(Reuters) – The FBI is investigating the death of a black man found hanging from a tree in Mississippi on Thursday in what may be either a criminal case or a suicide, the agency said.
The man, who authorities did not name, was found more than two weeks after he had gone missing in a wooded area in Claiborne County in western Mississippi, about half a mile from his home, Jackson-based FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Pack said in a statement.
State and local authorities are also probing the death, Pack said.
The Mississippi chapter of the NAACP identified the dead man as Otis Byrd, 54, and called for a swift and thorough federal investigation into his death.
“Mr. Byrd was found hung in a tree, and because of that we want to ensure it was not in fact a racial hate crime,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP.
Lynching, or extrajudicial public execution by hanging, was once a common practice in parts of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By one estimate, some 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched from 1882 to 1968.
The incident comes seven months after a 17-year-old black male named Lennon Lacy was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina, in a case local authorities initially ruled a suicide but which the FBI announced in December it was probing as suspicious.
The man identified by the NAACP as Byrd had last been seen on March 2, and his family filed a missing-persons report six days later, Pack said, adding that the body was found in the course of a search conducted by local and state authorities.
WJTV, the local CBS affiliate, reported authorities as saying that the body was found hanging by a bed sheet tied at the neck and was wearing a skullcap.
“Investigators are currently processing the scene for evidence to determine the cause and manner of death,” Pack said.
The local sheriff’s office contacted the FBI and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation for forensic and investigative assistance, Pack said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans and additional reporting Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)