02/28/2013 07:37 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Seeking to Transform Mississippi

For LGBT political candidates of color, seeking public office is inherently a risk.

This week, in Mississippi, an out gay black candidate for mayor of Clarksdale was found dead. While the circumstances surrounding his death are yet to be determined, it is hard not to imagine the mysterious events had something to do with him being an agent for change.

Marco McMillian worked tirelessly in a variety of venues to "make justice a reality" and to "make real those promises of democracy" for everyone -- as stated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

To lose him as a freedom fighter is a huge loss for all Americans. But, it's particularly devastating for Clarksdale, Mississippi and the south.

Marco was an advocate for justice, and a voice for change. He eagerly supported me and my husband's recent lecture and discussion on civil rights in the 21st century to Alcorn State University. He boldly proclaimed a sincere desire to "transform Mississippi" and to "break barriers."

As he sought my counsel to advise him on his campaign, Marco wrote to me on Facebook recently, and he ended our conversation thusly: "thanks for being you."

After me and my husband spoke at Alcorn State University on marriage as a civil rights question, he said, "I'm so proud of you!"

If only, I could tell him now: "No, Marco, I'm proud of you."

Those were our conversations. And now, those conversations have been silenced -- and likely by force.

McMillian's untimely death is a perilous reminder about the challenges out LGBT candidates of color may face in seeking public office in communities where the political culture did not meet them with open arms.

Some in Marco's campaign inner-circle have suggested they don't believe his death, which is being investigated as a homicide, had anything to do with his sexual orientation. While I hope that is what the investigation shows, there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance.

It's not surprising, for example, that, for many gay political candidates for local and state offices campaign in new adopted homes, and not their hometowns. Hometowns are historically visceral to candidates who challenge their conception of what a hometown candidate should be.

However, those ideas did not deter Mr. McMillian. Instead, they fueled his return to Clarksdale to seek the mayorship after a career in Memphis, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. He chose to return home. He chose to support home.

I hope the story unfolds that "home" supported him.

But, in the interim, as details continue to emerge, we need to fully investigate the cause of his disappearance and reported death. We need all national and regional organizations that fight for justice to join the effort.

To not do so, well, is not an option.

Bold candidates for public office who seek to serve, like Marco, do so, knowing the risks. And Marco, seemingly paid the ultimate price for his belief in Clarksdale and in Mississippi to welcome change.

The public spotlight is not for everyone. However, the public spotlight was meant for Marco. Because while in it, he fought for the rights of others. By simply joining the mayoral race, he made a difference.

Now, for the rest of us, the torch must carry on.