OXFORD — Mike Leach and I probably don’t have much in common, especially when it comes to hoping who’ll win this year’s Egg Bowl.
But there’s one trait the new Mississippi State football coach and I share: An insensitivity to jokes about hanging.
When I think of hangings, I relate it to Caucasian outlaws, not the lynching of black people. I recall a childhood visit to the site of a legal hanging in Mississippi and executions meted out to bad men in the Old West by the likes of Texas Ranger Woodrow Call, the main character in Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” series.
For African Americans, though, a hangman’s noose evokes echoes of lynching, and they don’t see the humor in any kind of reference to hangings, joking or not.
Leach no doubt is more sensitive to the African American point of view now than he was a while back when he posted on social media an image of a wife knitting a noose instead of a scarf for her husband during social distancing. Multiple Mississippi State football players reacted negatively to the meme, and at least one player said he decided to enter the transfer portal because of it.
Leach apologized for the tweet, and MSU Athletic Director John Cohen said that beyond Leach’s apology, the university plans for the coach to participate in listening sessions with students, alumni and community groups to provide Leach with more cultural awareness of Mississippi.
The plan includes a guided trip through the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
My earliest recollection of hearing about a hanging was on a fishing trip with my father near a Perry County location called Old Augusta.
It was just Augusta in its heyday when the county seat was near the site of a legal hanging, witnessed by hundreds of citizens.
In the early 1900s, Augusta moved from the riverbanks to a newly constructed railroad and is now known as New Augusta, located on Highway 98 east of Hattiesburg.
As a child and teenager, I fished and camped in the Old Augusta area. My dad told the story of the outlaw James Copeland who was hanged there in 1857.
As I recall, there were tall trees near or at the former town site, and, in my mind, I pictured Copeland swinging from one of those limbs.
But Copeland actually was hanged on a gallows erected a quarter-mile from the town on the banks of the Leaf River, according to the book “Life and Confession of the Noted Outlaw James Copeland” by Dr. J.R.S. Pitts.
Pitts, who later studied to become a medical doctor, was the sheriff responsible for executing Copeland.
His book was first printed in 1858, again in 1874 and 1909 and then published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1980.
Dr. John D.W. Guice, then a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, discovered the “Confession” during a research project and wrote a lengthy introduction to Dr. Pitts’ work in the latest publication.
Reading the confession makes it clear that if anyone ever deserved hanging, it was James Copeland. He and his cohorts murdered, robbed and stole in several states, mainly in the region between Mobile Bay and Lake Pontchartrain.
Unlike the Copeland hanging, countless innocent blacks have been put to death by mob action over the years in what is known as lynchings.
Hanging is the method most people associate with these illegal executions, many of them meant to terrorize as well as punish.
As a young reporter, I covered the investigation of the lynching of Mack Charles Parker, who was dragged from a jail cell in Poplarville in 1959, shot to death and thrown into the Pearl River. No hanging was involved.
Five years later, Mississippi again made national headlines when three civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County in what accurately could be termed a lynching. They, like Parker, were shot, not hanged.
Except for suicides, hanging has mostly gone out of style in the United States, both as a legal and illegal form of killing, but the image of a noose evokes more outrage than a picture of a gun.
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.