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A man burned a cross in a hate crime. He's now sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison

This image provided by the Mississippi Department of Corrections shows Axel Cox, 24, of Gulfport, Miss. Cox, who burned a cross in his front yard to intimidate his Black neighbors in December 2020, was sentenced Thursday, March 9, 2023, to 42 months in prison.


March 14, 2023

An earlier photo caption incorrectly said Axel Cox was sentenced to 42 years in prison. He was sentenced to 42 months in prison.

A Mississippi man has been sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison after he burned a cross in his front yard to intimidate his Black neighbors, according to the Justice Department.

Axel Cox, 24, was sentenced on Thursday after he pleaded guilty to a federal hate crime and violating the Fair Housing Act in December.

According to the Justice Department, Cox burned a cross in his front yard on Dec. 3, 2020, and used "threatening and racially derogatory remarks" toward his Black neighbors.

The 24-year-old built the cross from supplies in his home — as he put together the wooden cross and placed it in his front yard, propping it up so his Black neighbors could see it. He then doused it with motor oil and lit it on fire.

Cox said he chose to burn the cross in front of his Black neighbors because of their race, saying he "intended to scare them into moving out of the neighborhood."

Cox's action of burning the cross, federal prosecutors say, falls under the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (sections of which are called the Fair Housing Act) — which prohibits discrimination against a person's housing rights based on the individual's race, religion, national origin, sex or family status.

Cox's 3 1/2-year prison sentence will be accompanied by three years of supervised release, according to the Justice Department. In addition, he was also ordered to pay $7,810 in restitution for his actions.

The act of cross-burning has racist origins

Cross burning — also referred to as cross lighting — is considered a hate symbol often associated with the Ku Klux Klan since the early 1900s, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

In a 2013 Fresh Air interview, David Cunningham, author of Klansville, U.S.A., told Terry Gross that the Klan's act of burning crosses was a symbol of "intimidation and terror."

"The crosses they burned there were often 60 or 70 feet high, so these are enormous crosses they were burning. In itself [they] were just a symbol of how ambitious the Klan's organization was," Cunningham said.

"So the act of this enormous cross burning became an act of compelling theater and also the sort of signal of what the Klan was able to accomplish organizationally," he added.

Vangela M. Wade, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, told The Associated Press last September that cross burnings bring back the blatant racism that is oftentimes associated with the Jim Crow South.

"This is another stark reminder of how bigotry, racism and hate-fueled violence are alive and well in our country. Mississippi is no exception," Wade told the AP.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.