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.”
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.