Sunday, March 3, 2013

Clarksville Mississippi Police Say Murder Of Openly Gay Black Mayoral Candidate Not Hate Crime; Residents Suggest Killing Was Personal; Death Underlines Community Besieged By Crime

In Mississippi, while the slaying of openly gay Clarksdale mayoral candidate Marco McMillian has sparked national debates about the state’s tolerance of homosexuality, those close to the drama say the act was a crime of passion, not a targeted attack. Nor, they say, was it tied to McMillian’s political ambitions in this small Delta city best known as the birthplace of the blues. It stemmed instead from a personal incident, either between two lovers or between a gay man and a straight man whose signals got mixed. What needs to be debated, Clarksdale residents say, is not how to stop intolerance but how to stop crime. McMillian, whose age had been given by law-enforcement authorities as 34 but whose family members say was 33, was found dead Wednesday morning at the base of the Mississippi River. His body had been dumped more than a day before its discovery, allegedly by Lawrence Reed. Little is known about Reed, 22, except that he graduated from Broad Street High School in the nearby community of Shelby and had since moved into an apartment in Clarksdale. Friends of Reed told Memphis television station WPTY that the two recently had met at a Clarksdale bar and became close. Then, sometime either late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, McMillian made sexual advances on Reed, the friends said, adding that Reed is straight. The Clarion-Ledger was unable to reach Reed’s friends, but it is also the version of events investigators were told. After being hit on, Reed allegedly snapped, strangled McMillian, then drove McMillian’s SUV to the levee west of Clarksdale and tossed his body near the river. Friends of McMillian, however, say the two men were romantically involved and quarreled immediately before the slaying. “They were having an affair,” said 18-year-old Carlos Jones. “They got to tussling.” Afterward, Reed allegedly drove around in McMillian’s SUV until 8:30 a.m. Tuesday when he collided head-on with another vehicle on U.S. 49 near the maximum-security Tallhatchie County Correctional Facility. Reed was airlifted to the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, where he was still being held in stable condition as of Friday afternoon. The other driver was taken to a local hospital and has been released. The Coahoma County Sheriff’s Department charged Reed with murder in McMillian’s death, but the investigation is ongoing. Authorities are not considering the incident a hate crime, said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Will Rooker. Autopsy results won’t be released for at least three weeks pending toxicology tests, said Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith. After a successful career that took him to Washington, D.C., and Memphis, McMillian had returned to his hometown a few months ago to enter the mayor’s race. The Democrat wanted to combat crime in the mostly black community, as well as boost educational standards and bring jobs to the unemployed. He moved back in with his mother and stepfather, Patricia McMillian and Amos Unger, in the single-family, ranch-style home where he grew up an only child. Family members grieved quietly in the McMillian-Unger living room Thursday. Although they would not be interviewed, they welcomed a steady stream of well-wishers who came and went throughout the day. “I grew up with him,” said family friend and neighbor Tony Jackson. “He was always very intelligent, very quiet. Everybody knew his (sexual) preference, but it didn’t matter.” Though she’s married now, Patricia McMillian was a single mother most of her son’s life, Jackson said. She doted on him and sheltered him from the streets. He went on to college, served as international executive director of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and held high positions at both Alabama A&M University and Jackson State University. He most recently was CEO of his own consulting firm. Jackson said the community embraced McMillian and was excited about his run for mayor; he had a strong chance of winning, he said. But McMillian was facing stiff competition. Other announced candidates are state Rep. Chuck Espy (D-Clarksdale) attorney and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Luckett, longtime Democratic political activist Doris Haynes Miller and independent Brad Fair. Much was at stake in the election, which comes at what many residents consider a breaking point in the city. Since current Mayor Henry Espy first took office in 1990, the city’s population has shrunk by more than a quarter, to less than 18,000 people, nearly half of whom live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. One in five residents hasn’t completed high school, the median wage is less than $20,000, and violent crime is twice as prevalent there than the national average. “This city needs to change,” said Miller, one of the candidates, who described being robbed at gunpoint in her driveway last month. “You know things are bad when someone like that is killed and you’re not even surprised,” Jackson said. “There’s too much of this going on here. It seems like someone’s dying every two weeks.” Clarksdale’s decline had started decades before Espy took office. The mayor tried to combat it by improving infrastructure, recruiting companies and boosting tourism. But he couldn’t stop the slide, only slow it. When Henry Espy announced he’d not seek re-election, most assumed his son, Chuck Espy, would handily win an election. But Luckett’s surprise bid gave people a clear choice. When McMillian entered, too, the notion of a sure winner disappeared. Most residents interviewed said McMillian was a rising star. Even beyond Clarksdale, McMillian’s foray into Mississippi politics gave people hope, said Ravi K. Perry, an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University and an adviser to the McMillian campaign. “The fact he was able to leave his careers to go home to rural Mississippi in the Delta and run for office, that alone is an accomplishment,” Perry said, adding that, “And to add to the fact that he is openly gay. (His win) would have been huge.”

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