Response Logo

Tears of Hate Violence: Then, Now and Still

by Sandra Peters

The Tree where Raynard Johnson was found hanging, Photo: Sandra PetersPolice in Kokomo, Miss., were too quick to label the June 16 death of 17-year-old Raynard Johnson a suicide, say local organizers, including United Methodists, who are seeking investigation of what they say looks like a lynching.

The organizers, accompanied by United Methodist Bishop Jack Meadors of the Mississippi Area and two representatives of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, held a six-mile prayer-and-justice march July 7 in near 100-degree weather in an effort to bring the teenís death to national attention and to give the boyís family an opportunity to tell their story.

While official reports have focused on autopsy results and a statement from one young woman who said she ended a relationship with Raynard Johnson the day of his death, the dead teenís family and neighbors say events leading up to his death need attention. Those events include:

Suicide ruling questioned

While law-enforcement officials have described Raynard Johnsonís last day as one in which he may have been despondent over the end of a relationship, family members describe him as excited because he had just bought a computer and was showing his brother and sisters how to use it. He made plans to travel to neighboring Hattiesburg the next day for a picnic, and he and his brother had plans to work together over the summer.

Raynard Johnsonís mother, Maria Johnson, speaks of her son with joy and love. She tells how playful and full of life he was and how close he was to his siblings.

"He was like a burst of sunshine," she said. "All of the children loved each other so much, they were so close. If he were here right now while I am on the phone, he would playing to get my attention."

Someone told Ms. Johnson that her son was now sitting, looking down.

"No, Raynard would never be sitting," she said. "He would be up and running around."

Those who joined the prayer-and-justice march also found it difficult to believe Raynard Johnsonís death was a suicide. Neighbors and friends spoke of Raynard as a promising young man who had everything to live for, a young athlete who loved to laugh, was playful and full of life.

As marchers stood in the Johnsonsí front yard next to the pecan tree, they could see a small birdhouse hanging down. Small lights were wrapped around the treeís lower branches. Marchers agreed the treeís branches were too low and too frail for Raynard Johnson to have hung himself from them.

One after another, those who knew Raynard Johnson repeated,"there is no way" this boy would take his own life.

Roger Johnson said he and his brother spent hours talking, and he would have known if something was troubling Raynard.

Charlotte Keys, founder and executive director of Jesus People Against Pollution, was primarily responsible for organizing the march. Asked about her interpretation of the hanging, she said:

"My true feeling is that our community has been torn apart both mentally and physically by the whole situation of Raynardís death. It is heartbreaking to see a family and a community pressured by leadership that is disrespectful. I hope that much prayer is rendered for the Johnson family with hope for the Lord to reveal Raynardís killers."

Next steps according to Ms. Keys and supporter, Jaribu Hill of the Center for Constitutional Rights Southern Office include calls for further investigation, more marches and demonstrations, a legal strategy, and planning a Mississippi hate-crimes hearing later this year.

"We must work to help pull the cover off this situation for the truth to be revealed about what is going on in Mississippi," Ms. Keys pledged. "We will not stop praying, and we will not stop marching -- the prayer will lead to action."

Board response

The march in Kokomo, Miss., demanding a re-opening to the investigation of Raynard Johnson's Death, Photo: Sandra PetersThe United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries responded to the incidence after being notified of it by the Rev. Nathan Jordan, pastor of St. John United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss. The Rev. Joseph Agne, pastor of Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains, N.Y., and a member of the the boardís team on Ministries in the Midst of Hate and Violence, and Sandra Peters, author of this article and consultant to the team, participated in the prayer-and-justice march and witnessed two and a half days of events, which included church services, rallies, marches and dialogues.

Ministries in the Midst of Hate and Violence focuses on the growing and escalating violence of hate crimes throughout the United States. The team is chaired by Lois Dauway, assistant general secretary for Christian social responsibility for the Womenís Division.

"The teamís mission is to help communities respond to hate violence and to be present for victims, and to address structures that perpetuate hate," Ms. Dauway said. "We try to faithfully discern ways to combat the escalating divide in our nation that is at the root of hate violence."

The May 2000 United Methodist General Conference affirmed the teamís goal when it approved a resolution calling on the denomination to address hate crimes and to push for adoption of strong state and federal anti-hate crime legislation. (See article, page 14.)

Ms. Johnson asked that The United Methodist Church keep her and her family in their prayers.

"I feel like Raynard had a full life in 17 years," she said. "But we donít want this to go away. Nothing can bring Raynard back, but if we can do things to help someone else....What mother should have to go through this?"

Ms. Johnson received a promise of help in grieving her sonís death during the July 7 march. Mamie Mobely of Chicago, whose son Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 at age 14 in Tallahatchie County, Miss., after talking to a white woman, traveled to Kokomo for the march. The elderly Ms. Mobley invited Ms. Johnson to call her when she needed to talk.

"It may be that we have to just cry together, but we can be there for each other," Ms. Mobley told Ms. Johnson. Ms. Mobley said she would try to explain to Ms. Johnson how to get through the next 45 years without her son.

Official reports

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is investigating Raynard Johnsonís death. The bureau had yet to release a report of its findings at Response press time in late July.

Mainstream media coverage of the incident focused on the official suicide finding. One Mississippi newspaper reported Raynard Johnsonís death under an article about increased suicides among young African-American men. A photo of the pecan tree was shot from the ground up, making the tree look larger than it is.

National news reports focused on the Rev. Jesse Jacksonís advocacy on behalf of the Johnson family without mentioning the significant and ongoing local organizing efforts his advocacy supports.

National news articles, which appeared only after the march and challenge to the suicide ruling, have focused on results of two autopsies in which doctors said they found no bruises, no evidence of an attack, and no poison or lethal substance in the Raynard Johnsonís body. Official reports said there was insufficient time for a murder to have occurred.

Also published was a psychologistís statement of evidence of Raynard Johnsonís despondence including:

These news reports have carried few if any comments from Raynard Johnsonís family. When they have been printed, they have appeared at the end of the articles.

Sandra Peters is staff consultant to the Ministries in the Midst of Hate and Violence team of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. She traveled to Kokomo, Miss., as part of the boardís delegation following Raynard Johnsonís death.