Investigators haven’t volunteered much information about the case of Bill Sparkman, a 51-year-old U.S. Census field worker and substitute teacher, found hanged Sept. 12 in the Daniel Boone National Forest in rural southeast Kentucky. According to witnesses and authorities, Sparkman’s body was discovered naked and gagged, his hands and feet bound by duct tape with the word “Fed” scrawled across his chest with a felt-tip pen.
In the weeks since, officials have gone about their grim work, exploring the real connections between Sparkman’s death and his work with the Census Bureau.
But what can’t be avoided, and certainly not ignored, is that something bubbling just under, a disquieting parallel between the apparent method of Sparkman’s death, the long history of lynchings in the American South, and the current president of the United States — the head of the federal government that Sparkman’s killers apparently condemn.
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Consider the geographic source of much of the recent political animosity against President Obama, coming amid an almost pathological retrenchment of the GOP to its white, rural core of supporters. The birther movement has its headquarters in the states of the Confederacy. Seven of every 10 Americans who don’t believe the president was born in the United States live in the South, according to a Daily Kos poll in July.
South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst on the floor of the House of Representatives followed comments in June from South Carolina GOP activist Rusty DePass, who implied that First Lady Michelle Obama was related to a gorilla that escaped from a South Carolina zoo.
That same month, Diann Jones, vice chairman of the Collin County Republican Party in Texas, sent an e-mail to area Republicans calling a proposal for a $50 gun tax "another terrific idea from the black house and its minions."
And back in May, Sherri Goforth, aide to Republican state Sen. Diane Black of Tennessee, sent an e-mail to staffers showing the first 43 U.S. presidents in noble poses, but depicting Obama, the 44th president, as a pair of white cartoon eyes against a black background.
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Sparkman’s apparent murder would have raised eyebrows enough if he’d been shot or beaten to death. If Sparkman’s body had been discovered without the scrawl “Fed” across his front, if he’d found fully clothed on the ground, this whole incident might have nothing more than a tragic oddity on the police blotter — just another ugly crime in rural America.
But this murder, in the broader historical context of a nation and a federal government led for the first time by an African American, points to deeper underlying motives.
Given the outrage aroused in the South against Obama, it’s disingenuous to assume that the manner of Sparkman’s death was happenstance. Sparkman didn’t die by gunshot wounds, or with blunt force trauma resulting from a struggle or a brawl in the street. The elaborate set design of his murder makes it clear: The killers meant to send a message.
And for Americans in general and African Americans in particular, few things can equal the emotional gut-punch of seeing a man hanging by the neck in the woods of the rural American South.
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Sparkman’s murder has the earmarks of punishment-by-association, a cynically clever attempt by the killers to invoke racial implications without actually doing it. It’s no wild leap of logic to conclude that in the minds of the perpetrators, Sparkman was, among other things, a stand-in for the black man in charge of the “Fed.”
The slaying of Bill Sparkman may well have been a lynching by proxy.
This latest evidence of Southern pathology manages to be both subtle and not-so-subtle at the same time. There’s much to suggest Sparkman’s slaying is just a variation on the extremists’ theme — relentlessly trying to characterize Obama as “the other” president, one not worthy of the respect accorded to his predecessors.
"I certainly detect a racial element in some of the hostility directed at President Obama," said Richard Alba, the distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, to McClatchy Newspapers on Sept. 18. "I'm certain there are white Americans for whom having a dark-skinned president in the White House is an enormous shock. This is really a complete overturning of what they thought was the natural order of things."
By murdering a white man, these killers sidestepped the firestorm of controversy that would follow had they lynched a black man. But their deeply cynical act sends the same message of unalloyed hate communicated by others, from the Tea Bag protesters to the members of Stormfront, the white supremacist online forum whose Internet servers crashed on the day of Obama’s inauguration due to thousands of new registrants flooding the site at once.
"I don't think anybody has used the symbols of race and racism to criticize this president more than the individuals on the right," said D'Linell Finley, a political science professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, to McClatchy.
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Enlightened minds can disagree; the lynching-by-proxy idea is offered as a cold conjecture; we’ll never know until the perps are caught. But past is sadly prologue in matters of regional rage, and race.
In the moonshine 1920’s, Kentucky was the site of numerous skirmishes between locals and so-called revenuers, the federal and state agents sworn to uphold Prohibition; several agents were killed or wounded in running gun battles with the moonshiners through parts of the state on or near its border with Tennessee.
In the boom years of lynching, between 1882 and 1930, Kentucky would be the third deadliest state for blacks to die by lynching. Between 1865 and 1940, at least 353 people in the state were killed by lynch mobs; one scholar says 75 percent of them were black.
They were separate kinds of crime back then. But unlike back then, today is the first time in American history when the fortunes of black America and the White House have been so indelibly wedded. Unlike back then, today a black man is the head of the “Fed.”
Race may not have been the assailants’ only motive for killing Bill Sparkman. But the way he was slain — through a technique with undeniable historical overtones, and a painful resonance in our national history — sent a message that was no accident.
Image credit: Bill Sparkman: Source unknown. Wilson: Chip Somodoville/Getty Images. George Meadows, lynching victim: Public domain.