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Community Leaders Decry Hanging Death of Black Teenager in Mississippi

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On June 15th, in Kokomo, Mississippi, a black teenager was found hanging from a tree in his front yard. Investigators tried to rule it a suicide. But community leaders suggest that 17-year-old Raynard Johnson was killed because he had dated two white girls. And some are comparing his death to the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, who was murdered for whistling at a white woman. [includes rush transcript]

Rev. Jesse Jackson has called for a federal investigation in this most recent case, and is planning a march this weekend in Mississippi to draw attention to the killing.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, a private security guard was charged yesterday with involuntary manslaughter in the choking death of a black man last month outside a department store.

The charge against Dennis Richardson, a guard for the Lord and Taylor store at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, came a day after 10,000 protesters rallied outside the store. They maintained that the June 22 death of Frederick Finley had racial overtones.


  • Rev. Al Sharpton, President of the National Action Network. Call: 212.987.5020.
  • Charles Tisdale, publisher of the Jackson Advocate, a black weekly newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On June 15th in Kokomo, Mississippi, a Black teenager was found hanging from a pecan tree in his front yard. Investigators tried to rule it a suicide, but community leaders suggest that seventeen-year-old Raynard Johnson was killed because he had dated two white girls. And some are comparing his death to the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, murdered for whistling at a white woman. Rev. Jesse Jackson has called for a federal investigation in this most recent case and is planning a march this weekend in Mississippi to draw attention to the killing.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, a private security guard was charged yesterday with involuntary manslaughter in the choking death of a black man last month outside a department store. The charge against Dennis Richardson, a guard for Lord and Taylor’s at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Michigan, came a day after 10,000 protesters rallied outside the store. They maintain that the June 22nd death of Frederick Finley has racial overtones.

We hope to be joined by Reverend Al Sharpton in a minute. We are on the line right now with Charles Tisdale, publisher of the Jackson Advocate, a Black weekly newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mr. Tisdale.

CHARLES TISDALE: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us—

CHARLES TISDALE: And to Juan Gonzalez, too.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, Mr. Tisdale. I haven’t spoken to you since I was down there earlier this year, yes.

CHARLES TISDALE: That’s right. And it’s gotten worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us about this death of the black teenager, Raynard Johnson. What exactly happened, that you’ve been able to reconstruct at this point?

CHARLES TISDALE: Well, the Johnson killing — hanging — is just a part of a series. A few people remember that in 1992, we had a series of hearings conducted by a victim of one of the hangings. I think everybody remembers the hangings in 1964 when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were hanged. Well, a new series of hangings in the jail houses in Mississippi started, and a series of forty-six hangings took place, including the son of the NAACP president in Jackson, Esther Quinn, who is a Quinn now — she was a Jones at the time. And in fact, Ms. Jones, or Quinn, and her husband Charles Quinn are in New York right now, trying to stir up support for a trial for the people who hanged young Jones. They have been in New York for about a month now, and they have called on people like Ramsey Clark and others who they feel may be able to add new impetus, as the case was dismissed by a circuit judge here in Jackson, Mississippi.

And it is continuing. Forty-six young black men hung in jails in Mississippi is a lot of them. And the Jones killing, the body was found hung nine feet from the floor, without any supporting way to get the body up to the nine feet that he was hanged from. An independent autopsy conducted by a Chicago physician — well, a pathologist — claims that it could not have been done. Also, the former chief pathologist for the state of Mississippi, Dr. Lloyd E. White, now a professor of Pathology at the University of Texas at Austin, claims that the head of the Mississippi Highway Patrol, Jim Ingram, who was also a famous FBI man and in charge of the COINTEL Program directed against African Americans in the J. Edgar Hoover administration, also had complicity in the murder of the Jones young man.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Mr. Tisdale, in terms of this latest killing, or this latest death, what is the evidence that suggests that it was actually a killing?

CHARLES TISDALE: Well, the principal evidence is the fact that the young man’s keys were found in a car adjoining the three — the car keys, the keys to his car — and the fact that there were throat marks, you know, in the same way that in the case of another person who was hung up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the throat marks were incongruent with what Dr. Hayne, who was the pathologist and who was fired from the Mississippi — at Mississippi Pathologists, because of inconsistencies between what he claimed were the marks on the throat and the actual marks performed by two other pathologists, one from Chicago and one from Georgia.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Tisdale, publisher of the Jackson Advocate. We’re also joined by the Reverend Al Sharpton, who is president of the National Action Network. Reverend Sharpton, you were in Kokomo, Mississippi and were looking at that case, as well as another, which we’ll talk about in a minute. What did you find when you were in Mississippi?

REV. AL SHARPTON: Basically, I agree with Mr. Tisdale. I think that clearly the evidence is there. We met with some of the people from Kokomo. We never actually got into Kokomo. We are going to go in next week for the town hall meeting. But clearly, the fact of where the keys were found, even the size of the tree and the general information acquired from the family, along with what I think Mr. Tisdale has laid out, the historic pattern that has gone uncovered until this case, clearly indicates to me that there is something very suspect about all this. It clearly does not seem at all like a suicide, and there’s clearly a pattern of racial violence that has gone on in Mississippi under a curtain of silence until this point. So I absolutely support the efforts of the Johnson family and in the broader community, in terms of seeking justice not only for Raynard Johnson, but for a litany of cases that Charles Tisdale has been talking about for a long time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Rev. Sharpton, what about the situation in Michigan? Could you talk about that and what’s happened there? You were part of a protest there, as well?

REV. AL SHARPTON: Yes. In Michigan, a man went shopping with his family in a Lord and Taylor store at the Fairlane Mall. This mall has been cited for years as having discriminatory practices toward people of color shopping there. The Detroit branch of the NAACP had even called for a boycott of this mall at one point. This person was shopping, he bought several hundred dollars worth of items that day. We have the receipts dated that day.

When he came out of the store, he turned around, and his eleven-year-old daughter was being chased by a security guard, who said she took a $4 bracelet. When he turned around and came back to them and said, “Wait a minute, I’ve just spent hundreds of dollars here, what’s the problem? Maybe there’s some misunderstanding. Maybe there’s some confusion” — he had even applied for a Lord and Taylor credit card that day — they got into a fight with him and literally choked him to death. According to their coroner, he died as a result of being strangled to death.

And immediately, our chapter of the National Action Network, the Michigan chapter under Reverend Horace Sheffield, along with Dr. Claude Young, who is the National Chairman of the Board of SCLC, came and met with the family. The family got attorney Jeffrey Feiger. Our position was, even if the young girl of eleven was shoplifting, security guards do not have the right to become the judge, jury and executioners. The amount of time, the amount of minutes it takes to strangle somebody to death, it is unthinkable in the twenty-first century — we’re talking about a man being choked to death by security guards in the parking lot of Lord and Taylor’s in broad daylight. So we called for a rally two days ago, and on Wednesday well over 10,000 people joined us in that parking lot.

Yesterday, they did arrest one of the security guards and charged him with manslaughter, but we want both of them, and we want the Justice Department to come in and deal with the practice and pattern and civil rights violation of the Fairlane Mall. So, on July 17th we will be back in Detroit for a rally in front of the Federal District Court there, and, as you probably know, August 26th we’ve called a national march commemorating the “I Have a Dream” march on Washington in '63 that we're calling “Redeem the Dream,” and at that march we’re going to deal with racial profiling nationwide, from the Mississippi case to the case in Dearborn, Michigan, to the fact that we’re still sitting here without the federal government dealing with the Amadou Diallo case in New York, with no response to the Patrick Dorismond case, with no federal response to Taisha Miller.

We, all over this country, are seeing law enforcement and racial profiling cases at large, yet we are hearing about a national election, and no one that is running, nor no one that is incumbent, are addressing the matters of racial profiling and racial violence. So we need to go back to Washington and lay this on the lap of the national government. The audacity of people to talk about our voting for them while people are being killed, and they can’t even find words to discuss it, let alone policies to put in place to preserve human life in our communities.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Reverend Sharpton, I wanted precisely to ask you about the presidential race and whether this is going to become an issue in the campaign. There’s been very little from either of the candidates, the main candidates in the Republican and the Democratic Party, to this issue. How do you expect that — or do you have any hopes that this can become a major issue in this campaign?

REV. AL SHARPTON: One of the reasons that we are reenacting this march is a lot of people have romanticized the first march. John Kennedy didn’t want to talk about race. It was the ’63 march, it was Birmingham, it was movements, that forced the Kennedys and then subsequently Lyndon Johnson to deal with racial violence and racism and discrimination. So we ought not think that those historians that try to rewrite history, that the Kennedys and the Johnsons were just progressive guys that just wanted to solve this problem, are telling the truth.

The way we’re going to make this an issue in this election is the way we did it thirty-seven to forty years ago, and that is by mobilizing and forcing the issue. When 10,000 people go in the parking lot in Dearborn, Michigan, when thousands go to Washington August 26th; they will have to deal with it, because we must make it clear to not only Bush, but also to Gore, that if you’re not addressing the issues that are most central to us, like our very lives, then we don’t intend to vote for anyone that is too afraid, timid or too trying-to-play-politics-with-the-rightwing that they can’t address situations like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Sharpton, what do you think of Ralph Nader’s candidacy? We just did an interview with him in the first half of today’s program.

REV. AL SHARPTON: I think Ralph Nader has been very progressive on issues. I’d like to hear him say more about what’s going on in terms of race and police brutality. But at this point, I think that he’s heads and shoulders above the other two candidates now on most issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk for a minute about what happened last week in Huntsville, Texas. You were there. Gary Graham, now known or who was known as Shaka Sankofa before he was executed, you were one of only a few people who actually witnessed the execution. Can you describe what that was like?

REV. AL SHARPTON: Well, you know, I’ve been in morgues with parents of police brutality victims and racial violence, and I have seen them have to identify the dead bodies of their children, but nothing was more traumatic to me than to stand in what was probably a five-by-seven, six-by-nine chamber and watch a man killed by the state, who I believe was innocent of the crime that he was being killed for, and in his last breaths continued to challenge us and challenge others through us to fight to stop the unfair uses of the death penalty and to stop state murders and state prosecution. We — Gary Graham, we had hoped to the last minute, would have been spared.

Clearly, for a man to be executed based on the testimony of one fleeting eyewitness, to have insufficient legal defense — his lawyer, who was black, by the way, literally slept through the case, never called six witnesses that were either eyewitnesses that could have saved him or alibi witnesses that could have placed him elsewhere, never cross-examined the one eyewitness that identified him, for this man to go to death with that kind of flimsy evidence means that all of us are one witness away from the death chamber, as far as I’m concerned.

So when Bianca Jagger and Rev. Jesse Jackson and Minister Robert Mohammed and I were the four that Shaka Sankofa had requested to be the witnesses — when we were brought into the building, we were expecting at 6:00 an execution. When the time went past 7:00, we thought maybe the Supreme Court had done the right thing and stopped it, because inside we have no information. The people outside would have had much more information than we did. By 8:00, I was almost sure that the execution had been stopped by the Supreme Court with a stay. And then, a little after 8:00, the guards came in and said, “Be ready to go down in five minutes.” The Supreme Court voted 5-to-4 not to stay the execution, and one of the deciding votes was Clarence Thomas, which was a real spit in the face of those that made a Clarence Thomas possible in the first place.

And then, when we were brought down to this little cell, you’re standing there, you’re looking through a glass partition, and he is laying there handcuffed and strapped down to a gurney, head even strapped down. And despite all of that, his last words was challenging us on social policy, challenging us on the death penalty, and reiterating his innocence. And in the midst of making his statement, his eyes rolled back, and he’s dead.

I think that the Bush administration in Texas clearly, who not only did nothing to stop it, but in fact supported it, has to be dealt with. But I also think the silence of Al Gore has been deafening on this. And I think that clearly not only racial profiling, but the death penalty, ought to be issues that we make front and center in these first national elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Sharpton, we want to thank you for being with us, as well as Charles Tisdale of the Jackson Advocate.

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