In Mississippi, death of politician Marco McMillian stirs old civil-rights fears

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the first name of the president of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. He is Jimmy Hammock, not Johnny Hammock. This version has been corrected.


Marco McMillian, 34, a candidate for mayor of the Mississippi Delta city of Clarksdale, is shown in this undated campaign photograph. McMillan was found dead in February. (REUTERS)
March 8, 2013

When Marco McMillian decided to move back to his home town and run for mayor, the 33-year-old aspiring candidate knew he needed the blessing of the silver-haired oligarchy that ruled quietly from church pews. It was familiar turf for McMillian, who grew up singing in the choir at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church a half-mile from his small house near the railroad tracks in this grindingly poor city in the Mississippi Delta.

He went to see Bertha Blackburn, an 89-year-old pillar of Metropolitan Baptist Church, laying out his ideas for fixing the schools and creating jobs.

“We thought he was the answer to our prayers,” Blackburn said.

A week and a half after McMillian’s body was found in the mud on an isolated stretch of levee outside Clarksdale, his death remains a mystery. It has roiled old suspicions and fears from Mississippi’s dark history of racial brutality, although both McMillian and the man charged with his murder are African American. McMillian was also gay, adding fire to demands by civil rights groups for the killing to be investigated as a hate crime. The FBI said this week that it is “monitoring” the investigation.

Hundreds of mourners are expected to attend McMillian’s funeral here Saturday, scheduled for 11 a.m. at Coahoma Community College. Hotels are full and florists have been working overtime delivering arrangements, but hovering closely are the questions surrounding McMillian’s death.

The Coahoma County Sheriff’s Department has charged Lawrence Reed, 22, in the crime. He told police that he killed McMillian and where to look for the body, according to two people familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss its early findings.

Reed’s family has yet to address publicly the allegations against him. The sheriff’s department has released almost no information on the case, adding to conspiracy theories and guessing over what exactly happened the night McMillian and Reed, who worked at Domino’s Pizza, were together.

Carter Womack, McMillian’s godfather and a fellow member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, said all the family wants is a thorough investigation. “If it was a passing hookup, something bad happened,” Womack said. “The question becomes, how could one person do all this?”

McMillian’s cause of death won’t be made public for another week, according to Coahoma County Medical Examiner Scotty Meredith, who said the autopsy is complete but toxicology results are pending.

In the wait for answers, the rest of the country tweets and speculates, posting grainy video of Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddam”:

Alabama’s gotten me so upset

Tennessee made me lose my rest

Clarksdale, Mississippi is situated 100 miles east of Little Rock, Ark., and 70 miles south of Memphis, Tenn. The 2010 population was just under 18,000.

And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.

Here in Clarksdale, the potency of the symbolism of McMillian’s murder is lost on no one, least of all sharecropper’s daughter Blackburn.

Blackburn adjusts her hearing aid against the noise. “To me, he was just Marco. He had it all mapped out for the next 50 years,” Blackburn said. The water bottles organizers planned to hand out at a campaign rally, labeled with his picture, are still in her house.

“I have to stay busy not to lose my mind,” Blackburn said. “My husband says, ‘Count peas.’ ”

An ambitious homecoming

McMillian’s bid for mayor was an audacious move. He had lived away from Clarksdale for 10 years, graduating from Jackson State University, working as the executive assistant to the president at Alabama A&M University and until 2011, serving as the executive director of Phi Beta Sigma, the black fraternal organization headquartered in Washington. The job paid $93,000 a year and allowed him access to the halls of Congress and trips to Nigeria and Japan. He lived on Charles Street in Baltimore. People back home shared the photo of a smiling McMillian standing with President Obama.

Perhaps readying himself for a future in politics, McMillian signed up for every civic organization and nonprofit to which he could attach himself. His resume is stuffed with affiliations: National Young Leaders Conference, NAACP, Arms of Love National Project, Community Bridge Builders. He served on the board of the William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts in Washington. According to Jimmy Hammock, president of Phi Beta Sigma, the fraternity offered McMillian a new three-year contract, but he wanted to start doing consulting work.

He moved back to Clarksdale late last year. Known as the birthplace of the blues, the city of 18,000 has a 38 percent poverty rate. Tourists from around the world pour in to visit Muddy Waters’s shack and listen to the music of Pinetop Perkins. But black Clarksdale has existed in a separate realm from the New Bohemian South the city wants to be.

From traveling the world, McMillian moved back in with his mother in the Brickyard neighborhood. He officially entered the mayor’s race in January. He was walking house to house, standing in carports, visiting churches.

His sexuality was a detail he left out of the conversations. Still, anyone following him on Twitter would have an idea — “I’ve decided to be me, like it or not,” he posted.

His campaign photo captured the youthfulness of his vision. There was McMillian standing in a cotton field with folk-art-painted sharecropper shacks behind him, a repudiation of the past.

Disppearance and search

McMillian was commuting to Memphis four days a week, employed by New Leaders, a nonprofit organization that identifies and trains teachers to become principals, but the campaign was occupying more of his time.

McMillian’s strange disappearance on Feb. 25 began when he announced to his mother that he was going outside to move some cars. He was supposed to drive to Memphis in the morning. It was around 10 p.m., and his mother, Patricia Unger, a special ed teacher in the Quitman County School District, said she didn’t think much of it. An hour later, her husband, Amos, a custodian, noticed that McMillian had not come back inside the house. They said they never saw their son alive again.

Little of what happened that night is known. On Tuesday morning, on a rural highway out near the Tallahatchie County line, McMillian’s sport-utility vehicle was involved in a collision with another vehicle. A distraught Lawrence Reed was driving the SUV alone.

It was raining hard Tuesday, a bitter day for a search and a bitter day to be waiting to hear from a missing son. Patricia Unger, who is hearing impaired, learned from law enforcement that a search was underway. She texted everyone she could. Word was getting around Clarksdale, a town so small that government offices close for lunch.

That night an impromptu vigil was at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church. The pastor spoke. Hymns were sung. According to Gale Moore, the choir director, the sheriff called her at the church and asked her to “get on the intercom” and “tell those people that nobody has been found.” Moore had heard the rumblings about McMillian’s sexuality. She decided to address the matter at the vigil. “I pray that we all bridle our tongues,” she said.

McMillian’s body was found the next morning near the levee between the communities of Sherard and Rena Lara. The spot was completely isolated. A steep embankment of pasture dropped down to the barbed-wire fence that went along the water, and that is where the body was, shoved partway under the wire.

“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Marco McMillian, one of the 1st viable openly #LGBT candidates in Mississippi,” tweeted the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national political action committee.

It was a bombshell on top of a bombshell. “Openly gay!” said Moore. “Everybody was putting a sign over his head — ‘the first gay mayor’ — we did not see him that way. I saw a young man who wanted to use his talent to help Clarksdale.”

Controversy ignited

Coahoma County Medical Examiner Scotty Meredith went to see Unger at her house to have her identify her son. He had a digital photo of the body on his smartphone. He showed it to Unger and her husband, who confirmed it was McMillian. Facing a grieving mother in her living room desperate for more information, Meredith said he relayed information that McMillian’s body showed evidence of burn marks, bruising and being dragged.

Three days later, frustrated by a lack of contact with the Coahoma Sheriff’s Department, the Ungers released a statement saying McMillian had been “beaten, dragged and burned (set afire),” and that his death could not have been a random act of violence.

“He was set on fire,” said Carter Womack, McMillian’s godfather, holding a stack of statements. He was sitting inside McMillian’s house with Unger. The living room was immaculate and lifeless. Unger sat quietly on the edge of the couch, listening as Womack outlined their belief of the improbability that McMillian’s death was caused by one person.

Unger knew her son was gay, but she wanted to make an important distinction. “It was reported in the news that he told his family he was openly gay,” she said. “He was not.”

In Mississippi, there are few more powerful words than “burned,” “dragged” and “beaten.” They ignited controversy and condemnation.

In an interview in his office in his funeral home in downtown Clarksdale, Meredith said the allegations were “blown way out of proportion.” He said McMillian’s body had been “drug,” but for what appears to have been a short distance and by someone carrying him under the arms. The bruising was minimal. Beyond that Meredith would say little, except that the autopsy results would bring more light.

Another house was calling for justice, too. It was a half-mile from McMillian’s house, on a street with more potholes, and it was where Reed had been living with friends.

“The rumor going around Clarksdale is that Lawrence killed a man in a hate crime,” said Kamilla Evans, 20.

Reed was from the small farming community of Shelby, outside of Clarksdale, but had been staying with Evans and her boyfriend for the past year. He slept on their couch and kept his clothes in the trunk of his car. He worked at the Domino’s nearby.

“He’s extremely sensitive,” Evans said. “Lawrence, he walks around a lot. He’s always on the phone. I assumed with his girlfriend. His phone ring constantly.”

Reed’s girlfriend was in her mid-40s, twice his age, according to Deric Crump, Evans’s boyfriend.

Crump said he saw McMillian dropping Reed off once. “Lawrence told me the guy was lost,” Crump said. “They rode around.”

Reed is in jail, awaiting arraignment. His family is in Shelby, a community of 3,000 surrounded by cotton and corn, windswept and isolated. His mother, Lillian, spent the week trying to find an attorney for her son. “He has a mother and a family,” she said. “He’s my only son. He wanted to go off and start his life. We gave him some freedom.”

Meanwhile, at McMillian’s funeral Saturday, Phi Beta Sigma president Hammock plans to speak, representing the 150,000 members of a fraternity to which George Washington Carver belonged. “Marco was a brother,” said Hammock.

Bertha Blackburn will also be there. “Oh, yes,” said the woman who believed he could help Clarksdale. “Oh, yes.”

Alice Crites and Peter Hermann in Washington contributed to this report.

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