- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

BELLE GLADE, Fla. (AP) — Three years ago in a small Mississippi town, a black man found his son’s body hanging from a pecan tree. Three months ago in Belle Glade, another man found his stepson dangling from a tree in their yard.

Authorities labeled both deaths suicides — but in both cases, rumors of lynching have persisted.

One scholar believes the rumors are part of vigorous “urban legends” in the black community that are fueled by years of mistrust over past police misdeeds.

Patricia A. Turner, author of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture,” says that for generations black communities have turned to rumor as an outlet for frustrations, particularly in response to racial injustice.

Miss Turner, a vice provost at the University of California at Davis, said she used to debunk myths among her black students, such as one that said U.S. scientists created AIDS and tested it on Africans before it spiraled out of control worldwide.

Other commonly circulated rumors linked drugs in black neighborhoods to a national conspiracy against blacks, and contended that the Ku Klux Klan owned a fast food chain and doctored the food so black men would become sterile.

The crime of lynching reached a peak more than a century ago, numbering more than 100 a year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. From 1935 to the 1960s, the average fell to a few a year, and none has been documented for more than two decades.

In Kokomo, Miss., authorities ruled the hanging death of 17-year-old Raynard Johnson a suicide. National civil rights leaders rallied behind relatives, who labeled it a lynching, charging that Mr. Johnson was killed as a warning to other black men who date white women.

After three years, relatives and others in Kokomo still believed Mr. Johnson was slain by racists.

The same convictions surround a case that divides the rural farming community of Belle Glade, where Henry Drummer found stepson Feraris “Ray” Golden dead and dangling from a tree in their yard May 28.

Some said Mr. Golden’s hands were tied behind his back, that he was killed because he was dating the daughter of a white police officer and that authorities covered up the killing.

The stories persist despite a special public inquest last month at which a judge concluded that the evidence pointed only to suicide. Autopsy photos showed a single bruise around his neck, and video from a police car arriving at the scene showed Mr. Golden’s stiffened arms at his sides.

Evidence at the inquest showed Mr. Golden was a troubled, divorced, unemployed father of four who was behind in child-support payments and frequently joked that he would take his own life. He also died with traces of cocaine in his system and a blood-alcohol level more than four times the legal limit for driving.

History shows lower numbers of suicides among black men than among white men, although the numbers are rising, Miss Turner said.

“It makes more cultural sense to many members of his community that he would have been lynched, rather than he would have taken his own life,” she said. “It’s unrealistic to expect that you will eventually get all members in the community to believe otherwise.”

An autopsy commissioned by the Johnson family also ruled the death a suicide. The FBI, then-Attorney General Janet Reno and the Department of Justice became involved but none found any evidence to support anything but suicide.

“Is there anybody in the black community that believes what happened was suicide? The answer’s ‘No. Nobody. No,’” said Alvin O. Chambliss Jr., an attorney who represented the Johnson family.

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