Native American civil rights activist found dead in Mississippi jail cell

© Brendan McDermid
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is probing the mysterious death of Rexdale W. Henry, who was found dead in the Neshoba County Jail on July 14. A private autopsy funded by prominent activists is underway.

Henry, a member of the Choctaw tribe and a longtime community activist, was found dead of unspecified causes in a jail cell on July 14 about 30 minutes after he was last seen alive. He was first detained on July 9 after failing to pay a traffic fine, according to the Jackson Free Press. He was the second person this year to die in the Neshoba County Jail.

The Mississippi state crime lab has conducted an autopsy, while the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation continues its look into how Henry, 53, lost his life in a jail of the same county known for the Mississippi Burning murders more than 50 years ago.

For a private autopsy in Florida, Henry's family is receiving aid from civil rights activists John Steele and Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s. Syracuse University law professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson, both part of the school's Cold Case Justice Initiative, are assisting as well, the Free Press reported.

“Mr. Henry was a dedicated family man and the medicine man for his Choctaw community of Bogue Chitto,” Steele said in a statement.

Supporters of Henry's family reportedly said the results of the private autopsy would be made public.

Henry was a candidate for the Choctaw Tribal Council in Bogue Chitto the week prior to his arrest, the Free Press reported. He reportedly coached stickball in his community as well.

McDonald said the unexpected death of a longtime activist like Henry echoed the mysterious death of Black Lives Matter activist Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas in mid-July after an aggressive traffic stop that violated Texas Department of Public Safety standards.

“At a time when the nation is focused on the terrible circumstances of the brutal death of Sandra Bland, it is critical to expose the many ways in which Black Americans, Native Americans and other minorities are being arrested for minor charges and end up dead in jail cells," McDonald said in a statement.

An autopsy on Bland indicated suicide, according to the Waller County District Attorney’s Office. Bland's family, though, questions that assessment, RT has previously reported.

In August 2014, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reported that Native Americans are killed by police at a higher rate than any other demographic group in the United States. In the report, the organization found that Native Americans ages 25-35, 35-44, and 20-24 make up four of the top five demographic groups most likely to be killed by police.

”The racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement is Native Americans, followed by African Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Asian Americans,” the report said, adding that Native Americans make up 0.8 percent of the US population, but amount to 1.9 percent of police killings.

One day prior to Henry's arrest in Neshoba County, Jonathan Sanders, a 39-year-old African American, was killed by a white police officer in neighboring Clarke County.

Sanders was riding his horse Diva through the town of Stonewall late on July 8 when the officer, Kevin Herrington, caught up with Sanders, startling the horse and knocking Sanders to the ground. Herrington then applied a chokehold on Sanders for about 20 minutes, the Free Press reported, before police backup and an ambulance arrived. An official autopsy ruled the death by manual asphyxiation a homicide. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is looking into the incident.

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights activists seeking to register African Americans to vote were arrested for speeding and taken to the Neshoba County Jail, situated in a different location at the time. The three men – James Earl Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi and Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner from New York City – soon disappeared. Their bodies were found 44 days after their arrest.