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

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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.

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Ben Terris

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."

Where the blues began

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.

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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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