Marco McMillian, 34, a candidate for mayor of the Mississippi Delta city… (/REUTERS )
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.
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
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.