Although few hard facts have emerged about the alleged murder of Marco McMillian, the black openly-gay mayoral candidate found dead in Mississippi last week, family members, friends and civil-rights advocates say that the crime does not appear to be a random act of violence. They're calling on officials to mount a full investigation that includes the possibility the crime was motivated by hate.
Over the weekend, McMillian's family released a statement indicating that the 33-year-old politician's body was found after having been beaten, dragged and burned. Local officials have released few details about the crime or the condition of McMillian's body when it was found, but have indicated that they have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime, despite the fact that Mississippi law includes no specific or additional punishments for crimes motivated by anti-gay bias.
But regardless of local law enforcement's insistence that they will pursue all possible avenues, legal experts say that McMillian's death and the ongoing investigation highlight the difficulty and complexity of life for openly gay black men in Mississippi, the extremely limited legal protections the state offers its minority residents and the state's own record of identifying and reporting hate crimes.
"For it not to be even investigated as a hate crime is a slap into the face of all civil rights change agents through generations," said Ravi Perry, a black political science professor at Mississippi State University who served, while living in Massachusetts, as one of the first openly gay heads of an NAACP chapter. Perry first spoke to McMillian last fall, when the young politician was starting to organize his mayoral campaign. McMillian had recently returned to his small hometown of Clarksdale, Miss. after leaving behind a leadership post at his historically African-American fraternity and the thriving black gay scene in Washington, D.C.
While Perry spoke to McMillian regularly, he never got to meet him. This weekend he will attend McMillian's wake and funeral. Perry understood why some in the town would be anxious to avoid the question of whether this was a hate crime or draw attention to McMillian's openly gay identity, which had never been mentioned during his campaign. However, Perry is urging the federal government to intervene and open a full-scale hate crime investigation.
"I will say this," Perry continued. "In order to investigate it as a hate crime, you have to talk more openly about his sexuality, and that would validate for everyone that he was in fact gay, and I understand that people may not want that, his family may not want that, his community members may not want that. In death we want the story to be a certain way. But I firmly believe that Marco would absolutely want that. We cannot take away from that. He has touched thousands of lives throughout his career, but he did so as an openly gay man."
As early as this weekend, local reporters began pushing back against the idea that this was yet another saga of prejudice in the Mississippi Delta. Instead, area newspapers and television stations ran stories indicating that the death was the result of a personal disagreement between McMillian and Christopher Reed, an African-American man arrested and charged with McMillian's murder. They suggested that Reed, a man described as straight, may have “snapped,” killing McMillian in an emotion-fueled panic after the politician made a pass at Reed.
"What needs to be debated, Clarksdale residents say, isn’t how to stop intolerance but how to stop crime," an article in the Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest daily newspaper, stated.
Since both men were black, some observers also left comments on news sites and in local chat rooms declaring that McMillian's death could not be the result of a hate crime. Some county officials have implied the same. The local sheriff's office, however, insists that no motives for the crime have been ruled out and reporters have jumped to premature conclusions.
A second Clarion-Ledger story stated that police were not investigating the matter as a hate crime. A spokesman for the sheriff's department refuted that claim Tuesday.
"As this is an ongoing investigation, every possibility is being examined at this time," Will Rooker, the spokesman said.
It isn't just the press promoting the idea that McMillian isn't a victim of a hate crime. In an interview with The Huffington Post this week, Coahoma County Coronor Scotty Meredith cast doubts on a passage of the family’s statement that suggested McMillian may have been tortured. Meredith also suggested that a reporter speak with Reed’s girlfriend, whose name he could not supply, about just what happened between McMillian and Reed.
“She could shed a lot of light on this story that can move Mr. McMillian from the victim to the suspect in this story,” Meredith said.
Reed’s girlfriend could not be identified by deadline.
Hayley Gorenberg, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, an organization dedicated to LGBT rights, said she couldn't comment on the underlying facts of the case, but she described aspects of the coverage as outrageous.
"The idea that anybody could look at reports of burning somebody to death or dragging somebody to death and say we dismiss the idea that there could be a hate crime, because this may have resulted from a misunderstanding between a gay man and a straight man, completely fails to recognize what a hate crime at its core is," said Gorenberg, who is white.
She brought up the Matthew Shepard case, where lawyers tried to argue that the killers were enraged to the point of the murder because the victim hit on them. "That's the case that birthed the Hate Crimes act," she noted.
On Tuesday, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, head of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a black LGBT civil-rights group based in Washington, D.C., sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling for the federal government to step into the investigation.
"After speaking extensively with the family, community and anti-violence coalition members like the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), NBJC feels the perpetuation and validation of the 'gay panic' defense is irresponsible," wrote Lettman-Hicks, who is black. "The conflicting reports as well as the current racial and anti-LGBT climate in Mississippi is justification enough for a federal investigation.
"NBJC is standing firmly with Marco McMillian’s family so that their concerns do not fall on deaf ears," Lettman-Hicks added. "The details of this case just aren’t adding up. Whether on the basis of race or sexual orientation, hate is hate. If there is the possibility that McMillian was murdered because of who he is, that warrants the Department of Justice’s involvement."
McMillian’s murder has drawn the national spotlight to Clarksdale, a Mississippi Delta town of about 18,000, mostly black residents perhaps best known as the birthplace of the blues. Clarksdale is also a place where 40 percent of residents live on incomes that fall below the poverty line.
A graduate of both Jackson State and Saint Mary’s universities who operated his own consulting firm, McMillian has been described by people who knew him as a standout, a bright and promising young star. He was part of the only 17 percent of area residents with a college degree, charismatic and willing to commit to his hometown.
Before his death, McMillian was one of seven Democrats vying to lead the community. Over the course of his campaign, McMillian vowed to boost college graduation rates, believing that income and employment rates would soon follow and crime would slide. He was also openly gay but did not discuss the issue during his campaign, making him a sort of cautious trailblazer.
Right now, there isn’t enough information available about McMillian’s death to reach a clear conclusion, said Bear Atwood, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, who is white. But, it does seem that prevailing social mores, the frequency with which gay individuals lead closeted lives and concerns about the area’s reputation have begun to shape the way that people view the investigation and the crime, she said.
Across the country, experts say that more than half of all hate crimes go unreported to police. In Mississippi it seems many of those which are investigated are never classified as hate crimes. In 2011, the most recent year for which hate crime data is available, Mississippi law enforcement agencies collectively reported one hate crime.
Investigators who are part of the communities they serve have to be willing and able to explore the motivations for potential hate crimes before the difficult work of documenting them can begin, Atwood said. And, there are other problems. Mississippi has no laws -- not in housing, employment or any other facet of life -- outlawing discrimination against women, minorities or gays. The state’s hate crime statute also does not cover gay individuals.
Federal laws preventing discrimination and mandating enhanced sentences for hate crimes of any kind do apply, but require Justice Department intervention, she said.
In January a bill was introduced in the Mississippi legislature that would have added lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals to the list of groups protected by the states hate crimes law. The bill died quickly but represents the kind of incremental transition happening in Mississippi right now, Atwood said.
“It’s a complicated place,” she said. “Do gay people in Mississippi, a gay black man like Marco McMillian, feel particularly vulnerable? Definitely. But, I don’t think that’s just because the hate crimes law doesn’t include them. I think that’s the reality of life in Mississippi.”