The Magazine

Lynching the Truth

Jesse Jackson and the media turn a suicide into a racial cause celebre

Jul 31, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 43 • By DAVID FRUM
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IN THE EARLY EVENING of June 16, the dead body of 17-year-old Raynard Johnson was found hanging from a pecan tree in front of his family home in the little town of Kokomo, Mississippi. An autopsy established that Johnson had killed himself: There were no marks or bruises on him, no signs of a struggle, no bindings on his wrists.

Johnson's death was a sad but not entirely unusual event. More than 30,000 Americans kill themselves every year. For American men aged 15 to 24, suicide is the third-most-common cause of death. But what happened next was unusual. In their grief, the Johnson family refused to accept the verdict of the local medical examiner. The Johnsons are black. Young Raynard had sometimes dated white girls. They convinced themselves that this crossing of their state's ancient racial line had provoked local racists into lynching their son.

It was not only themselves they convinced. Soon Jesse Jackson was jetting in to lead marches and fling accusations of coverup and worse at the Marion County sheriffs. "This thing in Kokomo smells a lot like Emmett Till," Jackson said, referring to the Chicago boy murdered while visiting Mississippi relatives in 1955, apparently after flirting with a white woman. Jackson's fervid words attracted the attention of the national press, as of course they were meant to do. Over the past month, Raynard Johnson's death has emerged as a national news story, with multiple stories about it appearing in USA Today, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, as well as on all three of the major networks and the major cable news shows. Most of these stories ran after Janet Reno's July 12 meeting with members of the Johnson family and her tragically inept statement that she considered Johnson's mother "a very courageous lady."

These stories have often been presented so as to imply the truth of Jesse Jackson's and the Johnson family's charges of murder and deceit. On the July 12 edition of the NBC Nightly News, for example, correspondent Pete Williams led his story this way: "Concerned that state authorities are covering something up, members of Raynard Johnson's family are asking the Justice Department for an impartial investigation of his death -- a hanging that has stirred up bitter memories of the South's racist past."

Williams then cut to a clip of rep. John Conyers reminding viewers of Mississippi's history of lynching, to a second clip of two white neighbors alleging murder, and a third clip of Jesse Jackson charging official malfeasance. The absence of any evidence of homicide was described as merely "no evidence to rule out suicide." While a pathologist was permitted to explain that murders by hanging invariably leave some sign of violence on the victim's body, Williams did not mention that no such signs were found on Johnson's. In the end, the death was described both as "puzzling" and a "mystery."

When asked to justify treating a nearly certain case of suicide as very possibly a racially motivated lynching, Pete Williams cites the FBI's involvement: Surely that turned the homicide angle into a prime-time story? But by the time Williams got to the story, the FBI had already, according to other news reports, concluded that the death was overwhelmingly probably a suicide. Besides, it is simply not responsible to treat the politicized Clinton Justice Department as a reliable guide to the genuineness of racial incidents. Remember its eagerness in 1996 to promote the myth of a nationwide epidemic of black church-burning?

Still, Williams's reporting was a model of lucidity compared with the hyperventilation of ABC's Chris Cuomo on 20/20. On July 7, Cuomo presented a lengthy account of the Johnson case that did not so much as nod to the overwhelming evidence of suicide until the segment's final seconds. Even then, the brief acknowledgment of truth was immediately followed by a new allegation from a friend of the family that he had seen a bruise on the back of Johnson's neck that might perhaps indicate strangulation. Cuomo's report made much of the Johnson family's decision to request a second autopsy from an "independent" pathologist. But Cuomo did not wait for the second doctor's report before airing his item. Too bad: It confirmed suicide.