HERE'S SOMETHING you probably didn't know, but won't surprise you either: Being a black leader automatically makes you an expert in forensic pathology.
One expert is the Revvum Jesse Jackson, who has proclaimed the death of Raynard Johnson of Kokomo, Miss., on June 18 a homicide. Johnson, 16, was found hanging from a tree outside his father's home. The official state medical examiner determined the youth's death was a suicide. Dr. Paul McGarry - a New Orleans physician who performed an independent autopsy at the request of Johnson's family on June 22 - came to the same conclusion.
That hasn't stopped Jackson from screaming "Murder!" and dredging up the lynch word. He's even dragged the poor mother of Emmitt Till - the victim of a real Mississippi lynching back in 1955 - to go about the Kokomo vicinity in protest of Johnson's "murder."
Other black leaders - apparently as adept as Jackson in forensic pathology - have hopped on the bandwagon. Locally, former state senator and current WOLB talk radio host Larry Young spoke to a crowd at the Bread of Life Cathedral a little more than a week ago just before Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan took the podium. Referring to Johnson's death, Young told those assembled, "Some say it was suicide. We believe it was homicide." He didn't mention that two of the "some" who felt the death was a suicide were two doctors, forensic pathologists, who, as autopsy experts, have probably forgotten more about this stuff than most of us will ever know.
When Farrakhan took the podium he made a comment that shows he, too, has bought into the Raynard Johnson lynching story. What, exactly, is the evidence those who've cried "lynching" have cited? The feelings of Johnson's family that he wouldn't have committed suicide, that the belt from which he was hanging wasn't his, and his friendship with two white girls.
Jackson and other black leaders figure this "evidence" is so compelling that the Johnson death is being compared to Till's. Let's return to reality a second and compare the vast differences between the two while conceding the common white female connection.
Till, 14 and visiting from Chicago, made the mistake of calling a white woman "baby." Some accounts say he whistled at her. (Whatever the case, she should have taken it as a compliment.) The woman's husband and his brother came to Till's uncle's house, dragged the boy out, beat him so viciously his face was a lump of horridly hideous, unrecognizable flesh and shot him in the head with a .45-caliber handgun. Then they tied him to a cotton gin fan and dumped him in a river.
What about Johnson?
According to Doug Barnes, a spokesman for the Marion County sheriff's office, there were no signs of a struggle.
"His legs and wrists were not broken," Barnes said. "He was not shot. He was not run over. His hands and feet were not tied and there were no marks or messages on his body indicating this may have been a hate crime."
Both autopsies confirm Barnes' comments. If a couple of good old boys had decided they were going to string Johnson up, wouldn't he have put up even a little bit of a struggle? If they wanted to send a message about what happens when young black men mess with white girls, wouldn't they have made it more obvious?
And isn't it just possible Raynard Johnson committed suicide? Here's something that Jackson, Young and Farrakhan haven't mentioned, but it's the truth nonetheless: The suicide rate among young black men has been rising at an alarming rate for some time now. But most black folks, like Johnson's relatives, believe suicide is something uncommon among young black men.
Granted, the black youth as suicide victim stereotype is not as prevalent, among blacks or whites, as the black youth as thug stereotype. But those who scream lynching in connection with the death of Raynard Johnson are buying into another stereotype - that of Mississippi as a hang 'em high state where white folks would lynch black folks with little or no provocation. Mississippi may have deserved that characterization at one point. No doubt many in the state still hold racist attitudes. But do the blacks who believe Johnson was lynched base their assertion on the evidence? Or, to foster the notion of blacks as perpetual victims of white racist abuse, do they actually want Johnson to have been lynched? It sure sounds like it. That's a harsh conclusion, but what other one can be reached when Jackson and others ignore the words of a trained forensic pathologist?
"Based on my findings at this autopsy performed by me on June 22, 2000, at the request of the family and considering information from the investigation of this death in light of my training, knowledge and experience in medicine and forensic pathology, I believe this young man's death was due to hanging by the neck, that it was self-inflicted, that he hanged himself, that it was suicide and that no other persons were involved in or responsible for his death," McGarry wrote last Sunday.
That won't mollify those specialists in black victimology. According to Barnes, their reaction to McGarry's conclusions has been to demand the exhumation of Johnson's body and a third autopsy.