Raynard Johnson and the ghosts of Mississippi
By Kimberley Jane Wilson
On June 16, Jerry Johnson was confronted by every good parent's nightmare. Hanging from a pecan tree in his front yard was the body of his youngest child, his boy, Raynard. Seventeen-year-old Raynard was handsome, got good grades and was well-liked. Still, even teens who seem happy are known to commit suicide. This might have been a private tragedy except for one thing-the Johnson's live in Kokomo, Mississippi.
Mississippi has always had a horrid fascination for me. When I was a child, my parents usually spoke of it in serious tones. They came to Washington, DC in the early 1960s from South Carolina. Neither place was a racial heaven in those days. In South Carolina, my parents couldn't use the library, visit the park or swim in their town's swimming pool. Even DC was still segregated. But both places were nothing, my father assured me, compared to what regularly went on in Mississippi.
Mississippi is genuinely haunted by ghosts of a brutal past. Victims like 14-year-old Emmett Till (who was kidnapped, tortured and drowned for allegedly whistling at a white woman), the martyred Freedom Riders James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers conjure up horrible memories. From 1882 to 1962, when such records were kept, Mississippi had to its discredit the highest number of lynchings in America. In that time, 538 black men and women lost their lives to lynch mobs.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton and other activists seized on the Johnson case as a latter-day lynching. Are they correct? Is Raynard Johnson, who sometimes dated white girls, another one of Mississippi's ghosts? According to two autopsies, there were no marks or bruises on his body. Lynching was a highly ritualized form of murder. Victims typically suffered massive bodily injury before their deaths. Raynard was a big, strong kid, almost a man. He would have struggled for his life. There ought to be some mark of that struggle.
Lynching usually involved several or, in some cases, most of the white men in town. A demonic, almost carnival-like atmosphere surrounded these killings, and it wasn't uncommon for proud lynchers to be photographed with their victims. Women - and sometimes children - were present to see and cheer the spectacle. This doesn't sound like what happened to Raynard Johnson.
We are told certain whites didn't like seeing the black teen with white girls and were vocal about it. This attitude isn't unique to Mississippi or white people. Many blacks, especially black women, don't care to see interracial dating or marriage either.
We are told Raynard was happy, and there was no reason for him to commit suicide. Well-meaning adults often make the mistake of thinking that being a teen is the best time of a kid's life. Actually, for many, the four years of high school are pretty hellish. Teenagers can be incredibly nasty and cruel to one another, and especially to serious, sensitive or obviously intelligent kids.
One of the white girls Raynard dated told police she broke up with him on the night of his death. That doesn't seem like much of a reason to be despondent, but it might have been enough for a teenage boy. The suicide rate for black teens aged 15 to 19 doubled between the years 1980 and 1998. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young black men after homicide and accidents.
On August 10, in a dramatic press conference state officials announced that they were officially closing the Johnson investigation. District Attorney Buddy McDonald, accompanied by Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore stated bluntly that the state sees no evidence of murder.
We are told that the braided leather belt used in the hanging didn't belong to the teen but state officials unveiled a startling color video surveillance tape showing Raynard in a convenience store less than two hours before his death wearing what appears to be the same belt.
Raynard Johnson's parents, Jerry and Maria have flatly rejected the state's findings and have vowed to continue their own privately financed probe of the case. The FBI's own investigation continues. Many ghosts haunt Mississippi. Before we add Raynard Johnson's name to the list of lynching victims, however, let's allow cool intellect - not heated emotions - to rule how we all look at this case.
The death of such a promising young person may not be a crime, but it surely is a tragedy. Once, suicide among black youngsters was so rare it was nearly unheard of. Strong family and religious ties saved many a troubled soul. In Raynard Johnson's memory, adults need to work to re-create these precious safety nets for the sake of our children. Naturally, most parents recoil from the idea that their kid is capable of self destruction but it does happen. It does happen to black families and it can happen anywhere even in Kokomo, Mississippi.
Kimberly Wilson is a writer and commentator and an associate of the African American leadership network Project 21.
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