16-year-old arrested, agencies investigate north Miss. cross burning

Published 4:38 pm Friday, December 1, 2006

A black family in Marshall County has turned to the local Sheriff’s Department, the FBI and the NAACP to investigate the burning of a 6-foot cross near the family’s front yard.

Dorothy Dukes said she was asleep the night of Nov. 7 when her husband, Thomas Dukes, awoke her after he saw a cross burning near the couple’s home, 12 miles south of Byhalia. Marshall County borders Tennessee, and the Dukes family moved to the area six months ago from Memphis, Tenn.

“When I saw it, it was so big. The police came out and did a report on it,” Dorothy Dukes said this week.

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A white 16-year-old was arrested and charged with harassment on Nov. 15, said Maj. Randy Harper, chief investigator for the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department.

Harper said investigation is continuing and officers were trying to talk with another juvenile.

Harper said the second youth has no guardian, and that prevented investigators from talking to him immediately.

The sheriff’s chief investigator called the cross burning an isolated incident.

“It was over some problems between the homeowner, the homeowner’s nephew and the juvenile that was charged,” Harper said.

The Dukes said a man related to the 16-year-old came to their home the night after Thanksgiving.

“We don’t understand why they keep harassing us. He used profanity. He stayed in his vehicle and cursed my husband out,” Dorothy Dukes said.

The couple contacted authorities again.

The Dukes said they won’t move from their home.

Cross burnings are relatively common acts of terrorism, said Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. He is the director of the center’s Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups.

“We’re seeing something on the order of 30 to 40 cross burnings per year carried out as acts of intimidation across the country in Florida, Kentucky, Idaho, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio and other states,” said Potok. “Very typically, it’s not Klansmen carrying out these attacks.”

Thomas Dukes said he spoke with the FBI by phone this week when he was in the Memphis, Tenn., office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Dorothy Dukes said the sheriff’s department “is taking so long to do something about it.”

“When we first reported it, they said it was a Halloween prank,” she said. “They told us it was a Halloween prank and they weren’t going to do anything about it.”

The Dukes have a Byhalia mailing address but live in rural Marshall County and that’s why the sheriff’s department is handling the incident, rather than the Byhalia Police Department, said Mike Novay, police chief in Byhalia.

Deborah Madden, FBI spokeswoman in Jackson, confirmed that the bureau is helping with the investigation.

Johnnie R. Turner, executive director of the Memphis NAACP, said she “experienced shock and disbelief” over the cross burning.

“This is the year 2006 and everybody is promoting diversity, working together and appreciating other cultures,” Turner said. “I guess that it’s also significant that the FBI, with the history that it has, has jumped right on this issue.”

The Dukes said they were told the investigation should be wrapped up in the next few weeks.

Potok said law enforcement in general is increasingly taking cross burnings seriously, but “we’re still seeing judges who give out probation and a slap on the wrist.”