In Mississippi, the Mysterious Murder of a Gay, Black Politician

It’s tempting to think Marco McMillian was killed because of his race, his sexuality, or because he was running for mayor. The truth is more elusive.

Sometimes it's hard to know where the real struggle is.  On the top, a blues club owned by Morgan Freeman, made to look tattered. On the bottom, an abandoned boarded-up building. (Ben Terris)  
National Journal
Ben Terris
March 14, 2013, 6 p.m.

 CLARKS­DALE, Miss. — “The dev­il is run­ning rampantly,” pas­tor Jimmy Glasper thun­ders. “Seek­ing who he may de­vour.”

Glasper is telling the New Jer­u­s­alem Baptist church that we live in dev­ast­at­ing times. The con­greg­ants shout af­firm­a­tions. They have re­cent proof.

Marco Mc­Mil­lian had be­longed to the church, and this was the first Sunday ser­vice after po­lice found his body in late Feb­ru­ary. The 33-year-old polit­ic­al con­sult­ant, who was both black and gay, had spent most of his adult life build­ing a prom­ising ca­reer in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Mem­ph­is, Tenn. Re­cently, he did what few people who leave here ever do by choice: He came back. And he de­cided to run for may­or.

“He moved away and had prac­tic­ally lived all over the world,” Glasper told me be­fore the ser­vice. “He said God spoke to his spir­it and said he should come back and be a help to his people. To go back home and help his own people climb out of poverty.”

Mc­Mil­lian nev­er got the chance. On Feb. 27, sher­iff’s depu­ties dis­covered his body next to a levee out­side of town, where it had been dumped days earli­er.

Mc­Mil­lian had been beaten, dragged, and set on fire, ac­cord­ing to his fam­ily. They want his killing in­vest­ig­ated as a hate crime. The cor­on­er and the sher­iff dis­pute the fam­ily’s ac­count and say they have no reas­on to ap­proach it as any­thing oth­er than a typ­ic­al murder.

Lawrence Reed, a 22-year-old man ori­gin­ally from the nearby town of Shelby, has been ar­res­ted and charged with the killing. Ac­cord­ing to in­vest­ig­at­ors, Reed wrecked Mc­Mil­lian’s car in a head-on col­li­sion be­fore any­one knew of the may­or­al can­did­ate’s where­abouts. Un­der ques­tion­ing, Reed poin­ted po­lice to the levee.

The rest of the story is a fog of ru­mor and para­noia. One take has Mc­Mil­lian and Reed as lov­ers. An­oth­er claims they were just friends, and Reed pan­icked after Mc­Mil­lian made a sexu­al ad­vance. And a few people in town even think the sexu­al in­trigue is a smokescreen for a polit­ic­al as­sas­sin­a­tion.

None of this mat­ters at church, where Glasper is draw­ing a very dif­fer­ent les­son. In­side the chapel, the pas­tor is choos­ing which parts of Mc­Mil­lian’s life to hold up for pub­lic con­sump­tion (his vis­ion to save the town), and which parts to brush aside (his sexu­al­ity).

Glasper is only do­ing what every­one in Clarks­dale and bey­ond has done since Mc­Mil­lian’s un­timely death — ap­pro­pri­at­ing the parts of his life that line up with the story they want to tell. The lack of de­tail sur­round­ing the crime has gran­ted them that li­cense. For Glasper, it is the life of a spir­itu­al man, cut dev­ast­at­ingly short by a wicked crime. For the down­trod­den in Clarks­dale, Mc­Mil­lian of­fers the prom­ise of a sun­ni­er fu­ture. For civil- and gay-rights act­iv­ists, it is a tale of mar­tyr­dom — of a con­ser­vat­ive South stub­bornly res­ist­ant to pro­gress.

The prob­lem, however, is that as the de­tails trickle out, none of those nar­rat­ives en­tirely hold up. In this sense, Mc­Mil­lian’s death was in­con­veni­ent, devoid of clar­ity — something that has already al­lowed his life to take on a qual­ity of tab­ula rasa. The idea that he was about to be­come may­or and save the city is com­plic­ated by his re­l­at­ive an­onym­ity and poor elect­or­al chances; his status as a gay act­iv­ist is muddled by the fact that few people knew about his ori­ent­a­tion; and the dis­cus­sion of a pos­sible hate crime is made dif­fi­cult by his pos­sible sexu­al re­la­tion­ship with the black man charged in the slay­ing.

But be­cause this is Clarks­dale, a haunted town with an un­clean past, and be­cause Mc­Mil­lian was black, gay, run­ning for of­fice, and cut down in his prime, the spec­u­la­tion has run wild and fierce. The story people tell of­ten says more about the tell­er than the sub­ject.

“ME AND THE DEV­IL BLUES”

The dev­il lived in Clarks­dale long be­fore they re­covered Mc­Mil­lian’s body from be­side the levee. This Delta town has a leg­acy of dread that dates back to the earli­est days of the blues, when share­crop­pers with gui­tars gave voice to that un­eas­i­ness. Mu­sic halls and juke joints still re­ver­ber­ate with tales of the dev­il him­self.

In the early 1930s, blues­man Robert John­son sold his soul to the dev­il at a set of cross­roads here in ex­change for un­par­alleled gui­tar chops. A few years later, the jeal­ous hus­band of a wo­man John­son had taken to bed poisoned him. So the le­gend goes.

That is what draws vis­it­ors to Clarks­dale these days: the op­por­tun­ity to im­merse them­selves in blues myth­o­logy. Muddy Wa­ters lived here. Bessie Smith died here. The Delta Blues Mu­seum is down­town — a shrine to these mu­si­cians, and to oth­ers, who sang about be­ing stalked by death and who, after death caught up to them, were made im­mor­tal.

John­son’s is a story line that per­fectly cap­tures the es­sence of the genre: If it all seems too good to be true, that’s be­cause it is.

John­son was un­known in his day. The tale of his pact with the dev­il didn’t even come to life un­til dec­ades after his death. And even the de­tails of how he died are in dis­pute. In Cross­roads: The Life and Af­ter­life of Blues Le­gend Robert John­son, au­thor Tom Graves notes that tox­ic­o­lo­gists don’t be­lieve a story of strych­nine pois­on­ing passes muster. Strych­nine, they point out, has a strong odor and couldn’t be hid­den, even in hard li­quor. Plus, ac­counts have him dy­ing three days after be­ing poisoned, too long a time­frame for that type of pois­on­ing.

But the point of the blues isn’t to get the de­tails right; it has a high­er aim. It takes a nar­rat­ive of hard­ship, of suf­fer­ing, and gives it mean­ing. Mc­Mil­lian’s death has left the town grop­ing for something sim­il­ar.

The hard­ship, the suf­fer­ing — it’s all here. The city is in de­cline. In the past 10 years, its pop­u­la­tion has fallen 13 per­cent. Most of the at­tri­tion has been due to the mech­an­iz­a­tion of farm­ing. Where it once would take dozens of men and wo­men to work a field, now two people and a couple of big com­bines can do it all. The poverty rate here is 40 per­cent, and the un­em­ploy­ment rate is al­most 11 per­cent.

“When I came from down south 45 years ago, it was a big, boom­ing town,” says Betty Hicks, who with her hus­band, Eu­gene, owns Hicks’s World Fam­ous Hot Ta­males. “You could hardly walk down the street without walk­ing over people. Now most of it looks like a ghost town.”

Today, it’s hard to know where the troubles lie. Clarks­dale it­self has ad­op­ted a phony nar­rat­ive, one that co-opts its troubled past. Even in down­town areas that have suc­cess­fully re­vital­ized, the build­ings are de­signed to look des­ti­tute. One struc­ture may truly be aban­doned and crum­bling; next to it may be a bust­ling blues club owned by act­or Mor­gan Free­man that is built to look like it’s aban­doned and crum­bling. One of the new­est bars, called Rust, has a sign that looks like it could give you tetanus. In­side, a ham­burger costs $13.

This ven­eer of de­cay is meant to lure tour­ists look­ing for something that looks “his­tor­ic­al,” minus any of the ac­tu­al in­con­veni­ences of grow­ing up poor in the ag­ri­cul­tur­al South.

I stayed in a hotel called the Shack Up Inn, a com­pound of old share­crop­per shot­gun houses that the innkeep­ers con­ver­ted in­to com­fort­able cab­ins.

While these spots have helped bol­ster tour­ism and re­vital­ize the down­town, it’s hard not to see them as ex­ploit­ive — es­pe­cially when much of Clarks­dale has no choice but to look tattered. It’s these parts of the city that give Clarks­dale a crime rate high­er than 90 per­cent of the oth­er cit­ies and towns in Mis­sis­sippi.

“COME ON IN MY KIT­CHEN”

This is the part of Clarks­dale in need of a cham­pi­on, someone who can single-handedly bring jobs and tamp down crime. Iron­ic­ally, in his death, Mc­Mil­lian now looks more like an agent of such change than he did dur­ing his brief time here. Part of his pop­ular­ity around town comes from the time he spent off the main drag. About once a week, he’d head over to Owens Soul Food, a hole-in-the-wall about a mile from down­town. It has no seat­ing in­side, just a carry­out win­dow with a poster of a gun, a pile of money, and a Bible, which de­clares, “The Choice is Yours.”

Dante Owens, the own­er, knew Mc­Mil­lian well. With his strong build and dread­locks that hang mid­way down his back, Owens would be hard to miss in any small town.

He’s known for mak­ing one of the best bur­gers in town (only $4), but he says Mc­Mil­lian was a cat­fish-sand­wich guy who would stick around after meals to talk about how to fix Clarks­dale.

“Clarks­dale is so dys­func­tion­al, and a lot of us really think Marco could be the one to fi­nally change that,” Owens tells me while cook­ing up a bur­ger. “I could talk to you for hours about how messed up it is here.”

Hours later, I take Owens up on his of­fer. I show up around mid­night with a bottle of 1800 Tequila, Owens’s fa­vor­ite. The own­er and two friends sit on cool­ers and boxes fa­cing the street, watch­ing the ac­tion and stamp­ing ci­gar­ette butts out on the floor. They usu­ally only pull from the bottle, but since I was a guest they fetch me a Styro­foam cup in the name of de­cor­um.

“The “˜C’ in Clarks­dale — that stands for cor­rup­tion,” Owens says, tak­ing a swig. It wasn’t en­tirely rare, on a night like this, to hear as many as 30 rounds of gun­fire go off just blocks away from the res­taur­ant, he said. “We’ve had the same may­or for 20 years,” Owens con­tin­ues, “and the city’s been get­ting worse and worse. That’s not a co­in­cid­ence.”

As in many small towns, ac­cus­a­tions of cor­rup­tion are rampant in Clarks­dale. May­or Henry Espy has been at the helm for two dec­ades, and in that time he has found him­self at the fore­front of con­tro­versy. The most no­tori­ous in­stance in­volved his in­dict­ment on charges that he made false state­ments to get a $75,000 loan to re­pay cam­paign debts for his broth­er’s un­suc­cess­ful bid for Con­gress. (He was ac­quit­ted.) This same broth­er, Mike Espy, resigned from his post as Ag­ri­cul­ture sec­ret­ary in 1994 be­cause of fa­vors he al­legedly re­ceived from ag­ribusi­ness com­pan­ies.

For Owens and his friends, all of this is proof that city of­fi­cials are more con­cerned with their own well-be­ing than the town’s. “He keeps Home De­pots and Wal­marts from open­ing up, but every time there’s a hom­icide he lays claim to that,” says Owens’s friend Pat. “He’s got two fu­ner­al homes!”

When Mc­Mil­lian de­cided to run for may­or, Owens and his friends saw it as a chance for a fresh start. His death has giv­en Owens a sort of help­less feel­ing, like shad­owy forces are con­spir­ing against him and his town.

“It could have been a polit­ic­al hit, you nev­er know,” he says. “He knew. That’s the funny thing. He knew he was go­ing to die. He said they was gonna kill him”…. He knows how this town is. If you want to be on top, something that comes with money and power, you can pay a big price.”

This the­ory ig­nores a cru­cial fact: Mc­Mil­lian’s cam­paign was, in all like­li­hood, a doomed ef­fort. Ana­lysts saw Mc­Mil­lian as only the third-most-vi­able can­did­ate for may­or. The smart money was on either Chuck Espy, son of the cur­rent may­or, or Bill Luck­ett, a mil­lion­aire law­yer and de­veloper.

And yet plenty of oth­ers I talked to sus­pec­ted a polit­ic­al motive in Mc­Mil­lian’s killing. To a town go­ing through hard­ship, there’s something com­fort­ing in be­liev­ing they were just this close to hav­ing someone swoop in and save them. That Mc­Mil­lian was al­most there gives them a glim­mer of hope, and to be able to blame the sys­tem for­ti­fies their be­lief about just how messed up their loc­al gov­ern­ment is, and gives them a scape­goat for their prob­lems. I heard ru­mors of a polit­ic­al as­sas­sin­a­tion from con­greg­ants at Mc­Mil­lian’s church, from shop own­ers around town, and even from an­oth­er may­or­al can­did­ate.

Brad­ford Fair, who is run­ning as an in­de­pend­ent in the race, was in the same fra­tern­ity as Mc­Mil­lian and con­sidered him a friend. Not long be­fore he died, Mc­Mil­lian sent Fair a Face­book mes­sage: “People will sac­ri­fice you to pro­tect them­selves,” it reads.

At a cof­fee shop down­town called Ya­zoo Press, Fair shows me the Face­book mes­sage on his phone. “He was scared,” Fair says.

“If he wasn’t a can­did­ate, I’d say it was per­son­al,” he says about the at­tack. “But he was a can­did­ate. I nev­er un­der­es­tim­ate what a per­son would do. Re­gard­less of how they smile at your face, they could be call­ing right now to put a hit out. Get him in his weak­ness, do something he likes to do, then kill him.”

“STONES IN MY PASS­WAY”

{{ BIZOBJ (photo: 27156) }}

May­or­al can­did­ate Luck­ett isn’t buy­ing the con­spir­acy the­ory. “Most people in this town didn’t know who he was,” Luck­ett says. “His death has pop­ular­ized his name”…. He still had out-of-state tags and was liv­ing with his par­ents. He had no repu­ta­tion for get­ting any­thing done here at all, ever — civic or oth­er­wise, frankly. So I don’t get that.”

Luck­ett is 64, white, a mil­lion­aire; he ran for gov­ernor in 2008. With a big belly and slicked back salt-and-pep­per hair, he looks the part.

He’s right that Mc­Mil­lian did not have much of a track re­cord. After gradu­at­ing from high school, he left town and didn’t re­turn un­til his bid for may­or. Dur­ing the time away Mc­Mil­lian had worked as the ex­ec­ut­ive as­sist­ant to the pres­id­ent of Alabama A&M Uni­versity, served as the in­ter­na­tion­al ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or for Phi Beta Sigma fra­tern­ity, and star­ted his own con­sult­ing firm.

Mc­Mil­lian was so new to the scene that he hadn’t been vet­ted — by the loc­al me­dia or oth­er­wise. In fact, The Clarks­dale Press Re­gister re­cently had trouble with Mc­Mil­lian, get­ting stone­walled when ask­ing him via e-mail for in­form­a­tion about his con­sult­ing com­pany or veri­fy­ing claims about money raised in pre­vi­ous jobs. The Vic­tory Fund, an or­gan­iz­a­tion ded­ic­ated to get­ting LGBT can­did­ates elec­ted, did tweet out con­dol­ences after Mc­Mil­lian’s killing, but the or­gan­iz­a­tion said it had not yet en­dorsed him be­cause it had not fin­ished check­ing him out.

Still, he was be­gin­ning to gain trac­tion in town. Fair says after Mc­Mil­lian launched his cam­paign, some of his own sup­port­ers were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly in­spired. One busi­ness own­er down­town said he was think­ing of start­ing a small-busi­ness co­ali­tion with some of the oth­er shops and that they might back Mc­Mil­lian (he asked that I not use his name for fear of re­tri­bu­tion from oth­er can­did­ates).

But it’s not the polit­ic­al-con­spir­acy the­ory that really gets to Luck­ett. What both­ers him more, he says, was the per­cep­tion that Mc­Mil­lian’s killing so­lid­i­fies Mis­sis­sippi’s repu­ta­tion as back­ward and in­tol­er­ant. Much of the at­ten­tion, es­pe­cially from the na­tion­al me­dia, has come be­cause it makes for an in­triguing head­line, Luck­ett notes: A gay, black man tried to run for of­fice in Mis­sis­sippi, and they killed him for it.

“Every­body in­ferred that some white red­neck kind of per­son did it,” he says. “They didn’t say it in those words, but it was cer­tainly in­ferred. Gay, black can­did­ate murdered in Mis­sis­sippi and, by the way, it’s a very con­ser­vat­ive state. Go fig­ure.”

Folks around town, black and white, sup­port­ers of Mc­Mil­lian, and those who hadn’t heard of him un­til after his death, echoed this idea. They wanted the me­dia to know that his be­ing gay had noth­ing to do with his death. With the prob­lems that Clarks­dale already has, no one wanted a na­tion­al scan­dal heaped on the pile.

“LOVE IN VAIN”

Still, some re­main un­sure. Mc­Mil­lian used to text Ravi Perry that the two were go­ing to change the world to­geth­er. They would talk about spark­ing dis­cus­sions of ho­mo­sexu­al­ity in church, and brain­storm takeaways from LGBT con­fer­ences and talks.

Perry, a gay, black pro­fess­or at Mis­sis­sippi State Uni­versity, had con­nec­ted with Mc­Mil­lian through Face­book, and the two de­veloped a mu­tu­al ad­mir­a­tion. Perry de­cided to come on board and help Mc­Mil­lian with his cam­paign.

After Mc­Mil­lian’s death, Perry has been lead­ing the charge to have the case open a na­tion­al dia­logue about ho­mo­pho­bia, and he has been push­ing for le­gis­la­tion that would add sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion to Mis­sis­sippi’s hate-crime law. Cur­rently, the state law says that a hate crime oc­curred only if it was re­lated to “per­ceived race, col­or, re­li­gion, eth­ni­city, an­ces­try, na­tion­al ori­gin, or gender.” Re­gard­less of wheth­er the na­tion­al at­ten­tion re­gard­ing Mc­Mil­lian is war­ran­ted, the fact re­mains: Be­ing gay in the South, es­pe­cially if you’re black, is not easy.

“It’s dis­turb­ing that it’s not charged as a hate crime,” he told me over the phone. Be­sides speak­ing to the press about the case, Perry has penned vari­ous opin­ion pieces, in­clud­ing two for The Huff­ing­ton Post.

“While the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing his death are yet to be de­term­ined, it is hard not to ima­gine the mys­ter­i­ous events had something to do with him be­ing an agent for change,” Perry wrote.

Wheth­er that truly is the case al­most doesn’t mat­ter now. Perry’s mis­sion is to en­sure that something power­ful, something us­able, emerges from the epis­ode. And some­times, the times re­quire a mar­tyr.

“I want the story to be about the great life Marco led, but it also can’t be a story that oc­curs in a va­cu­um,” Perry said. “All the things he did, all the great things he did, he did as an openly gay man. That was an im­port­ant part of who he was, and should be re­membered.”

But wheth­er Mc­Mil­lian was “openly gay” is still a mat­ter of de­bate in Clarks­dale it­self, and plenty of people don’t want to speak of him that way.

“Any­body can fo­cus on any­thing neg­at­ive,” says Ed­ward Thomas, an old friend from Mc­Mil­lian’s high school who is now a pas­tor. “That doesn’t take any strength or men­tal cap­ab­il­ity. So I’m not con­cerned on any neg­at­ives. Yes, there’s gonna be ru­mors and in­nu­endo. But I wasn’t there, so I can’t say. Nobody knows but him and the fella who took his life, and God.”

But Mc­Mil­lian’s sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion was more than just a ru­mor. He had come out to his fam­ily and close friends. He at­ten­ded a con­fer­ence for gay and les­bi­an lead­ers in Cali­for­nia. And those who knew about his sexu­al­ity say he would nev­er hide it if asked. Just be­cause he didn’t shout it from his cam­paign soap­box doesn’t mean he wasn’t open.

“A lot of people feel as though be­cause they didn’t know about his ori­ent­a­tion he was hid­ing something,” Perry said. “People need to edu­cate them­selves to what it means to be openly any­thing. Com­ments like that can eas­ily be in­ter­preted as bigotry or, at the least, ig­nor­ance.”

Bigotry here can pop up any­where, even leap­ing at you from the side of the road. Driv­ing down High­way 1, just out­side of town, I search for the area where Mc­Mil­lian’s body had been dumped only days be­fore.

I find the levee and drive atop it for miles, but there is no in­dic­a­tion of a crime scene any­where. It’s when I pull off the levee and re­turn to the main road that I come upon a church with large white yard sign.

“God did you change your mind about ho­mo­sexu­al­ity,” it reads. “Our pres­id­ent said it is a great thing for our chil­dren. No it’s wick­ness.”

“HELL­HOUND ON MY TRAIL”

In 1895, Lee Shel­don, who was known as “Stag” Lee, shot Wil­li­am Ly­ons to death at a bar in St. Louis. Ac­cord­ing to a news­pa­per re­port, the two were friends, and had been drink­ing and “were feel­ing in ex­uber­ant spir­its” when the “dis­cus­sion drif­ted to polit­ics, and an ar­gu­ment was star­ted, the con­clu­sion of which was that Ly­ons snatched Shel­don’s hat from his head.” When he re­fused to give it back Stag Lee shot him in the ab­do­men, and calmly walked out of the bar.

That killing be­came the basis of more than 100 folk songs, most fam­ously by Mis­sis­sip­pi­an John Hurt. Each time the story is told slightly dif­fer­ently. The killer’s name changes (Stag­ger Lee, Stagolee, Stack­er­lee, and Stack­alee), as does the vic­tim’s (Billy DeLy­on, Billy the Li­on, and Billy Ly­ons). But it’s not just the names that change. Con­sequences range from none at all for Stag­ger-Lee, to be­ing ar­res­ted, to end­ing up in hell. The song takes on a dif­fer­ent mean­ing for every­one who sings it. When John Hurt wrote it, Stag­ger Lee was a tra­gic char­ac­ter, but Black Pan­ther lead­ers would later see him as a folk hero.

This is the es­sence of the blues: You take a story every­one knows and tail­or it to fit your pur­pose. All re­vi­sion is true.

More facts may come to light in the Mc­Mil­lian case. The FBI an­nounced in early March that it was keep­ing tabs on the case, and Rep. Benny Thompson, a Demo­crat from the area, has called on the Justice De­part­ment for a full in­vest­ig­a­tion.

It may not mat­ter. For in­vest­ig­at­ors and his­tor­i­ans, the dev­il is in the de­tails. But for res­id­ents of Clarks­dale, the dev­il is in the gaps — and the shad­ows that fill them. For many ob­serv­ers, here and across the coun­try, the story is already com­plete.

At New Jer­u­s­alem, when pas­tor Glasper first men­tions Mc­Mil­lian on the Sunday after his death, he has spe­cif­ic ad­vice for the con­greg­a­tion. “Nev­er go by what people say about a per­son,” he says. “Re­mem­ber him the way you thought about him. You keep that in your heart.”

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