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Feds Probe Noose Incidents At Work

At least 29 black workers have complained to a federal agency that they were harassed at workplaces around the country with hangman's nooses—haunting symbols of violent bigotry that are part of an apparent upswing in racial incidents on the job.

One of the victims of that troubling trend is Tyrone Neal, a welder who worked for a California construction company and thought the days of racial harassment at the workplace were over. One day when he arrived at his welding station, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod, he learned otherwise.

"Above my name was a noose," Neal said. "And it shook me up so bad, I got very angry. I was trembling. I actually had tears come to my eyes."

Neal's boss said the placement of an operable noose at Neal's work station was just a practical joke. Neal said he turned to God for help getting over the incident and, after retaining a lawyer, settled with his former employer for $93,000.

Other workers have turned to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whose lawyers have settled 20 cases involving nooses and have nine more pending in the commission's Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte, and San Francisco offices.

"We have cases from coast to coast at this point," said EEOC chairperson Ida Castro. "It's not a regional question, it's not an industry question. We've seen this come up in white collar, blue collar—in all kinds of settings."

The alleged noose incidents come amid an overall increase in complaints of racial harassment in America's workplaces in the past decade. According to the EEOC, 9,757 such incidents made up 1.5 percent of all charges filed at EEOC in the 1980s. In the 1990s, that jumped to 6 percent of all cases—more than 47,000 allegations of racial incidents.

"Since the late 1990s, EEOC has witnessed a disturbing national trend of increased racial harassment cases involving hangman's nooses in the workplace," Castro said at last week's NAACP convention.

The noose's relationship to America's history of lynching is what makes it such a terrifying symbol. It hearkens back to the days when blacks were arrested, tried and hanged within a week for crimes they never committed, often being tortured and burned before or after their deaths.

The hangings were sometimes conducted amid a carnival-like atmosphere. White children sometimes attended. To this day, some black Americans avoid the use of the word "picnic" because they believe it derived from the celebrations that followed lynchings.

A documented 5,000 lynchings occurred between 1880 and 1930. Despite repeated attempts, the United States never passed a federal anti-lynching bill.

"It's difficult to imagine there's anyone in America who isn't aware of the horrific message a noose sends," said James Allen, an antiques dealer in Atlanta, who has collected dozens of pictures and postcards of lynchings. "The noose really is almost an American mblem. Maybe it's the swastika—The American swastika."

The workplace incidents aren't the only recent reminders of that heritage: the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the controversial death of 17-year-old Raynard Johnson, a straight-A student and star athlete found dead on June 16, hanging from tree in his family's front yard in Kokomo, Miss.

While two autopsies determined his death to be a suicide, the Johnson family and Rainbow Coalition head Rev. Jesse Jackson suspect it was a lynching carried out by people upset about the young man's relationships with white women.