Marco McMillian was a trailblazer and the pride of the Mississippi Delta. In 2004, when he was in his 20s, Ebony hailed him as one of the nation's top "30 up-and-coming African-American leaders" under 30. And when he was in his 30s, the Mississippi Business Journal recognized him as one of the top 40 leaders under 40. But McMillian's life was mysteriously cut short at age 34.
As an openly gay African-American candidate running for the mayoral seat in Clarkdale, Miss., McMillian was quietly signaling that neither his race nor his sexual orientation would abort his aspirations. On McMillian's personal Facebook page there is a photo of him posing with President Obama. His campaign motto, "Moving Clarksdale forward," was a challenge to the town as well as the state. If there is anyplace to challenge the intolerant conventions of Mississippi, Clarksdale, the Delta's gem, known as "a place where openness and hospitality transcend all barriers and visitors are embraced as family" and the birthplace of blues music, is that place.
Police discovered McMillian's body near a levee just a 15-minute drive outside Clarksdale. When his family reported that his body had been "beaten, dragged and burned," I immediately thought of Mississippi's unforgettably sordid history of lynching. In particular, the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till came to mind, and I was reminded of the words of Mississippi's native son, William Faulkner, who wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Till was a 14-year-old African-American child from Chicago who was visiting relatives down in the Delta. He was brutally murdered and tortured for allegedly flirting with a white woman. When his body was discovered, it was reported that Till had been severely beaten, stripped nude and shot in the right ear, with one of his eyes gouged out from its socket, before his body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.
Though many suspected that racial hatred might have been the motive for McMillian's alleged murder, that possibility was quickly erased when it was reported that Lawrence Reed, a 22-year-old African-American male, had been apprehended and charged with murder after having wrecked McMillian's SUV the day before his body was found. Did Reed murder McMillian? Why did he have his car? Could this have been a "down-low" tryst gone awry? There still aren't enough details to know.
Being openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) is no easy feat for African Americans, even in 2013, and even with an LGBTQ-friendly president like Obama having our backs. Being from the South just complicates the matter. But in McMillian's case, his family might also be one of the complications in our ability to ascertain the truth behind his death.
Case in point: It is unfathomable to McMillian's mother, Patricia McMillian, that the motive for his alleged murder might have been his sexual orientation. She told CNN that only his family and friends knew of his sexual orientation. "He did not announce in public that he was gay," she explained. "I don't think he was attacked because he was gay." However, McMillian's sexual orientation was no secret.
According to state investigators, little is known about Reed or how, if at all, he knew McMillian. To the McMillian family, Reed is an enigma. McMillian's mother stated that she never knew him, and McMillian's stepfather, Amos Unger, speaking for the family, told CNN, "We never heard of him."
And although the family stated that McMillian had been "beaten, dragged and burned," the Coahoma County Medical Examiner, Scotty Meredith, refuted that claim, telling CNN, "Beating is not the cause of death. ... He was beaten, but not badly." He also added that he didn't know how the family had come to the conclusion that McMillian had been dragged and burned.
Another complication in ascertaining the truth behind McMillian's death might be the state of Mississippi itself. In Mississippi LGBTQ couples cannot marry, and they cannot jointly adopt. The state's hate crimes laws do not address sexual orientation or gender identity, nor does the state address discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Therefore, an assault on an LGBTQ Mississippian might very well be ignored as a "personal matter." Indeed, Coahoma County Medical Examiner Scotty Meredith told CNN that "this was not a targeted attack" but "more of a personal dispute."
After news of McMillian's death broke, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute, which supports gay and lesbian candidates for political office, tweeted, "Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Marco McMillian, one of the 1st viable openly #LGBT candidates in Mississippi." Denis Dison, Vice President of Communications at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute, told HuffPost Live that there are "approximately 600 openly LGBTQ elected officials at every level of U.S. government, with about 80 openly elected officials in the entire South." Had McMillian won his mayoral challenge, he would have been Mississippi's first openly gay elected official and the pride of not only the Mississippi Delta but the entire state.