The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

85 years after infamous lynching, another noose stirs tension in Indiana town

When his boss tossed the noose into his hands, Mikel Neal, a black firefighter in Marion, Ind., had two thoughts.

First, was this a threat? And, second, how would Neal tell his wife about this bizarre act, with its eerie echoes of Marion’s dark past?

“I’m still in shock,” Neal said in an interview late Monday. “I can’t fathom why would someone do what he did.”

Assistant fire chief Rick Backs has since been suspended by the Marion Fire Department; he released a statement apologizing for forming a noose during a knot-tying exercise at the station house Feb. 13.

But with a disciplinary hearing set for next week in the case, Neal and other black residents are worried that Backs may suffer no lasting consequences for an act they view as troubling and divisive. In an interview with The Washington Post, Neal, who also plans a news conference for Wednesday, said that Backs specifically targeted him that day, one of nine racial minorities on the 63-person force.

“I heard him call ‘Mickey’ – that’s my nickname – and he tosses something to me,” Neal said, adding that Backs then turned and walked out of the room. “I catch it with my right hand. I’m looking at it in shock and awe. I was very upset.”

Neal  is the first to acknowledge that Marion is no Ferguson, Mo., where a fatal shooting by police ignited protests over years of  abuse and racial discrimination. But with the nation’s level of racial consciousness on high alert following a year of activism against police brutality and racial profiling, local outlets reported the story of the noose and Backs’s suspension.

Backs, the reports suggested, should have known better. Especially in this town. Especially with its history.

In 1930, two young black men were lynched on suspicion of murdering a white man. Their hanging was captured in a gruesome image by a local photographer, a photo that became an iconic depiction of American lynching – and served as inspiration for the song “Strange Fruit.” It was the last recorded lynching in a northern state.

A third teen, James Cameron, was spared, served time in prison and later wrote a book about the experience. He opened a museum dedicated to the thousands of black Americans killed by white lynch mobs, and eventually was pardoned by then Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh (D).

Before his death in 2006, Cameron frequently visited Marion. And after one of those visits, the girl who would become Mikel Neal’s wife learned that she was related to one of the dead men, Abram Smith.

“He was my third cousin,” Rachel Fears-Neal said. “I was in disbelief that my town, the people who I lived with and still live with, could have been involved in lynching one of my family members.”

Eighty-five years after the residents of Marion lynched her third cousin, Fears-Neal learned that the town’s assistant fire chief had tossed a noose to her husband. “I was definitely in disbelief. I just listened to the story in its entirety, trying to understand what was going on and why,” she said. “My heart was aching extremely.”

Neal himself found it hard to make sense of the incident. He said fellow firefighters present that day immediately reacted with outrage on his behalf. Others insisted it must have been a joke. The fire chief and other city officials took it very seriously.

“I want to apologize, on behalf of myself, to the community for this type of incident even happening,” Marion Fire Chief Paul David told a local TV station.

The chief proposed to demote Backs, but Backs insisted that the town’s Board of Public Works and Safety should decide his fate. Neal and other firefighters plan to testify at the hearing Monday.

“Quite frankly, this is the assistant fire chief. If he doesn’t have the brain matter to understand that throwing a black man a noose, in this town, is unacceptable …then the city policy provides for his removal,” said Walter Madison, an Ohio-based civil rights attorney who is working with Neal.

Neal “would have been willing to lay his life down to save Backs if they were in a building that was burning,” Madison said. “How do you handle that person threatening you like this?”

As for Backs, he has stayed out of the spotlight. Other than his initial statement, he has not addressed the allegations publicly. He did respond to requests for comment.

“I sincerely apologize for my actions,” he wrote in the statement released to local media. “I hope this incident can be a reminder to all of us that while we’ve made much progress in our community, issues related to race and equality are still sensitive today and we must take care, in our actions and our words, to always show respect to others.”

So was this just an insensitive joke gone wrong? Or some kind of veiled threat?

Neal said he took it as the latter, but he doesn’t know for sure. Soon after the incident, Backs called Neal’s cell phone.

Neal decided to let it ring.