to others."
Ifill wrote a book titled "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century," which looks at the relationship between decades-old lynchings and today's racial violence.
"I don't buy the story that these are pranks," Ifill said. "If this were a swastika or a burning cross, no one would be asking that question.
"Lynching is a history that blacks take very seriously and live with, and that whites have almost entirely ignored."
Displaying a noose is illegal under federal hate-crime laws if it is intended to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person, or to attempt to do so, by force or threat of force, because of that person's race, color, religion or national origin.
In 2005, the most recent statistics available from the FBI, there were 3,919 racial hate crimes reported nationwide. Of those, more than 67 percent - 2,630 - were against black people.
Few African Americans have grown up in households where there aren't discussions about racism and recollections of when lynching was a reality, said Patricia Turner, a faculty member in the African American studies department at UC Davis.
"There is nothing more likely to inspire the trauma of those years than a noose," Turner said. "I think that lots of African American families would say it is disingenuous for anyone to say it is just a prank.
"There is a reason for selecting the noose, and perhaps the reason is that if you get caught you can say it was just a prank."
Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Ala., says the recent increase in noose incidents is a result of publicity from the Jena Six case, in which six black teens are accused of beating a white student after a noose was hung on a tree at their school.
No one was arrested for hanging the noose. The six black students were arrested in connection with the beating.
Across the nation, there are efforts to address the recent rash of noose incidents.
The New York state Senate passed a bill that would make it a felony to display a noose - including a drawing or a painting - in a threatening manner. The Department of Justice says it is investigating the recent series of noose-hanging incidents, said spokesman Erik Albin.
Attorney and radio host Warren Ballentine has called for African Americans to demonstrate their economic muscle by not spending any money on Friday to protest the noose incidents.
And a march on the nation's capital is planned for Nov. 16 to call for tougher prosecution of hate-crime laws by local and state officials as well as the federal government.
"In the history of the civil rights movements, we have often had to appeal to the federal government to intervene. That was certainly the case during my father's era of leadership," Martin Luther King III said recently. "The march next month is an appeal to the federal government to do something about the crimes, such as the nooses that seem to be popping up all over the nation."
Sar-ron Beverly worked for 31/2 years at the Fairfield flooring company B.R. Funsten/Tom Duffy Co. and said he went through a lot of racial harassment before the noose incident.
When he saw it, he took a picture of it and called his mother, who told him it was a federal offense.
He went to the human resources office and was told the noose was a joke, said Angela Alioto, who is representing Beverly and seven other current and former employees in a racial discrimination lawsuit against B.R. Funsten.
Beverly walked off his work site that day. He and others left notes saying, "I am requesting an immediate leave of absence due to the noose hanging in the office of Richard Buikema, as discovered this morning. The racial overture makes me feel uncomfortable and unsafe."
Although he returned to his job, Beverly was fired in May. Buikema, the manager, was not disciplined because a B.R. Funsten investigation determined that he didn't intend the noose to be a racial statement, the lawsuit states. The company, headquartered in San Francisco, did not return calls seeking comment.
Joshua Hemphill, another employee, said he also dealt with racist attitudes. He said he saw the noose sitting on his manager's desk for about a month before it was hung up in the office.
One day, when the noose was still on the desk, his boss asked if he had started the extra work he was assigned. Hemphill said he had finished.
"Good. Now your head can stay out of the noose," his boss replied, according to the lawsuit.
Six days later, he saw the noose hanging from the ceiling.
"I'm from the South, and a noose has always been a negative symbol directed at African Americans," Hemphill said.
"It felt like the slave master to the slave, like the white man was telling me that I would be hung if I didn't do a good job."
E-mail Leslie Fulbright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle