By all accounts, Raynard Johnson was a good kid: a straight-A student, a talented football player, a church-going son who always wore a smile.
So when the high school junior was found hanging from a pecan tree, just steps from his front door, this mixed-race community in rural Mississippi found itself confronted with uncomfortable questions: Did Raynard commit suicide, as a coroner's report suggests? Or was he lynched by someone who disapproved of his dating white girls?
"He wouldn't hang himself, in my opinion," says Curtis Johnson, a cousin, sitting at a picnic table in his shady front yard. "He was enjoying life too well."
With Raynard's family doubting the official report - and with the NAACP paying for a private investigator to look into the young man's death - the issues of race and interracial dating are suddenly looming large in a town where white and black live side by side and work, worship, and fish together.
"You go into the grocery store, and people say, 'How ya doin'?' whether you're white or black," says Craig Robbins, superintendent of the local school district. "If somebody has trouble on the road - I don't care what race it is - people stop and help them."
But in Marion County, as in many rural corners of America, interracial dating still seems to engender some resistance.
"This is the last great bogeyman, the last great taboo," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-group watchdog in Montgomery, Ala. The Ku Klux Klan's original charter, he notes, was to "protect white women's chastity" after the emancipation of slaves.
But Mr. Potok is quick to add that lingering resistance to racial mixing is not unique to the South.
Nationwide, marriages of black and white couples have increased nearly sevenfold since the 1960s, from 51,000 couples in 1960 to 340,000 in 1996. Interracial marriages now total 1.5 million, but these couples tend to concentrate in urban areas more tolerant of changing social mores.
Friends say Raynard's easy-going color-blindness may have confronted the hard legacy of segregation.
"People don't approve of [interracial dating]," says Eddie Conerly, a young African-American neighbor from Kokomo, who knew Raynard in school and now owns a car wash in Columbia, the county seat. "The only way it's going to change is when the good Lord comes. Then it won't be a black or white thing."
Family members say Raynard was dating a white girl a few weeks before he died, but stopped when the girl's uncle showed up at the Johnson house and voiced his disapproval. Soon afterward, Raynard was found hanging from a tree, a baseball cap still on his head.
His death has drawn wide, if somewhat unwelcome, national attention to this isolated corner of southwestern Mississippi. FBI investigators and TV crews from across the state have descended on the town, interviewing friends and family members alike. The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at Raynard's funeral a week ago Monday.
With all the questions, tensions are rising in this gentle landscape of pine trees and red-earth rolling hills, about a two-hour drive north of New Orleans. After the 17-year-old's death, the local paper published a photo of racist graffiti spray-painted on a local bridge - very public evidence that some nasty racial undercurrents persist beneath the placid surface of Marion County.
"This has the potential to divide the community, and nobody wants to see that happen," says the Rev. Barry Dickerson, pastor of the United Methodist church in Columbia, whose church has met with other Methodist churches, black and white, to keep the lines of communication open. "The work of the Christian is to love. We want to continue to love one another and work for justice as well."
After Raynard's death, a coroner's report found "marks consistent with suicide but there was no evidence of injuries from a struggle."
Members of the young man's family, though, say several questions have gone unanswered. They note, for instance, that the belt Raynard was found hanging from does not belong to him, and that they don't know who it belongs to. They also note that the man who approached Raynard about dating his niece is a former Sheriff's Department jail guard.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement is continuing to investigate. "I'm sure the agents hear everything, and I cannot imagine that they wouldn't follow up on everything," says assistant district attorney Hal Kittrell.
The Johnson family, meanwhile, has authorized a second autopsy and, with the help of civil rights groups, has retained a lawyer and a private investigator to be sure every lead is pursued.
Rip Daniels, station manager of WJZD, an African-American-owned news radio station in Gulfport, Miss., says such actions are understandable, given Mississippi's historic and often violent resistance to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. And he doesn't think it's unusual that Raynard's body showed no signs of struggle.
"Look at these pictures," he says, leafing through a collection of commemorative postcards of lynchings in James Allen's book, "Without Sanctuary." Page after gruesome page shows pictures of black men hanging. Some have their hands bound. Others don't.
"People ask, 'How can they be so docile? Why don't they fight back?' " Mr. Daniels puts the book down. "When someone holds a gun to your head, and they threaten your family [Raynard was looking after a mentally disabled cousin on the night he died], you will do just about anything, won't you?"
Vicki Dillistone, Raynard's Spanish teacher, says news of his death and the possibility of suicide shocked many teachers, because "he always had that not-a-care-in-the-world smile."
While she recognizes that no community is completely free of racism, she hopes that whatever the outcome of the case, Marion County can return to the quiet, trusting, friendly town she's always known it to be. "I would hate to see that change through individual stupidity, if it turns out to be homicide rather than suicide."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society