In Jena and Beyond, Nooses Return as a Symbol of Hate

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007

When he reached his third-story workstation at a construction site near Pittsburgh two weeks ago, Errol Madyun saw the noose -- thick, neatly knotted and strong enough to hang a man.

"It was intimidating," said Madyun, a black ironworker.

More than 400 miles south in North Carolina, Terry Grier, superintendent of Guilford County Schools, saw the same type of noose last month at predominantly black T.W. Andrews High near Greensboro.

"It was huge," Grier, who is white, said of a noose he discovered hanging from a flagpole, one of four nooses placed at the school. "I became very angry. Part of what you think is it's a copycat of Jena."

Law enforcement authorities, including the Justice Department, are expressing concern over a recent spate of noose sightings in the aftermath of events in Jena, the small Louisiana town that has been engulfed by racial strife and was the scene of a recent civil rights demonstration.

Nooses have been looped over a tree at the University of Maryland, knotted to the end of stage-rigging ropes at a suburban Memphis theater, slung on the doorknob of a black professor's office at Columbia University in New York, hung in a locker room at a Long Island police station, stuffed in the duffel bag of a black Coast Guard cadet aboard a historic ship, and draped around the necks of black dolls in the Pittsburgh suburbs. The hangman's rope has become so prolific, some say, it could replace the Nazi swastika and the Ku Klux Klan's fiery cross as the nation's reigning symbol of hate.

"I think the noose is replacing the burning cross in the minds of many white people as the primary symbol of the Klan," said Mark Potok, editor of Intelligence Report, a magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center that examines hate groups.

Last week, the Justice Department called the placing of nooses "shameful" and deplored the fear and intimidation they are meant to arouse. "Many of these cowardly actions may also violate federal and state civil rights and hate crime laws," acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler said in a statement. "The offenders should be aware, and the American people can trust, that the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation . . . are actively investigating these incidents."

But the Justice Department could not point to any recent arrests on hate-crime charges as a result of incidents involving nooses, and at a House Judiciary Committee hearing this week Democrats sharply criticized department officials for not aggressively pursuing such cases.

The noose's status as an emblem of terror is well known. It became infamous during a half-century of lynching that started in the United States in the late 19th century. More than 2,500 African Americans lost their lives, often by hanging.

"A noose is a symbol of America's oldest form of domestic terrorism," said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington office. "It was held up as an example to show that whoever you are, you could be taken this way."

At the construction site near Pittsburgh, Madyun said his white supervisor waved off his complaint: "He told me it was just a joke."


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company