The death of Raynard Johnson is one ofthe earliest suspected modern-day lynchings.
This is a complicated story with multiple narratives and storylines thatsprawl across all of 20 years. Authorities showed up, compromised the scene,and shortly thereafter started spreading the word that Raynard had hunghimself. In the days and weeks that came, the story of what unfolded that nightcaptured headlines across the nation. Civil rights leaders came to Mississippiand posed with the tree. Hundreds marched, and a family was given hope and thenleft dangling in the balance.
In the midst of the chaos, much of the investigation focused on the beltthat hung Raynard. A point of contention was who owned it, Raynard or killers?When it was discovered that the belt may have belonged to Raynard, parts of theinvestigation ground to a halt as though it was impossible that a killer wouldlynch someone using the victim’s own belt. In that narrative, some felt theirquestions were answered, never looking back and never realizing that the beltwas a red herring. It moved society’s focus away from the mountain of evidencethat suggested lynching to one single element that wasn’t even material to the case.
- On June 16, 2000, Jerry Johnson called home from work twice to speak with his 17-year-old son, Raynard. He couldn’t reach him. At around 9:15 pm, Mr. Johnson pulled into his driveway, and his headlights glinted on something white. He glanced, refocused and looked again.
- It was Raynard’s white T-Shirt. His son was in front of him, knees bent, red ball cap on sideways, hanging from a tree in his front yard. He ran over and put his arms around him and heaved, attempting to lift Raynard so that air could enter his airway, but he couldn’t. He pulled his pocket knife from his pocket and sawed at the braided leather belt that noosed his youngest son.
- He cut him down, laid him on the ground, and frantically felt for a pulse. There was none. As he looked down on his son’s face, he traced the path of his dried tears.
In this case, this tragedy, misinformation was leaked, and a falsenarrative of a breakup and subsequent suicide spread through town.
But Raynard did not date anyone seriously. In fact, he was involved withover a dozen girls, some Black but many white, at the time of his death, whichis itself a motive. One person told the FBI that police had questioned herabout Raynard’s death and tried to get her to say that Raynard was depressed.Multiple people who saw Raynard hours before his death said he was in a goodmood and happy and that he was always happy. In fact, Raynard and Roger hadjust bought outfits that they were planning to wear the next day at the annualJuneteenth celebration.
Then, there’s the evidence: There are cassette tapes, multiple tapes, ofindividuals saying they were involved in Raynard’s death. There areeyewitnesses who say that they saw a group of white men in the front yard ofRaynard’s house around the time of his death and that when they drove back by,they saw police going to Raynard’s home. Later that night, a witness saw one ofthe would-be suspects at the Big K service station, bleeding. White men hadthreatened Raynard’s life in the days and weeks before his death because theywanted him to stop messing around with white girls. Raynard’s brother, Roger,told the FBI that all of the young white women they saw had brothers and/oruncles who didn’t like the girls seeing him and Raynard and that those brothersand uncles hung out together as a group.
In fact, weeks before his death, Raynard and Roger had driven to a trailernear Columbia, Mississippi, to pick up two friends who were young white women.When they got there, a white man came to the door, refused to let them in, andtold them they needed to leave. They replied that they would. The man said theyneeded to leave right then and called them “niggers.” Roger turned to talk to ayoung white man inside the trailer who went to school with Raynard. The boytold them they needed to leave. Roger and Raynard turned, walked back to thecar, and got in. As they drove away, the white man threw a beer bottle at themthat hit the car and shattered.
Then, two days before his death, on June 14, 2000, two friends who wereyoung white women and related to law enforcement came to Raynard’s house tohang out. Raynard’s brother Roger was there and was surprised to see the girlsbecause he and Raynard knew that the girls’ family didn’t want them spendingtime with Raynard because he was Black.
Raynard left the house with the girls around 8:30 pm. A short time later,Roger heard the family dogs barking like they usually did when someone was inthe yard. He then heard people running across the front yard. He turned off thelights in the house, slowly opened the front door, and fired three shots withhis 22 caliber rifle.
The next night, the night before Raynard’s death, the dogs began to barkagain and run in the same direction that they had the night before, but it wasdark outside. So, Roger could see no one. Witnesses stated that they had seen atruck driving slowly back and forth near Raynard’s house on those nights andthat the truck had been doing so for the past two or three weeks. In the timeafter Raynard’s death, these same witnesses were intimidated, followed aroundtown, tailgated on the highways, and for some, ran out of town.