Mississippi Jail Lynchings
Revolutionary Worker #979, October 25, 1998
This article is based on a correspondence from an activist with Refuse & Resist! and the October 22 Coalition in Atlanta, as well as material from the Mississippi Coalition for Justice:
In the period between 1987 and 1993, at least 48 people--including 22 Black men--were found dead from hangings in Mississippi jail cells. In each and every case, the authorities declared the official cause of death to be "suicide."
One of the 22 Black men was 18-year-old Andre Jones. Andre's family refused to accept the official story of his death, and they uncovered evidence that he was murdered. As they learned of the many other cases of "suicide by hanging" in Mississippi in recent years, a chilling pattern emerged. This is a region with a bloody history of lynchings of Black people. The series of jail cell hangings showed that these racist crimes are not a thing of the past. A headline in the Black-owned newspaper Jackson Advocate a few weeks after Andre's murder read: "Are jailhouse suicides a new way of lynching Black males?"
The family and their supporters formed the Mississippi Coalition for Justice to expose and protest the jail lynchings of Andre and others. This August 21--on the sixth anniversary of Andre's death--the Coalition held a rally and press conference on the steps of the state capitol in Jackson. The Coalition says that their objectives are: "To eradicate injustice for persons incarcerated in jails and prisons through the legal system; To insure that law enforcement officials that commit crimes against innocent victims are justly prosecuted; To create public awareness of human rights abuses within the jail and prison system; To establish a legal fund to provide legal representation for unjust treatment of inmates incarcerated."
Murder of Andre Jones
On August 22, 1992, 18-year-old Andre Jones and his girlfriend were stopped at a police roadblock. Andre was arrested for allegedly having an open beer, carrying a concealed weapon and driving a truck with a stolen license plate. His girlfriend said later that Andre wasn't carrying a weapon, and his family said the truck belonged to a friend.
Andre was taken to the Rankin County Jail and then transferred to the Simpson County Jail in Mendenhall, supposedly because of overcrowding. The Simpson jail was run by Sheriff Lloyd Jones--known as "goon" among Black people in the area because of his crude racism and brutality.
"Goon" and his men claim they found Andre dead in the shower stall a few hours after the transfer. The authorities declared that Andre had committed suicide by hanging himself with a shoelace.
This version of events did not ring true to Andre's family. Charles X Quinn Muhammad said, "Our son, Andre, was a vibrant teenager who had a lot to live for. He had just graduated from high school and was enrolled at Alcorn State University for the fall semester. He had never been in trouble with the law. He was not charged with any felonies. Therefore going to prison was not an issue in his case. He had no reason to kill himself."
The family's suspicions were confirmed when an independent pathologist concluded in his report: "It is physically impossible for a person to pick himself up by a shoestring and hang himself from the rafters of a shower stall without the aid of a chair or stepstool Accordingly, I interpret this death as a homicide, wherein the shoestring hanging was used to fake the appearance of suicide."
Andre's parents are well-known activists in the Jackson area. His mother, Esther Quinn Jones Muhammad, is president of the local NAACP chapter. His father, Charles Muhammad, is the minister of the Nation of Islam mosque in Jackson. Attorney Chokwe Lumumba, representing the family, said that Andre's parents were "not liked by racist authorities of this state." And he named the "authorities at Simpson County Jail" as primary suspects in the murder of Andre.
Some of the other victims of suspected jailhouse lynchings in Mississppi include the following:
David Scott Campbell was a 21-year-old offshore oil worker living in Philadelphia, Mississippi. On October 9, 1990, cops beat and arrested Campbell and took him to the Neshoba County Jail. At midnight, the lights in the jail went out for an hour. When the lights came back on, Campbell was dead, hanging in his cell. Campbell was known to date several white women. One of those women--a daughter of a police officer--said she believed Campbell was killed by sheriff's deputies and cops because of his association with white women. Bobby Everette, 19-year-old, was found hanged in a Jackson jail in February 1993. His brother said he saw Bobby for the last time less than five hours before he was found "with one end of a bed sheet knotted around his neck and the other tied to a cell bar." Cedrick Walker was found with a rope around his neck in his Parchman jail cell in July 1993. In a letter to his mother ten days earlier, Walker wrote that he feared for his life and wanted to get transferred to another jail: "I will feel safer there, because you can't trust some of these officers."
An Epidemic of Jail Lynchings
As Andre Jones' family and their supporters fought to uncover the truth, they formed links with others in Mississippi--and nationwide. Charles Muhammad told the Jackson Advocate, "We were guests on the Bertice Berry show in Chicago. We addressed Amnesty International in San Francisco. We have travelled to Dallas and New York City to name a few places. Everywhere we have gone we have found that there are people expressing the same frustrations about losing loved ones in jails under mysterious circumstances."
In June 1994, the nationally televised Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment on Andre Jones. After the airing of the show, the Muhammads received many calls from relatives of jail death victims.
In February 1993, the Commission on Human Rights Abuses in Mississippi held public hearings on jail lynchings and other abuses by law enforcement officials. One of the testimonies was given by Andrea Gibbs, a former deputy sheriff in Harrison County Jail and Youth Detention Facility in Gulfport, Mississippi. She testified, "I've personally seen dozens of beatings of Black, white and Nicaraguan detainees. [I've seen them] kicked, strangled, slapped, punched, stabbed." Gibbs, who is white, said that when she and three African American deputies told their superiors about their intention to report these abuses, they were fired.
Gibbs pointed out the connection between the brutality she witnessed and the jail lynchings: "We documented more than 75 cases of people being beaten. What is upsetting is that the majority of the alleged suicides occured after 1989 [when she and the other deputies first raised concern about the abuses]. Any one of the beatings I saw could have escalated into murder. And it doesn't take a smart person to realize that the best way to cover that up is to make it appear as a suicide."
The protests by the Mississippi Coalition for Justice and others and the growing public outrage forced the Clinton administration's Justice Department to carry out an investigation of Mississippi jails in 1993. The Justice Department concluded that overcrowding and other problems led to inmate suicides--but they ruled that there was no evidence of foul play by Mississippi law enforcement authorities.
Since that federal probe, there have been no official "suicides by hanging" in Mississippi--yet jail conditions in the state certainly have not improved. What does this say? It indicates that the hanging of Andre Jones and many of the other jail "suicides" before the probe were deliberate acts of murder. The federal goverment, with its investigation, signaled the concern of the bourgeois ruling class overall that the jail lynchings could potentially touch off widespread anger and resistance. And the Mississippi authorities apparently heard that message. But this has not brought any justice for Andre Jones and other jail lynching victims. And the injustice and brutality continue.
As Charles X Quinn Muhammad said at the August 21 action: "Today we people of color are rendered a verdict as soon as we walk into a courtroom. We have only to look at the prisons to see modern-day slavery."
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