BLADENBORO, N.C. — The hanging death of a 17-year-old black male here has stirred up old fears and fresh concern as residents raise doubts about whether authorities, who called the teen’s death a suicide, adequately investigated the possibility this might have been, in fact, a lynching.
On Saturday, protesters marched through the heart of town to call for a thorough examination of what happened to Lennon Lacy, who was found hanging by two belts from a playground swing set near his home Aug. 29. The case had appeared to stall for months, but in recent days the demand for answers and suspicions that local authorities allowed the case to founder have grown. It was announced Friday that the FBI would look into the case.
“We know it was a hanging,” NAACP state chapter president the Rev. William Barber II said before Saturday’s march. “But the question is, ‘Was it self-inflicted? Was it a staged hanging? Or was it a hanging or lynching homicide?’ ”
The state NAACP chapter organized Saturday’s protest after pushing for weeks to have federal authorities look into Lacy’s death, which has roiled this town of fewer than 2,000 residents, where 80 percent are white and 18 percent are black. Barber said there is evidence “that suggests possible race-based foul play,” including details about Lacy’s romantic relationship with an older white woman. But Barber said he and the family have not reached any conclusions about what happened. They just want a full-fledged investigation.
Lacy’s mother, Claudia Lacy, who led the march, said she wants the truth about how her youngest son died.
“When the facts add up,” she said, “I’ll be satisfied.”
The state medical examiner, who performed an autopsy, ruled Lacy’s death a suicide. Some residents criticized authorities for not investigating further, even if to support the suicide finding. But on Friday, amid calls for federal authorities to step in, Bladen County prosecutor Jon David said in a televised news conference that the case remains open and that he welcomed help from the FBI.
“I’m asking the community to withhold their judgment on what this case is until all the facts are in,” David said.
The NAACP and the Lacy family said they do not believe state and local authorities have an interest in probing all facets of the case.
Barber said the community’s “suspicions are deeper than feelings.”
The state NAACP launched its own investigation, including hiring an independent pathologist to review the state’s examination. The NAACP said several details raised questions about how the police investigation was conducted and how the finding of suicide was reached. Lacy, who was to start a new high school football season the day he died, was found hanging from a black belt and blue belt tied together — items that his mother said she did not recognize as his. She also said the Nike shoes her son had been wearing were missing. The NAACP said he was found wearing unfamiliar sneakers two sizes too small.
Before his death, Lacy had been dating a 31-year-old white woman who was a neighbor. Claudia Lacy said that her son told her about the relationship and that she did not approve of it. At some point, the couple broke up. The day before Lacy died, he had attended the funeral of his 78-year-old great-uncle. Claudia Lacy said her son was upset but not depressed.
She said he left their house about midnight for one of his usual training runs. He preferred running at night when the heat and humidity had eased. She next saw him about 7:30 a.m., when police called her to a wooden swing set about a quarter-mile from her home to identify her son’s body.
The protest Saturday echoed the protests in other parts of the country over the police-related deaths of black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. Those names were on the lips of many people here, and that larger protest movement appeared to energize the local marchers.
But the details of Lacy’s case — and how the march unfolded with none of the rancor that has reverberated in the streets of Ferguson — also appeared to recall the earlier civil rights era of the 1960s. Barber noted it, too, mentioning that Lacy died Aug. 29, one day after the 59th anniversary of the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy murdered in Mississippi after reportedly flirting with a white woman.
Walking through the streets, Deborah Belle could not believe she was here. She participated in the 1960s civil rights marches. That seemed to belong to a distant era.
But, now 58, here she was, holding a sign calling for justice and singing civil rights-era songs along with about 250 other marchers.
“It’s crazy we have to do this now,” said Belle, a school principal. “Something’s wrong. And it’s sad.”
Rena McNeil had traveled two hours from Scotland County to attend the protest.
“Anytime there’s strange fruit hanging from the tree,” she said, citing the Abel Meeropol poem that was inspired by lynchings and made famous in song by Billie Holiday, “you have to hit the streets.”