A Mississippi man pleaded guilty to a federal hate-crime charge for burning a cross in his front yard to intimidate Black neighbors. Axel Charles Cox, 24, signed a plea deal Thursday after acknowledging that he violated the Fair Housing Act, which protects people from discrimination. His neighbors, whom prosecutors have not publicly identified, were renting a property near Cox, the Washington Post reports. Prosecutors wrote that Cox also made “racially derogatory remarks toward his Black neighbors.” Cox’s attorney, Jim Davis of Gulfport, told the Biloxi Sun Herald that Cox lit the cross on fire as a reaction to his neighbors allegedly shooting and killing his dog.
“His dog went in their yard, and they shot it,” Davis told the paper. “He just way overreacted to the circumstances. He acted totally inappropriately.” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said that a burning cross “invokes the long and painful history, particularly in Mississippi, of intimidation and impending physical violence against Black people.” Mississippi has a deep connection to the group most associated with cross burning: the Ku Klux Klan. “The intent seems fairly obvious. There’s so many other things a person could do in a situation like that. To seize upon this symbol of racial terror suggests an intent to intimidate and threaten,” said Max Grivno, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.