In the days since Marco McMillian’s body was recovered near a Mississippi Delta levee, people around the state and the world have begun to wonder if the openly gay, African American mayoral candidate was killed because of his sexuality, his political ambitions or none of the above.
McMillian did not live, run for office or die in the Mississippi of 1964, where three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered by white supremacists opposed to the trio’s plans to register African American voters. But the Mississippi of 2013 is a state where where gay Americans still can't marry their partners or count on legal protections from hate crimes and discrimination. By all accounts, being out in Mississippi isn't easy.
Law enforcement officials investigating McMillian’s death do not yet know what motivated Lawrence Reed, 22, to allegedly kill him. The Coahoma County Sheriff’s Office charged Reed with McMillian’s murder Thursday, two days after authorities responded to a head-on collision between McMillian’s black SUV and another vehicle on an area highway. Reed was at the wheel. McMillian could not be found. His body was discovered Wednesday morning.
Whatever the motive for McMillian's murder, his campaign for mayor of Clarksdale offers a glimpse at the sometimes slow, often complicated nature of social change. Mississippi politicos and gay activists described McMillian as a “trailblazer.” But he didn't talk about his sexual orientation on the campaign trail, according to his family and a campaign spokesman.
"I think that is the way you have to run it," said Renick Taylor, an openly gay, sixth-generation white Mississippian who lives in Biloxi, a Gulf Coast gambling town about five and a half hours south of Clarksdale. "You can't run as a gay person. You run as a Mississippian who wants to make things better and you just happen to be gay."
For the gay people in Mississippi who were closely following McMillian's campaign long before the world learned of his death, the news came as a shock and a blow.
"The main thing it would have done is given everyone else hope: things are changing here, you can be out and you can be open and you can be OK," Taylor said about the now lost possibility of a McMillian victory. "If this turns out to be a hate crime, it is going to have the exact opposite effect."
Taylor, who in 2012 served as the first of two openly gay Mississippi delegates at the Democratic National Convention, spoke about the delicate balance gays must strike in modern Mississippi.
It took three presidential elections and more than a decade before Democrats in Biloxi agreed to let Taylor represent them at the party’s gathering. Just after Taylor threw his hat into the ring, an anonymous caller contacted the Chicago-based information technologies company for which Taylor works remotely. The caller asked if the company was "aware they employed an open homosexual."
Recounting the story this week, Taylor laughed. He said his company asked him why he continued to live in Mississippi.
Clarksdale, a town of about 18,000 two hours north of Jackson, may be best known as the place where the famed bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his uncanny prowess on the guitar. Once home to several large plantations, the median household income today sits just under $25,000. Seventy-nine percent of the town's population is black, nearly 9 percent is white and just under 1 percent Latino.
McMillian spoke openly about the roughly 40 percent of Clarksdale residents living in poverty. He shared ideas on how Clarksdale might boost the share of adults with college degrees above the current 17 percent and reduce crime.
Despite his sexuality, McMillian was regarded as a more-than-viable contender in what remains a crowded field of Democrats. He ran against a state senator, a man who is the son of the town’s current mayor and nephew of Clinton-era Secretary of Agriculture Michael Espy, and five others.
Democrats willing to talk about the area’s socioeconomic challenges often fare well, a state party official said. But Republicans dominate the state.
In 2004, the same year that gay couples in Massachussetts began to get married, 86 percent of Mississippi voters backed a measure banning gay marriage in their state.
And right now, the state’s legal code also includes one of the nation's most limited slates of legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Gay couples are not allowed to form civil unions or adopt children together, and while the state's hate crime statute covers crimes that target victims based on their race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, national origin or gender, it does not extend to cover victims of anti-gay crimes.
“Marco was aware that he was going to make history if he won,” said Jarod Keith, McMillian’s campaign spokesman. “That was definitely on his radar, but that certainly wasn't the focus."
McMillian’s family declined to comment on his death when contacted Thursday.
Rickey Cole likes to joke that he is serving his second sentence as the state’s Democratic Party chair, a position from which he will be paroled in 2016. Being a Democrat in Mississippi also isn’t easy. But the party’s voters aren’t powerless or silent, he said. They helped to defeat a 2011 measure to ban abortion under all circumstances by a 16-point margin, and voters in areas such as Clarksdale played a big role in the effort.
“You have to understand, in the Delta, there’s less of the fundamentalist morality that you may find in East Mississippi,” Cole said. “It’s just a pretty laid-back place. [McMillian’s] sexual orientation really wasn’t much of an issue.”
On Saturday, Cole met McMillian for what turned out to be the first and last time. He watched McMillian work the room at a Coahoma County Democratic Party dinner. Conversation seemed to come easy as the 34-year-old stumped for votes and shook the hands of most of the 120 to 150 people in the room. McMillian was one of those young, driven and gregarious politicians who seemed to actually enjoy campaigning, Cole said.
By Tuesday night, just hours after McMillian’s disappearance became publicly known, the news caused such concern in Clarksdale that a planned black history month service at the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church morphed into a tearful event with the “feel of a memorial service” for the missing politician, according to the local paper.
As news of McMillian's death spread Wednesday, prominent organizations from the gay and black communities reacted publicly.
The Gay And Lesbian Victory Fund, an organization that supports what its website describes as “viable” gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender political candidates, had not formally endorsed McMillian. But after officials recovered his body Wednesday, the group tweeted a condolence message: "Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Marco McMillian, one of the 1st viable openly #LGBT candidates in Mississippi."
McMillian served as African American fraternity Phi Beta Sigma's international executive director, the organization's youngest ever, between 2007 and 2011. He secured the fraternity's first federal contract to help raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in communities of color, prompting Ebony magazine to include him in its 2004 list of 30 up-and-coming African Americans under 30. In response to his death, Phi Beta Sigma issued a statement describing him as a man who “made an incredible difference.”
Oxford, Miss., an hour and half northeast of Clarksdale, is the city where President John F. Kennedy deployed federal troops to restore order in 1962, when a young black man integrated the University of Mississippi and angry whites rioted. It’s also a community where Gail Stratton has spent the last few days locked in conversations about McMillian’s death and what it may signal.
"My personal reaction is, oh my God, this is very chilling,” said Stratton, a white, lesbian organizer of the Oxford chapter of the group Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “It’s one step forward and two steps back."
Taylor sees what happened this week in Mississippi in much the same way, and he’s prepared for a continued struggle. He drafted marriage equality and anti-bullying planks that were eventually added to Mississippi Democrats' 2012 platform. But getting the language included sparked an inner-party battle, he said.
"I both love Mississippi, and I could tear it to shreds."