FBI investigating racist threat in Polk County

FBI investigating racist threat in Polk County

June 26th, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

DUCKTOWN, Tenn. - More than a week after part of a cinderblock was thrown through a trailer window with a threatening racist message attached, an interracial Polk County couple continue to have sleepless nights.

"I just want to get out of there," said Ellis Weatherspoon, 45, who lives in Turtletown with his common-law wife, Jennifer, and their 3-year-old son. Weatherspoon, who is black, and Jennifer, 28, who is white, have been together for seven years.

While the Polk County Sheriff's Office categorized the crime as a simple vandalism case with no apparent motive, the Chattanooga FBI office now is investigating the incident, according to Sheriff Bill Davis.

And things have gotten worse for the couple. On Thursday, the couple found their 6-month-old pit bull/German shepherd mix, Gilbert, dead at the trailer, a rope tied around its neck several times and its body propped against its doghouse.

The couple haven't stayed in the trailer much since June 13, when the chunk of cinderblock came through the window with a note that read, "Get out of town N----- or u die" and signed with the initials "KKK."

Weatherspoon said the dog had been running free and the couple depended on the animal to alert them when people were coming down the gravel road to their home. They haven't reported the dead dog to police, Weatherspoon said, because they don't believe authorities would do anything.

Davis said Friday that no arrests have been made in the cinderblock incident. While investigators have interviewed "quite a few" people, he said some people they want to talk to haven't been located.

The sheriff has said that, if the incident "is some kind of hate crime, then we will look into it and see if it needs to go that avenue."

Ed Galloway with the Chattanooga office of the FBI confirmed Friday that the agency is investigating the case and following leads.

The note was sent to the Bradley County Sheriff's Office crime lab to be checked for fingerprints, which can be compared against a national print database. As of Friday, the results were not back, according to investigators.

"Nobody knows who did it. It encourages them to do more," Weatherspoon said Friday.

Sitting at the Hardee's restaurant in Ducktown, Weatherspoon had grass clippings on his shoes - he had just finished doing some yard work for $25. He doesn't have a full-time job and makes money by picking up odd jobs here and there.

They moved to Polk County, where Jennifer's family lives, about six months ago. But since moving into the trailer, the Weatherspoons said they've been the targets of racial remarks and a few threats.

The sheriff's office said the Weatherspoons didn't report anything until the cinderblock crashed through their window.

The couple say they don't have the money to leave Turtletown.

Federal law

Under federal law, a hate crime is defined as "criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation," according to the FBI website.

Even though the note was signed "KKK," it's unlikely that a Ku Klux Klan member threw the block, said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which monitors hate-group activity.

"The reality is that people take the name of the Klan in all sorts of situations when they are trying to sound threatening," he said. "I don't mean to minimize this at all. This is, without a doubt, terrifying to the victims. It gives kind of a terroristic feel. Obviously, it's a hate crime."

In 1925, there were 4 million KKK members in America, while today, there are between 7,000 and 8,000 members, Potok said.

"The Klan is a very, very pale shadow of what it once was," he said.

Ugly past

Historically, there were consequences for having an interracial relationship in Tennessee.

Dating back to the 1800s, Tennessee law forbade whites from cohabitating or marrying people who were more than one-eighth black, said Daniel Sharfstein, an associate law professor at Vanderbilt University.

A violation was a felony and people could do time in prison, he said. But sometimes mobs took the law into their own hands and lynched the illicit lovers.

Despite the law, interracial relationships were accepted in some rural mountain areas throughout the South, said Sharfstein, who is the author of "The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White."

"The struggles of everyday life were often more important than something as meaningless as race," he said. "So when I read about the Weatherspoons, to go out of your way to attack an interracial couple - it's not just disgraceful, it also goes against a most cherished tradition of life in the mountains where people lived the life they chose to live, free of outside meddling and interference."

Increasing numbers

Interracial relationships in Tennessee are slowly increasing in number, according to U.S. Census data.

The 2010 census showed 1.6 percent of the population claimed more than one race. In Polk County there was a 32.7 percent increase between 2000 and 2010 in people claiming two or more races, making up 215 people out of the county's population of 16,825. There are 50 black people in the mostly white county - up from 28 black residents in 2000, according to census figures.

With the makeup of the population changing slowly, people continue to deal with racism.

"I think the fact is that racism does persist in this country in rural Southern areas more than in other parts of the country," Potok said. "That's not an attack on the rural South. I think that's objectively true. Nor is it meant to suggest that other parts of the country, including the most Yankee parts of the country, don't have terrible problems of racism.

"[The rural South] has been a lot slower coming to grips with our racial past than other parts."

Families like the Weatherspoons feel the effects.

They sometimes sleep in their truck. When they are home at the trailer, they wait. They listen for every sound outside.

"The longer we stay here, the more we risk losing everything we've got," Weatherspoon said. "All it takes is the right knucklehead to come out and do something stupid."