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Esther Muhammad’s book, “Mississippi Jail Hangings: Behind the Magnolias,” brings to mind Ida B. Wells’ introduction to her 1892 exposé on lynching: “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning.”
This Ms. Muhammad accomplishes in telling the life story of her son Andre Jones, a precocious 18-year-old who was found hanging in a Mississippi jail cell, only half a day after being pulled over by police for reasons that are still in dispute.
One hundred years separates Ms. Wells’ reporting and Mr. Jones’ death, with extralegal violence against blacks shifting from southern magnolia trees to jails.
Readers are fortunate to have both narratives, along with a paper on police brutality by Ms. Muhammad’s daughter, together in one volume, published by Evanston-based Path Press Inc.
Although the authorities claimed that Mr. Jones committed suicide, Ms. Muhammad uses this book not only to refute this claim – it would have been impossible for him to have killed himself without other inmates seeing – but also to provide a convincing portrait of “a stolen life, taken away when it was just beginning.” That in the five years before Mr. Jones’s death there were more than 45 such jail deaths reported in Mississippi alone adds to the anguish and anger.
Mr. Jones was born to a large, close-knit family of farmers, shopkeepers, ministers, and carpenters. During the civil rights movement, his father courageously drove African Americans to the courthouse to register to vote. Ms. Muhammad worked as a school administrator and eventually headed the Jackson chapter of the NAACP. Mr. Jones grew up under their protection.
At the time that he died in August 1992, Mr. Jones was set to go to Alcorn State University, founded in 1871, where his father and step-mother worked. He had spent that summer as a full-time paid apprentice for a local engineering company.
Ms. Muhammad offers some glimpses of Mr. Jones’s inner life, albeit as much as a mother is permitted to see. It was the 17-year-old Andre who opened his mother’s world to Islam after admitting to his “lack of inspiration” at church. “It was just a few years before that out of a rage that came suddenly without any warning, he declared he would not eat any more pork. His conviction was so strong and absolute that we decided not to buy the product again,” she writes.
After arresting him for carrying a gun he had just bought from a friend, police detained Mr. Jones for a weekend.
They had discovered the gun when they searched him while he was just hanging out. Afterward, Mr. Jones was “more quiet and more removed and always appeared less emotional than before.” He told his mother that while he was in the detention center, God told him he would once again be incarcerated and “he would never leave the jail alive.” Indeed, the thread running through this book is that because “we cannot isolate ourselves and our family from our environment,” black sons are vulnerable in a white world.
Ms. Muhammad suspects that the real reason for Andre’s death was retaliation for her own NAACP-led reopening of the investigation of Medgar Evers’ murder 30 years before. That led to a new trial of Byron De La Beckwith, who was ultimately convicted in 1994.
Mr. Jones’s well-publicized death – he was eulogized by Minister Louis Farrakhan – sparked an investigation of Mississippi jail deaths by Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno. The Muhammad family pursued a wrongful death suit against the state and founded the National Center for Police Accountability. The courts, however, continually upheld a finding of suicide, a finding echoed in the 2015 death of Sandra Bland when she was imprisoned. These cases pose the overarching question of why these individuals were incarcerated in the first place.
Rooting Andre’s death squarely in the history of institutional racism, Ms. Muhammad has done her part to raise society’s awareness. What she has also accomplished in telling her son’s story is to express her own grief and that of other parents. Of the officer who called to tell her of her son’s death, she writes, “Could he have been speaking to me of my child or was he casually referring to an object or something of no value?”
Lynching is mob killing. After the Civil War, southern whites lynched nearly 4,000 black men for supposed rape or other crimes against whites. In 2005, Congress finally issued a formal apology for its own failure to prosecute those committing lynchings. Two hundred previous attempts to pass anti-lynching bills had been stymied by filibuster threats from southern senators. Meanwhile, there is still no national law against lynching and no reparations for descendants of victims. It is time to bring this evolution of extrajudicial violence against blacks into the open and for Congress to act instead of apologizing for not acting.