Rumor, accusations, fly in park hanging death

The discovery of the body of a black man hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park has touched off debate, questions and comments near and far.

Police say the man killed himself. Others say that’s not so — the man, they are convinced, was lynched.

Lynched. The very word is a reminder of terror dealt with rope and gun, by flame and blade. It's the stuff of grainy old photos and lurid newspaper accounts. It's the tales handed down from one generation to the next — the mob at the door, the hate in the air.

Police say evidence taken from the site last week supports their conclusion that the unidentified man took his own life. To be on the safe side, they've called in the FBI to take a closer look at the case.

But that’s not enough. In the tense aftermath of recent racially charged shootings in St. Paul, Baton Rouge and Dallas, the unidentified man’s death has sparked questions and accusations that have gone viral on social media forums.

Consider this tweet from Wendavious Ross, who’s not buying the police line:

“It seems like the police could have been hiding something,” he wrote Monday. “I personally think the guy was (hanged). I’m not sure how it’s ruled as a suicide so fast, to me that sounds fishy.”

He then invoked an organization synonymous with violence against blacks. “I’m hoping it wasn’t the KKK at all … But that’s what it seems like.”

It seems like a “perfect storm” of comment and conjecture, said Jennifer Keitt, a social media expert from Atlanta.

A timeline confirms her assessment. A park security guard found the body Thursday around 4 a.m. At 5 a.m., social-media traffic picked up the bare facts: a black man hanging from a tree, police investigating. By 10 a.m., user comments had become pointed, outraged. By noon, people were speculating that he’d been lynched — the KKK, perhaps, behind it.

“I think it was just the perfect storm as it relates specifically and only to that story,” Keitt said. The ingredients of that storm include race; the manner of the man’s death; and the presence of police, she said.

Adding swirl to the storm: the Internet, where rumors are always welcome. “Misinformation is rampant on the Internet,” she said. “The more viral, the more sensational; … that is the nature of the beast.”

There are reasons for people believing a cover-up took place at Piedmont Park, said W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The department's chair, Brundage is the author of "Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930."

People of color, he added, would be especially suspicious of any African-American’s hanging death ruled a suicide.

“There’s a long history of lynchings … in African-Americans’ memory,” said Fitzhugh. “There are centuries of history.”

No less than Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been drawn into the debate over what did, or did not, happen. Early Saturday, he visited demonstrators in downtown Atlanta protesting the shootings in St. Paul and Baton Rouge. Their talk quickly turned to what one protester termed “a black man hanging from a tree in the South.”

“The simple fact of the matter is, there are no facts that suggest foul play (at) Piedmont Park,” Reed said. “We immediately turned it over to the FBI for transparency.”

Those assurances weren’t enough for at least one demonstrator. “What happened at Piedmont Park?” he demanded.

Reed has been assailed for not releasing more details but he argued officials haven’t been able to notify the man’s family yet.

“Just imagine if you heard about your loved one being lost on TV rather than through law enforcement?” the mayor asked.

The skepticism is understandable, said Amy Kate Bailey, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She's co-author of "Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence." The volume focuses on a half-century of lynchings, from 1880-1930, in 10 southern states. Georgia is one of them.

Her research determined that about 2,500 people were lynched during the period — more than 500 from Georgia.

White people, she said, might be surprised by that total. Black people? Not so much.

“This is something that we as a country have not talked about,” Bailey said. “I think that it gets completely swept under the rug.”

It’s hardly surprising, she added, that some people would view the police department’s conclusions with suspicion.

“I think their reaction is understandable: ‘We haven’t been told the truth so far. Why would we get the full story now?’"Bailey said.

“Until we tell ourselves the complete story, we’re not going to move past the present.”