A Black Iowa man strangled, his burning body left in a ditch, his white killer convicted: Will history remember it as a lynching?

A jury on Tuesday found Steven Vogel, a white man, guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Michael Williams, a Black Grinnell father whose body was found burning in a ditch last year.

On Sept. 22, 2020, Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, Kevin Sanders, president of the Iowa City NAACP and Arnold Woods Jr., past president and vice president of the Des Moines NAACP, stood with state authorities during a press conference regarding the death of a Black man, Michael Williams, 44, of Grinnell, to discuss the facts surrounding the four whites who were charged in his gruesome killing. Williams was beaten, strangled and his body was found burning in a ditch in rural Iowa, according to authorities.

During the press conference, Andrews said it was understandable the body of a Black man found burning in a ditch in a small town in Iowa would raise red flags, concerns and “trump up images from a not too distant past,” when Blacks brutally died at the hands of “cowardice, racist lynch mobs.” The NAACP understood the fear the incident had evoked in a state where the minority population is “very small, but racial disparities are vast,” Andrews told those gathered at the press conference, led by Adam DeCamp, special agent in charge at Iowa Department of Public Safety.

The NAACP had met with and questioned authorities about the details of the case, its intersections with race and the group’s fears before releasing a statement during the press conference, a stance reiterated by authorities.

“The NAACP sees no indication that Mr. Williams was targeted because of his race,” Andrews said, with Woods and Sanders by her side. “We do understand the investigation is ongoing, and the facts presented at this time are preliminary. So we continue to be open to any additional information that might surface and are also open to revising our statement. If need be.”

On Tuesday, a jury found a white man, Steven Vogel, 32, guilty of murder in the first-degree and abuse of a corpse. Three other whites, including Vogel’s mother, will face lesser charges in upcoming trials. According to the Des Moines Register, Vogel allegedly thought Williams was involved in a “love triangle” with his girlfriend.

At the time of the killing — just months after the murder of George Floyd —amid nationwide protests against police brutality, news of Williams’ gruesome killing by whites stirred up feelings of racial terror in Blacks, according to social media comments. For more than a year, news outlets have repeatedly stated there was no racial motive in Williams’ murder — echoing authorities and the NAACP.

Several of Williams’ family members in news reports, the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement (DSM BLM) and other community members have said they believe Williams was lynched.

DSM BLM, which said it has maintained contact with Williams’ family throughout the ordeal and stood with them at the courthouse when the verdict was announced, in a press release on Nov. 16, cited the NAACP branch for “incompetence” and decried its quick dismissal of the case as not being racially-based.

“The result of such negligence impacted the family, the community’s response, and the news coverage this case deserved, but never received. The Iowa-Nebraska branch has failed time and time again at protecting, supporting, advancing and advocating for racial justice in the ways that Black Iowans deserve. The Des Moines Black Liberation movement calls for swift leadership changes at the top level of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP Branch in order to ensure adequate representation for Black Iowans in this state,” the group stated in a press release also posted on its social media sites.

In an interview with Black Iowa News on Wednesday, Nov. 17, Andrews said she realizes there have been tensions around the case and that “different folks have different opinions.”

“I will leave them to their opinion,” she said, of DSM BLM’s call for leadership changes. “I’m moving forward — where I’m working with the family. I and the NAACP are standing and supporting the family. And we’re moving forward.”

Andrews said she was also with Williams’ family when Vogel’s verdict was read and the NAACP plans to continue working with them to improve Iowa’s “weak” hate crime laws and to “lift up” the memory of Williams.

Andrews said a hate crime designation in this case wouldn’t have resulted in a more severe sentence because Vogel received the “steepest” penalty possible in Iowa with a first-degree murder conviction, which comes with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“The best possible outcome happened,” Andrews said, of the conviction. “It’s not an easy thing. We’re in a tough situation. But in small-town Iowa, a white man was rightfully convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a Black man, and that is the best possible outcome in terms of what could have happened.”

DSM BLM described Williams’ murder as “a part of the legacy of lynching in this country.” According to the Equal Justice Initiative, brutal lynchings and racial violence have historically been used to terrorize Blacks. The FBI reported in September that hate crimes are on the rise, with bias against Blacks representing the largest share, according to the justice initiative.

Vogel will be sentenced next month.

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