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Jail Cell Hangings Revive Old Ghosts in Mississippi : Civil rights: Unanswered questions in 48 deaths since 1987 rekindle charges of racism and police misconduct.

May 30, 1993|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. — Even Dicky Sistrunk finds it peculiar, the way the lights went out almost as soon as Scott Campbell landed in jail. A whole side of this Mississippi town went black for more than an hour for reasons nobody could fathom. When the lights came back on, Campbell was dead.

Sistrunk, a police officer for only eight months, found the young black man strung up by his pants leg from a bar of his cell. When he untied the noose and lowered him to the floor with help from the jailer and a trusty, Sistrunk recalls, he saw a belt--later found to be 2 centimeters wide--lying across the dead man's shoulder.

No one can explain why it was in the cell because Campbell's friends and family insist that he habitually went without a belt. Nor can anyone explain why the 2-centimeter bruise around Campbell's neck matched the belt exactly.

All Campbell's parents knew, with a conviction that they say will never swerve, was that their son had been murdered.

"I'll go to my grave saying he didn't commit suicide," said his father, M. C. Campbell, a retired painter. He said he is convinced that his son was killed for dating white women.

Campbell's death in 1990 was one of the more troubling of 48 jail hangings, involving both blacks and whites, that have occurred in Mississippi since 1987. The deaths were officially ruled suicides, but unusual circumstances surrounding the deaths of several of the black inmates have revived the specter of the racially motivated lynchings of the state's past.

Even those who deny that there was wrongdoing in Campbell's death say they understand why people might want to believe the worst.

It was here in Neshoba County almost 30 years ago, after all, that the brutal slaying of three civil rights workers shocked the nation.

State murder charges were never filed, although seven people, including a deputy sheriff and an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, eventually were convicted on federal civil rights charges and served brief prison terms. The memory of that crime still haunts many here.

One of the civil rights workers who was shot in 1964 and buried in an earthen dam was a 21-year-old black man named James E. Chaney. His brother, Ben, now heads a New York-based civil rights organization named for his sibling. He said he returned to Mississippi last year to personally investigate the Campbell case after hearing of the rash of jail hangings.

Although several rumors surrounding Campbell's death, including reports that he had been castrated and that his tongue had been cut out, were proved to be false, Chaney said: "I'm convinced without a doubt that he was murdered."

Many here say that today's Mississippi is nothing like the days of old, that all the talk of jailhouse lynchings is without foundation.

Police Chief James A. Gentry investigated Campbell's death in 1990 and, despite a number of unanswered questions, concluded that Campbell had hanged himself.

But much of the black community rejected that conclusion. People said they were concerned about the mysterious power failure, about the belt and about the disappearance of Campbell's clothes--and the belt--after the autopsy.

They said they were concerned that Campbell's remains were taken to a mortuary, washed and embalmed--all without the family's consent--before the body was examined, supposedly because of a lack of cooling facilities at the morgue.

Even then, they say, the mortuary used by the family found a bruise on Campbell's forehead and one on his chest--although police contend those probably occurred when he was chased and tackled by arresting officers.

However, perhaps the most compelling reason for people over a certain age not to accept the police chief's findings was simply this: They had lived through a time when a black man could be killed just for looking at or talking to a white woman.

They have not forgotten Emmett Till, the black teen-ager murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman.

"I talked to Scott," said his father, remembering the warnings he'd given his son. "I told him: 'Scott, you got to stop (dating white women). If you don't, it's going to get you in trouble. . . . They'll mess you up real bad."

But with a look of bemused patience, Gentry said those days are long gone.

"If every black guy that's been going with a white girl got killed, there wouldn't be many black guys left," the 55-year-old police chief said. Mississippians are "more rational" now about racial matters, he said.

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