Has the Deep South changed? Clarksdale, Mississippi is burning

In the second of a three-part series to mark the anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King's death, David Usborne reports from Clarksdale on the mysterious murder of a young black politician that has brought the state's continuing divisions into sharp relief

Visitors to Clarksdale, Mississippi, gravitate first to Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman's club on Delta Avenue, or Red's Place where on this night blues musician Robert "Wolfman" Belfour is running through his doleful repertoire with an ancient electric guitar and a plastic tip-bucket at his toes. Blacks and whites both enjoy the music, but then the latter aren't actually from around here but from far-away places like Kansas and Connecticut.

No one blames Clarksdale for trading on its past as the birthplace of the blues. Here, after all, is the crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for the talent that made him, in Eric Clapton's eyes, "the most important blues singer that ever lived". But nostalgia cuts both ways. Wander instead to the bar with no name by the railway tracks where the yellowed sign on one wall reads "No Smoking Marijuana", and the conversation among the all-black (and all-local) patrons is also about bygone times – times when racial animus ruled and beatings or killings of blacks came and went almost without investigation.

The question here is whether "bygone" is right. On their minds tonight is Marco McMillian, a 33-year-old African-American whose body was found on 27 February on a levee of the nearby Mississippi river, weeks after he had returned to Clarksdale, where he was raised, to run to be mayor. First, it emerged he had been gay. Then his family declared he had been "beaten, dragged and burned". To some the implication was clear: the young man had been a victim of a hate crime, either because he was black or gay, or both. Someone in Clarksdale didn't want him around.

"This is back to Mississippi Burning, for sure," says Jay Boogie, a merchant seaman clutching a can of Budweiser just inside the entrance to the bar, making a reference to the Hollywood film about the real-life slayings of three civil rights workers in 1964. "We are all angry about this. It's messed up because he was a good kid. Hopefully the facts will come out one day."

Sherita Lynch, 35, knew McMillian at High School here. "I don't think he was killed in an accident, I think this was something that was planned," she offers. There is much that is murky about his death. A 22-year-old African American man, Lawrence Reed, is in custody in connection the case. He led police to the body after crashing McMillian's car on a rural road. There are rumours of a possible gay tryst that went wrong. A final autopsy report has yet to be released and last night the Clarksdale Sheriff's Department said it cannot say when that might happen. The delay appals the family. "It's just like it went into a dark hole. We have not been contacted by the sheriff's department, the prosecutors, nothing," said Carter Womack, the victim's godfather and erstwhile campaign manager, who has also said that McMillian would have been the first viable gay candidate for political office that Mississippi has ever seen.

Almost regardless of what the investigators eventually determine – the local member of Congress, Democrat Bennie Thompson, has formally asked the FBI to review the case – old ghosts have already been reawakened. Is it possible that 45 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr the bad old days of the Deep South, when blacks lived in fear of bigotry, have still not gone away? That the hate-group with the dreaded three-initial name still exists was on display in Memphis, Tennessee, 80 miles north of here, just this weekend. Around 60 members, some in white robes and hoods, protested an ordinance changing the Confederacy names of three city parks. Texas also witnessed the slaying of a county District Attorney, Mike McLelland, at the weekend. The investigation there is only just beginning, but doubtless racial questions will be raised because of McLelland's high-profile work pursuing white supremacists.

Drive the countryside around Clarksdale and Confederate flags still flutter in a few front yards. Ask almost anyone, white or black, if the KKK still exists, they will usually nod even if they quickly add that it is a fringe group nowadays. "Many of them are still living," says Jim Simmons, who with his brother, Jeff, runs a jewellery shop in downtown Clarksdale. "It's all over now but we can't change what our granddaddies did."

Meanwhile, Panola County, also in the Delta, has two hit-and-run cases pending where hate-crime suspicions have been raised. The most recent involved Johnny Lee Butts, who was run down by an 18-year-old on a local road last summer. The driver, who was white, claimed he thought he had hit a deer, but his two passengers told the police that he had driven directly for Butts, 61. So far the driver has been charged with murder, but not with a hate crime, which has angered the local African-American community.

Set for June, the mayoral election here will proceed without Mr McMillian. The leading candidates are a local millionaire and lawyer, Bill Luckett, who is white, and African-American Chuck Espy, the son of the current mayor, Henry Espy. Meanwhile, the speculation about McMillian's death continues unchecked.

"I hope it wasn't politically motivated, I would pray it wasn't, but if it was I wouldn't be surprised," Jeff Simmons offers. His brother, Jim, however, suggests a murder for political reasons might not make sense. "Damn blacks have taken over this town anyway," he says, before noting how far race relations have improved things since the dark days. "Thank God we had Martin Luther King."

As a much younger man, McMillian made his own contribution. The current Schools Superintendent, Pauline Rhodes, recalls the time when she was a teacher in Clarksdale and McMillian was a student. He helped her not only organise the school's first out-of-town school trip that blacks were invited to join – to Washington DC in 1987 – but also the first ever summer prom that was not whites-only. "I always saw him as a mover and shaker and a guy who would get things done," she said. In her position, she has to be careful before she speaks, but the murder, happening just as he was gearing up for his campaign, unsettles her. "The timing is so bad."

Gale Moore, who helps run a charitable education agency in Clarksdale and who has known the McMillian family since before Marco was born, told The Independent that he had been receiving threatening "messages" before his death though she couldn't be more specific. "He said he was kind of leery about them but he wasn't prepared to get out of the race," said Ms Moore, who had already ordered scores of water bottles labelled with his photograph and election slogan. "I just didn't think that anything major would happen to him."

So was this a politically motivated hit? "Yes, in my opinion," Ms Moore says flatly. "There were people out there who saw he had a good chance. If you can't fight the right way, a clean way, then you fight the dirty fight. You find something that will destroy this man and you drag it right out for everyone to see and I think that's what they did." That "something" would be Mr McMillian's sexuality. Ms Moore doesn't buy the tryst idea. Her best guess is that someone tried to set the young man up and things went too far. They meant to ruin him, not necessarily kill him.

Back in the bar with no name, the drinking admirers of McMillian are less complicated. "Gay? They want to use that to cover up what really was going on," says Mr Boogie. But he suspects straight-out assassination. "You know what, this is the South."

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