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.

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.

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 exploitative -- 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"

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 had 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."