Saturday, March 21, 2015

Strange Fruit in Claiborne County?

Actor Theo Rossi as "Juice"
I count myself among the ranks of those who've opted to "unplug" from cable, not just because of the ridiculous monthly fees for channels I don't even watch, but because I like to watch what I want, when I want without being bombarded with commercials - so I'm all about Netflix.

Last evening as it snowed (on the first day of Spring), I was watching an episode of 'Sons of Anarchy' from season four when the character named "Juice" played by Queens, NY-born actor Theo Rossi (pictured left) tries to hang himself with a chain from a tree because he's consumed with guilt over learning that his father was African-American (which he never knew because he never met him) and SOA biker gang rules only allow white men to be members; just like the Hell's Angels and many other biker gangs.
Juice was raised thinking that his father was Puerto Rican. He's a loyal SOA member and loves the club, but he's internally torn and justifiably terrified about what they'll do to him if they find out his dad was black.

At the end of the episode, series co-star Katey Sagal, who used to play Peg Bundy on the series "Married... With Children", sings a pretty powerful and touching acoustic cover of the anti-lynching anti-racism protest song 'Strange Fruit' made famous by Billie Holiday's haunting 1939 version written by teacher Abel Meeropol - watch her sing it.

Sagal definitely does the song justice, which is not really surprising considering that she was a well-known backup singer for years in the music industry, (she's sung with the likes of Bob Dylan, Tanya Tucker, Bette Middler, Gene Simmons and Olivia Newton John) before she became an actress.

54 year-old victim Otis Byrd
The song and the imagery of Theo Rossi's character hanging from a tree got me thinking about the strange case of Otis Byrd (pictured left), a 54 year-old man who was recently found hanging from a bed sheet tied to a tree in the woods about 500 yards from his home in Claiborne County, Mississippi after he went missing on March 2nd.

Local authorities and investigators from the FBI are still trying to determine if Byrd committed suicide, or if he was lynched by unknown assailants.

No one should die like that, but Otis was no angel.

According to Claiborne Sheriff Marvin Lucas, Byrd was 19 years-old and already on probation when he robbed the Trim Grocery Store in Port Gibson, Mississippi in 1980 to get money to pay a $15 monthly "probation officer fee".

During the robbery he shot and killed the store's owner, a 55 year-old white woman named Lucille Trim; Byrd made off with $101 and served 25 years after being convicted of capital murder before being paroled in 2006.

Bryd enjoyed gambling and his niece drove him to Vicksburg Mississippi to the casinos the morning of March 2nd. Byrd came home, then went back to the casinos later that day and a friend dropped him off at home at around 11pm that night - that was the last time he was seen alive.

Does it seem likely that Byrd, an ex-con in his mid-50's who'd served over 25 years in prison, came home from a trip to the casino, walked over 500 yards into the woods behind his house in the middle of the night and hung himself from a tree using a bed sheet?

Byrd was described by friends who knew him locally as a quiet man who attended church and was not known to be suicidal; he has a large number of family members who live scattered about in the immediate area too.

Anything is possible, but the statistics don't seem to support his having killed himself.

According to CDC statistics on victims of suicide over 10 years-old broken down by race and ethnicity, African-Americans are the least likely to kill themselves.

Statistically speaking, suicide actually occurs much more often among Native Americans followed by non-Hispanic white Americans, Hispanics then Asians.

Because of the lack of local police resources in Claiborne County, and the dark legacy of lynching in the state of Mississippi, over 30 FBI investigators along with law enforcement personnel from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) are currently taking part in the investigation of Byrd's death.

Of the 581 people known to have been lynched in Mississippi between 1882 - 1968, at least 539 of the victims were black; the highest number of people of color of any state by far.

Investigators are still trying to determine the exact cause of death, but if turns out Byrd was lynched, it not only brings to light a dark chapter in American history, it would link to an unsettling rise in overt demonstrations of bias and bigotry in this nation in recent years.

We all certainly heard about the leaked video of the racist chant enthusiastically sung by members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of SAE which included words mentioning the lynching of black people.

Earlier today's Erica Hellerstein reported that just last Thursday employees at a Raleigh's restaurant near the campus of North Carolina State University found a green notebook that was left behind at a table by members of NCSU's chapter of Pi Kappa Phi.

The notebook contained hand-written notes detailing not only sexual assaults on women and under-aged girls, it also contained disturbing observations like, "Man, that tree is so prefect for lynching."
It's disturbing to think that the Greek fraternity system on the campuses of America's institutions of higher learning are breeding grounds for misogyny and racism; but the evidence keeps surfacing, suggesting these aren't isolated incidents, but a troubling trend.

It was just last year in February when it was announced that officials at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) had expelled three members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity after their involvement with the placing of a noose and a Confederate flag over a statue honoring James Meredith; the school's first black student.

Or the Penn State University chapter of Kappa Delta Rho that was recently suspended after it was learned that current and former members maintained a Facebook page with photos of girls (presumably PSU students) passed out and unconscious in various states of undress with comments suggesting that sexual assault was fairly common.

The large stately frat houses with their manicured lawns and coveted parties have symbolized a "campus elite" for decades at many colleges.

But the idea that inside some of those houses some of those young men casually talk of "Strange Fruit" and dehumanizing women is abhorrent to the ideals of higher education and the laws of a civilized nation.

And we can only wonder about the meaning behind their disturbing fascination with the noose, given its historical significance and what it symbolizes in this country. 

Time will tell if "Strange Fruit" was indeed growing in the woods of Claiborne County, Mississippi, but we already know those seeds are growing inside the American Greek fraternal system.   

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