— The Rev. Jesse Jackson led about 1,000 demonstrators today in a march to the tree where a black teen-ager died last month in a hanging that medical examiners ruled a suicide.
The protesters, many carrying signs questioning whether 17-year-old Raynard Johnson was lynched, gathered outside his home in Kokomo where he was found hanging from a pecan tree June 16.
Two autopsies determined that the teen hung himself with a belt, but Johnson’s family and Jackson believe he may have been killed for associating with white women in the community.
“We will not rest until those who committed this murder are brought to justice,” Jackson said Saturday. “We reject the suicide theory.”
Dozens of law enforcement officers lined the streets of the four-mile march route from the high school Johnson had attended to his home, but other than heat-related illnesses there were no problems.
Some residents of the community of 1,000 about 90 miles south of Jackson, Miss., have questioned whether the case is being overblown. A new report released Friday by the state pathologist reinforced earlier determinations that the death was suicide.
“They’re trying to stir up trouble,” said Terry Powell of nearby Morgantown.
Jackson has set up a $10,000 reward and hot line to encourage people to come forward with information, and he has asked Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a black person living here in constant fear of being lynched,” said Dan Lutz, 22, a Tulane University student who drove to the rally from New Orleans with about 200 people. “We’re going to rally here for justice against the systematic violence against black people.”
Some neighbors have said Johnson was a happy teen who would not have committed suicide.
“There’s a lot of prejudice and hatred in Kokomo,” said resident Candace Brister, whose son Courtney attended the same school as Johnson. “It’s time something is done about it.”
Mamie Mobley, whose 14-year-old son Emmett Till was killed in Mississippi in 1955, supposedly for whistling at a white woman, held hands with Johnson’s mother, Maria, during the demonstration and offered her support.
Johnson’s father declined to comment.