Mississippi Delta civil rights leader, Aaron Henry, was a frequent target of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, an agency quickly organized after the murder of Emmett Till to spy on integration activities and spread good will about the state. Henry, a friend of Drew attorney Cleve McDowell, died a natural death in his Clarksdale home on May 19, 1997. McDowell, also a target of the Commission, was not so fortunate; he was murdered at his home in 1997. (Photo from the University of Mississippi archives.)
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In observance of the 54th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till (July 25, 1941 - August 28, 1955), I am blogging my new book, Who Killed Emmett Till? Your comments and feedback are appreciated and I hope for the entire blog-book to be finished by Oct.15, 2009. I enjoy and appreciate your comments. Susan
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This is Post #16 in the Blog Book, Who Killed Emmett Till?
Link to Selected Bibliography
Link to Lists of the Dead
Link to A Map of the Mississippi Delta
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Cleve McDowell, Murdered and Nearly Forgotten in Mississippi
By Susan Klopfer
Cleve McDowell didn’t believe it. He'd known Henry S. Mims too well.
But when told that his friend committed suicide, the Delta lawyer’s mojo kicked in and McDowell drove to Montgomery, Alabama, speeding the 380-miles to do the obvious.
It was easy enough to maneuver himself around the funeral home and find Mims’s body, to check out the story.
From nearly three decades of practicing civil rights and public defense law, assessing what happened to Mims would not – and did not – take more than a few moments alone with the corpse.
Back home in Drew, McDowell told his friend Rev. Jesse Grisham he’d found Mims with bruises and broken fingers. "There were signs of torture,” he said.
Mims was found hanging from the garage ceiling with a ladder under his body, the widow told McDowell, but from her description, Mcdowell knew the ladder wasn’t far enough from the floor to make sense.
“Cleve wanted to talk when he got back to Drew,” Grisham said. But the conversation took a new direction when McDowell asked the minister to promise he would conduct McDowell’s funeral when the time arrived.
“..And he meant it," Grisham said.
"I thought he was kidding at first, and I told him I would be dying before him since I'm quite a bit older. But he was serious and he looked scared. Grisham tried to make sense of his friend’s request, and asked McDowell if he knew what happened to Mims.
McDowell was blunt. Mims didn’t kill himself; the story had to be a cover, he told Grisham.
“I asked Cleve if he knew who did it. He said 'yes,' and then looked down and said nothing else."
To Grisham’s sorrow, he had to honor his friend’s request and the former blues musician played for McDowell’s funeral five years later, after McDowell was murdered at home.
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The morning of March 17, 1997 Cleveland McDowell’s body was discovered by his younger sister and his long-time office manager.
DREW, Miss. (AP) - A civil rights attorney who was the second black to attend the University of Mississippi was found shot to death at his home, and a judge immediately slapped a gag order on investigators.
Cleve McDowell, 56, was found dead in an upstairs bathroom early Thursday after relatives called police to say the door to his apartment was open and his car missing. Police continued to look for McDowell's Cadillac on Friday.
McDowell had been a public defender in Sunflower County for three decades. He was part of a group of black leaders organizing to pressure district attorneys and revive interest in many never-prosecuted cases in which blacks were killed for doing civil rights work.
During the 1980s, McDowell was the executive field director of the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
That Cleve McDowell was "part of a group of black leaders organizing to pressure district attorneys" in civil rights actions, would never make it to Associated Press obituaries published in Mississippi.
ADMITTED AT 21 to the University of Mississippi's as its first black law student, McDowell worked over three decades as a public defender once completing his studies in Texas. He was appointed to the state's Penitentiary Board in 1971 and named as state Head Start director in 1972, the first Mississippi African American to receive a governor's appointments.
In later years, the Delta lawyer revived the state's NAACP, opened in 1954 by his mentor Medgar Evers, the state's first field secretary.
McDowell served as a Sunflower County judge from 1978 to 1982 and ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature twice, in 1978 and 1987. For a short time, he was a legislative aide to conservative U. S. Senator Trent Lott, leading some friends and political observers to question his motives.
But friends say McDowell was a thoughtful and somewhat conservative civil rights advocate who was simply trying to understand better the motives of politicians like Lott.
ONLY HIS CLOSEST FRIENDS knew of his longtime relationship with Mamie Till Mobley, who at 75 was still alive when McDowell left the planet.
For years, McDowell studied the Till lynching, partly because Till was killed a few miles outside of Drew when both young men were 14, and the murder had been particularly traumatic for Drew children. The event helped lead McDowell to study law.
McDowell updated Emmett's mother with occasional telephone calls and visits to Chicago about his efforts, while filling law office corners with stacked cardboard boxes holding papers and records he'd collected on Till and other unsolved murder victims.
Some of his more recent records were kept locked in his office safe, along with a dozen or more guns that McDowell always kept on hand for self protection.
But six months after he was murdered, all of McDowell’s investigative papers disappeared when his unoccupied law office, where his legal records were still being stored, caught fire.
As it turned out, McDowell's records disappeared in the same week the State of Mississippi finally opened half of its secret Sovereignty Commission investigation files, kept under lock since 1972 -- a long 25 years of arguing after losing a court battle with the ACLU to make records public.
Some contend a share of Mississippi's thousands of missing and potentially embarrassing Sovereignty Commission records possibly made it to McDowell's office for analysis and safe-keeping -- before disappearing again during the fire.
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Juarez Webb, one of McDowell’s public defender clients, who initially hoped McDowell could make his burglary charges go away, was tracked down and arrested within three days of his lawyer's murder.
Jet Magazine reported March 31, 1997 the 19-year-old was caught in Indianola, seat of Sunflower County, charged with capital murder and held without bond.
Webb was seen with McDowell late in the day of the murder, District Attorney Frank Carlton told Jet. A police officer found McDowell's body early the next morning in an upstairs bedroom when responding to reports from the victim's family the front door to his home was open and his car, a brown 1995 Cadillac, was missing, Police Capt. Albert Robinson said.
McDowell, who lived alone in Drew, in a house he built using sections from his family's sharecroppers home, was shot twice, Robinson added. Authorities soon found his car in Indianola. Webb was not in the car, but faced grand larceny charges for its theft.
Carlton told the Journal Constitution that there were "indications that Webb had driven McDowell's car from Drew back to Indianola.”
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Sunflower County law enforcement and court officers insist on enforcing an initial gag order -- twelve years after McDowell’s murder -- on all related police and court records.
The order to keep such papers out of the public reach was first placed on the investigation to halt a local police chief from damaging the crime scene and spreading inflammatory rumors, said Nettie Davis, the deceased lawyer’s former office manager.
But McDowell’s longtime employee, questions why such an order would remain – not an unfair query, considering a gag order’s intention.
CLEVE MCDOWELL HAD distinguished himself academically early on in life – first as an outstanding Drew High School speech and debate competitor who went on to study at Jackson State University.
Cleve McDowell, first black student to be admitted to the James O. Eastland School of Law at the University of Mississippi, or "Ole Miss." The school still uses this moniker representing the Ole Miss on a southern plantation who is married to the Ole Master. (Photo from the University of Mississippi archives.)
THE SUMMER OF 1963, as the second black student after James Meredith to be admitted to the University of Mississippi, McDowell followed suit, becoming the first African American ever to study law at what was then the James O. Eastland School of Law, named after the Sunflower County U.S. Senator, an avowed racist.
Shortly after the murder of his friend and mentor, NAACP Field Secretary Evers, McDowell learned that both he and Meredith were next in line for assassination, a fact he told oral historian Owens Brooks and confirmed years later by a retired Parchman Penitentiary guard who said he was asked to kill McDowell by a Delta planter.
McDowell bought a gun after being chased home several times and receiving other threats.
"Most everybody else had one," McDowell told Brooks, "but when mine was discovered, I was expelled." McDowell actually did the research, proving students commonly carried guns at the University of Mississippi, trying to be reinstated but to no avail.
Later praised in a letter of support by Mississippi's law school dean, McDowell finished his education at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Texas, a "better and safer" place to be. The current University of Mississippi law school dean refused in 2003 to acknowledge existence of the letter in McDowell’s files. A call made in 2009 to his office was referred to law school archives where an archivist said the letter was definitely not in their possession.
In fact, Texas proved a better place for McDowell to finish his law degree, because the Texas black law school was emphasizing civil rights law while the University of Mississippi was far behind, McDowell told Brooks. McDowell excelled in Texas, becoming president of the student body.
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On August 21, 1997 Webb was indicted by Sunflower County grand jurors on charges of capital murder and robbery of McDowell. And for several months, the charges stuck.
It would be hard to make a case against Webb; there was tampering at the crime scene and questions have surfaced about the state’s autopsy.
The city’s police chief was called to McDowell’s home once the body was discovered, and according to several eye-witnesses, including Davis, "He told us all to leave the house, all of us including the police officer, and he stayed in the house for a long time, tearing up the floors and walls – like he was looking for something.
“He walked out with a small sack, but I don’t know what he had. It was obvious that he messed up the crime scene before the state investigators could get there."
"About 20 minutes" after the police chief’s departure, Sunflower County Circuit Judge Gray Evans filed an order to seal the premises of McDowell’s residence making “discussions of any findings or evidence from the crime scene illegal for any officers and personnel working the crime scene.”
But the same gag order "remains in effect," even though the investigation was closed years ago, asserts the county’s assistant district attorney who in the fall of 2003 refused access to any of the police investigation or court records stored in the courthouse basement in Indianola, even though the gag order never covered court officers.
"The police chief was saying awful things about Cleve when he came out of the house. I know that Judge Gray [Evans] was just trying to tone things down before the gossip got out of hand," Davis said. "But I wouldn’t think he meant for the gag order never to be lifted."
Evans’ gag order in remains unchanged.” The family would have to approve first," a county judge said in 2003 after receiving an Indianola attorney’s informal request for McDowell’s records. Later requests have made no difference.
But Webb’s case files kept in the Sunflower County courthouse basement were accessible and include McDowell's autopsy performed in Jackson the night of McDowell’s murder, performed by Steven T. Hayne, M.D., the state’s controversial deputy coroner -- a good find, since the state of Mississippi claims to no longer have a copy on file.
Hayne's report clearly states there were "negative" signs of any drug abuse.
Cause of death was given as a "gunshot wound of the left neck, distant and perforating."
The death was listed as a homicide.
Three gunshot wounds fired in "close temporal proximity" but not at close range, perhaps up to a distance of 15 feet, were described by the coroner: a "nonlethal" wound consisting of a "nonlethal distant and perforating gunshot wound of the left back," a "nonlethal distant and perforating gunshot of the left shoulder with re-entry penetrating gunshot wound of the left temple" and a "lethal distant and perforating gunshot wound of the left neck."
These descriptions could not be put into sequential order, the report stated.
Perhaps what is not included in the autopsy report leaves more questions.
This officially stamped copy of McDowell's autopsy does not give information regarding the range from which the gun was fired, and in 2004, a physician practicing forensic medicine was asked to read the report and give his opinion. He was not given McDowell's name.
The physician said it appeared the shots could have been fired from fifteen feet away. The physician also speculated there could have been more than one shooter, given the angles of the three shots. Further, information about the condition of bullets causing these wounds was not available in the report.
Hayne, the state's deputy coroner and medical examiner, has been accused on various occasions of "causing innocent people ['there may be some on death row'] doing time at Parchman Penitentiary due to his testimony," said J.D. Sanders, a former Columbus, Mississippi, police chief who now works as an assistant police chief in Franklin, Tennessee.
Interviewed by Radley Balko of ReasonOnline, Sanders cited an instance in 2007 when the Mississippi Supreme Court, by an 8-to-1 vote, tossed out Hayne's expert testimony in a case of a 13-year-old boy accused of killing his sister’s husband.
Leroy Riddick, a state medical examiner in Alabama who has testified in opposition to Hayne, told Balko, “All of the prosecutors in Mississippi know that if you want to be sure you get the autopsy results you want, you take the body to Dr. Hayne."
Heading the list of Sanders and Riddick's complaints is that according to standards set by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), the field’s pre-eminent professional organization, a single medical examiner should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year.
At 325, the group considers a doctor to have a “Phase II deficiency”; at that point, it will not accredit a practice, regardless of any other criteria.
"Hayne has repeatedly testified under oath that he performs more than 1,500 autopsies per year—a staggering number ... That’s more than four per day, every day of the year, for the 20 years Hayne’s been in Mississippi. In a 2002 deposition, Hayne put the estimate at 1,800," Balko wrote.
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SIX MONTHS AFTER after McDowell’s murder, a fire was set in downtown Drew, devastating the town’s largest department store and the vacant office next door.
And all of the records McDowell had collected over the years from his personal research on unsolved race-based murders and lynching, including his records on Emmett Till, were stored in the vacant office and reportedly destroyed.
The fire’s flames were so high that some Cleveland residents reported seeing the "lighted sky" 17 miles southwest of Drew. Others heard an "explosion" in Drew at the beginning of the fire.
Drew police chief Burner Smith, in 2003, refused to release the records of the fire, stating the records were turned over to Sunflower County.
The county's assistant district attorney, Hailey Gail Bridges, says the records - "if they are at the courthouse are not available to the public."
Bridges was never a friend to McDowell. As a graduate of the University of Mississippi, Bridges never did get along with McDowell, several former colleagues said.
"He would beat her nearly every time in court. And then he would make fun of her. She really hated him," Davis said. Specifically, McDowell was known for waggling his tongue at Bridges whenever she lost, Davis said.
And she’s been no help to the FBI in solving the Emmett Till cold case.
The summer of 2006, Bridges was given the task of overseeing the Emmett Till cold case project, initiated by the FBI. To date, no court action has been taken and some observing civil rights veterans assert Bridges "will never do anything to resolve the 1956 murder."
On Feb. 17, 2007 Clarion Ledge reporter, Jerry Mitchell, reported the Leflore grand jury did not indict anyone in the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, bringing an apparent end to the resurrection of one of the nation's most notorious hate crimes.
“Assistant District Attorney Hallie Gail Bridges said she could not comment because it is a grand jury matter. What a grand jury does isn't public until a grand jury reports, she said. Such reports typically become public days or weeks after a grand jury finishes. The grand jury considered possible charges against Carolyn Bryant, now 73 and living in Greenville. She has told relatives and the FBI she is innocent.”
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Webb’s case kept taking twists and turns – at one point acting more like the case of James Earl Ray …
Webb's court records show that he filed a Petition to Enter a Guilty Plea, reducing his plea from capital murder to manslaughter on January 26, 1998.
In his request, Webb said he "shot and killed Cleve McDowell, without malice, in the heat of passion" and "not in necessary self-defense."
Webb also asserted that he was earlier "coerced" into pleading guilty to manslaughter by his attorneys:
"They told me I wasn’t going to be able – I wasn’t going to be able to get nowhere in this case, that I might as well go ahead and take a plea; otherwise, it would be over with me…. I guess they were talking about my life," his records state.
But on July 22, 1998, Webb reversed himself and filed a "jailhouse" petition to withdraw his guilty plea, citing "a series of interrogations, threats and promises [made to him] by various law enforcement officials" and "a series of statements of an incriminating nature [that were] obtained from Petitioner in taped, written and oral form against the Petitioner’s will and conscent [sic]."
Interrogations, Webb claimed, were "unsolicited" and "initiated by … the instance [sic] of arresting officers and other varies [sic] courthouse officials." Webb said he did not waive his rights to silence or counsel or self-incrimination, but that he was forced unwillingly and without counsel present to answer questions.
Webb said he was "repeatedly interrogated and threatened as well as coerced to admit to the crime in an involuntary nature, thus rendering his guilty plea involuntary as the result of being threatened by the officials to receive the death penalty." Courthouse records indicate that Webb was taken for a psychological examination to determine if he was potentially suicidal.
APPOINTED COUNSEL, WEBB WENT TO TRIAL on January 27, 1998 and "maintained his innocence," his petition states. His family was "repeatedly harassed by law enforcement officials and was told by his attorneys that he would get the death penalty if he did not take a plea for a lesser charge of manslaughter."
Webb asserted the charge of capital murder was dropped to manslaughter "due to the pressure and threats and unlawful statements obtained as well as other evidence and unlawful arrest against his will."
(Shades of James Earl Ray and his relationship with Percy Foreman? On the advice of Foreman, Ray pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to a 99-year-prison term on March 10, 1969 and then recanted his confession just three days later, saying he had been framed.)
Webb also admitted giving "false statements in court to end the truma [sic] and nightmare and to protect his family from further threats and harassments … [the] guilty plea was made unwillingly, involuntarily and [he] was coerced to give his plea to avoid a big trial and publicity on his family."
What Webb wanted was permission to withdraw his plea of guilty and to prove his innocence "so that the real suspect can be caught."
At the time of his slaying, McDowell was Webb’s court-appointed attorney on earlier burglary charges.
"The police thought Webb killed Cleve to steal his Cadillac, money and jewelry. It was all missing from his home when his body was found. They said Webb confessed to the killing when he was arrested," Davis recalled.
At Webb’s preliminary hearing, according to a Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger news report, Drew Police Chief Burner Smith testified that Webb, 18, told police "McDowell had thrown him on the floor and tried to pull his pants down to sexually assault him."
Further, "District Attorney Carlton said accepting Webb’s plea was the best decision" since the case was "not iron-clad" and that McDowell "needed to be remembered for what he did as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement at a time when that wasn’t too popular."
Webb did not get what he had hoped for.
On July 9, 1999, Circuit Judge Gray Evans denied and dismissed Webb’s motion. Evans wrote that it had "probably" been a "wise" recommendation by Webb’s attorney to urge Webb to plead guilty to manslaughter rather than face the possibility of a death sentence from a conviction of capital murder.
Webb remains incarcerated in a Greenwood facility, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
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YEARS EARLIER, during the 1956 legislative session coming after the murder of Emmett Till, in the wake of national and international condemnation, Mississippi legislators installed a quiet and effective spy agency known as the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.
Its purpose was to quell all integration efforts while cranking up efforts for better Mississippi public relations.
Like so many other blacks (and pro-integration whites), McDowell had been a target of the Commission; a moderate number of records remain in the Sovereignty Commission files on the Drew native. Only a fraction of Commission files have ever seen the light of day since thousands of records were reportedly destroyed or removed before they were made available to the public when the state was ordered to open its secretive vaults.
Davis said that McDowell received some of his personal Sovereignty Commission reports to look over before they were made public – just one week before his murder – adding he did not appear particularly disturbed over the unsealed records.
Shortly after McDowell was killed, “Someone came to the office and took everything off his computer. I don’t know who it was. But everything was so strange at the time – Cleve had even spent a few days before updating his resume – making a big deal out of it.”
One Sovereignty Commission record named a possible Jackson "homosexual partner," and also declared McDowell as a young black man on the rise – someone who impressed the Governor. Davis did not remember if the particular record was made available to her former boss for his review.
As Davis spoke about McDowell’s murder, she recalled something else that struck her as unusual:
"When Cleve was murdered, the strangest thing to me was how neat the coffee table looked. I went into the house with Cleve’s sister and that was the first thing I noticed.
"It was always a mess, with papers, files, and books stacked up and even falling off the edges. Everyone who knew him would remember that table. But that morning it looked like it had been cleaned up when we went into the house. Every paper was stacked neatly into a pile.
"There were these neat piles all over the table. My eye caught the coffee table immediately, as soon as I walked in. I had never seen it like this before," Davis said.
Retired funeral home employee Woodrow Jackson of the nearby small town of Tutwiler later backed up Davis’s assertion, finding it “more than intriguing” that McDowell’s coffee table was straightened the day his body was discovered.
"This says something. His coffee table was always very messy. He would never have straightened it up, himself. I didn’t see his body, but from what I could reconstruct from the rumors going around, there might have been two people involved in the shooting."
Jackson, who embalmed Emmett Till in 1955, talked softly. "I knew Cleve very well. I didn’t embalm his body; I believe it was someone from Cleveland who did.
"But Cleve was a good lawyer and we often spoke about Emmett Till because he was interested in finding all who were involved in the murder.
"Cleve kept boxes of records in his office. I know, because I saw them. I remember a year or so ago before Cleve was murdered he brought Emmett Till up again and still seemed upset, but he would never give out any details. When his office burned down after he was murdered, a lot of important papers had to have been lost."
Davis also noticed McDowell’s prized guns were missing.
"He had guns in many places throughout the house and his office. He was always within reach of a gun. I don’t know how he could have been so surprised as to have been shot. I never learned what happened to all of his guns in his house or in his office. He also kept guns in his car."
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The FBI, responding to a Freedom of Information request, first asserted no records on McDowell exist.
"Strange," say several of McDowell’s close friends, asserting that FBI agents visited McDowell’s office several times in the years before his death.
Later, two records were made available by the FBI regarding a minor incident during McDowell’s tenure as a Tunica Judge. Other "tax records" were not available to the public, the FBI stated.
One Drew friend, asking to remain anonymous said he always believed McDowell’s murder might be related to a "very large" settlement he won for a client who lived near Tunica and "may have involved something to do with a utility company." Another friend agreed.
McDowell had invited this friend to dinner shortly before he was murdered.
"He said he had won ‘the big’ case he’d been working on and for once had lots of money. I didn’t know anything about this case, but I did hear that no attorney in Memphis would take it. Some say there might have been mob involvement."
THE MIMS STORY OFFERS an intriguing picture when trying to learn who killed Cleve McDowell and why.
McDowell’s immediate reaction to Mims' sudden death was that it would be "impossible" for Mims to have killed himself; it wasn’t in his personality, Rev. Grisham said.
McDowell set out to learn what had happened to his friend.
When he and several others from Drew decided to drive to Alabama for the funeral, McDowell decided he would "go out first and try to find out what happened" and then call back to give an update before the others left town.
McDowell arrived in Montgomery, going to his friend's home, but Mims' widow refused to let him view her husband's body and McDowell learned she was demanding a closed casket during the funeral.
McDowell would not have taken such news sitting down, but most likely went to the funeral home to examine the body himself, McDowell's own minister, Rev. Jesse Grisham, said.
"Cleve would have worked to find out what happened to Mims and he would never take 'no' for an answer."
By telephone, McDowell reported to Grisham that Mims' body displayed "cuts and broken fingers."
Something was very wrong with the suicide story, McDowell told Gresham. "It made no sense."
McDowell sounded shaken on the telephone call back to Drew and said he would not stay for the funeral; he also suggested that his friends not drive to Alabama, as planned, Gresham said.
But McDowell's friends drove out to the funeral and were surprised at "all of the California people" who attended.
"So many, that most of his Mississippi friends could not get inside of the church."
Mims was a graduate of the City College of Los Angeles, and apparently had maintained contact with the Californians. Still, Mims and others were surprised at the number of people from the coast who quickly gathered to honor a man who now lived in Alabama.
When McDowell and his minister got together back in Drew after the funeral, McDowell again asserted there was no evidence of a suicide and said that Mims showed definite signs of torture.
Mims had been found by his wife, "hanging from a ladder inside of his garage," but "the whole thing looked like a setup to make his murder look like a suicide."
Mims' Drew relatives have all refused interviews. One family member said they were afraid to talk, adding ".... but don't give my name." His wife, reportedly still living in Montgomery, refuses telephone calls for interview requests. One former law clerk, asking not to be named, says rumors “flew around” Montgomery that Mims was murdered. “But no one wanted to talk about it.”
Rev. Cleve McDowell's Holly Grove MB Church still stands, abandoned, in downtown Drew, Miss. (Photo by Susan Klopfer)
MCDOWELL MADE CHANGES in his life after his friend's questionable death. In recent years he had studied to be a Baptist minister and now he began rigorously decreasing time spent working in his law office to build up his church congregation.
"He spent more time picking out the dishes and other special purchases for the church than coming to work," Davis said.
"Sometime I'd get worried about Cleve's absence from the office and tell Cleve 'we' might get sued," she laughed, explaining that she did a good share of the legal work via McDowell's telephone instructions.
"He just really changed after the Alabama trip, and it was so important for him that everything be done exactly right for the new church. That mattered to him more than anything else."
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Several of McDowell's friends contacted asked not to be named if they talked about his murder, a former Parchman prison guard explaining, "Most of us know that Cleve's death was not just a matter of a young kid shooting him because he thought Cleve was trying to molest him.
"Molestation would be impossible, anyway, because Webb was too old, legally, to be molested.
"But, there had been FBI hanging around here, and I personally think Cleve had to be one of the reasons why ... his family and friends, I think, are still afraid to talk. They know what it is still like in the Delta, and so do I [since] I know how some of the richest people work."
In 1962, when James Meredith was attempting to enter the University of Mississippi, a "rich, white planter" had approached the prison guard and "tried to hire me to kill Meredith."
Even though the event took place over 40 years ago, the retired guard would not give the planter's name.
"He wanted me to 'do something' about Meredith. Of course, I said no. But that is how it has always been around here -- rich white people paying off others, including blacks, to murder black people. They think this keeps us in line. And this has not stopped -- it still goes on."
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CLEVE MCDOWELL BEGAN his public life as the quieter of two black students breaking grounds at the University of Mississippi. James Meredith in 1962 became the school's first black student during a pivotal moment in civil rights leading to violence that left two dead and dozens, perhaps even hundreds of soldiers and federal marshals wounded.
In 1966, Meredith was shot while walking from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., to protest racism. Throughout his lifetime, Meredith was known as an outspoken conservative who could easily upset liberals as well as conservatives.
Meredith rarely allows interviews and would not talk about his old friend, McDowell.
McDowell, mentored by Meredith, never made such a splash on the civil rights scene. In an oral interview, McDowell described himself as "the briefcase guy" during undergraduate days at Jackson State University where he quietly assisted freedom riders who were coming into Jackson bus stations.
And unlike Meredith, McDowell’s entrance to the University of Mississippi's law school was quiet and uninterrupted; Mississippi state records show that Sovereignty Commission spies tried to find evidence to block his application -- combing through grade school and high school files, interviewing teachers and family friends -- but nothing of any use was found, according to their reports.
Evers, also McDowell’s early mentor, had persuaded him to apply to law school; and through his years of state and national NAACP involvement, McDowell met Rev. King who visited him on occasion in Drew.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and a host of other civil rights heroes also stopped by McDowell's office when coming into the region, Davis said.
The cotton dust flies as Cleve McDowell, left, is aided by Rev. Jesse Jackson in a bid for state office. (Photograph by Nettie Davis.)
Through the years, as civil rights heroes Medgar Evers, President John F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Sen. Robert Kennedy were all slain, McDowell became more outspoken.
Interviews with national press became more frequent for the Delta lawyer and by the 1980s, McDowell was frequently stepping outside of Mississippi and giving interviews to the national press about resolution of civil rights murders:
In 1988 he told of his sense of devastation following the murder of Evers for a twenty-fifth anniversary story published by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and called for a watchdog organization to locate and identify persons responsible for civil rights murders, "just as Nazi war criminals were prosecuted."
"There ought to be some organization to track them down…Right now some of those people are smiling and grinning in our faces and asking us to vote for them."
McDowell and two other lawyers (".... perhaps Texans who went to school with Cleve," his nephew Kwasi McDowell of Chicago suggested) were doing their own investigations, by then -- from the murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and forward, gathering every piece of information they could lay their hands on to solve crimes against black people, local, state and national, close friends say.
Kwasi McDowell, at first interested in talking about his uncle, backed off after two interviews, saying his parents warned him not to talk. They have consistently refused to be interviewed.
In the fall of 1991, McDowell told National Public Radio reporter Vicki Monks there had been "a meticulous effort to reconstruct many of these murders and many of these people are in fact known, but it's just a question of whether you can get to them legally."
McDowell was referring specifically to the 1966 murder of an NAACP voting rights organizer whose Hattiesburg store and home were bombed by Klansmen. Interviewed with Vernon Damer's son, Dennis, and a former county district attorney, Jim Dukes, McDowell asserted there was "enough new evidence and enough of a change in attitudes that it's now possible to get conviction."
While Duke disagreed, citing passage of time, evidence, deceased witnesses and "the legal constitutional question of speedy trial," McDowell asserted that convictions were not the point. That it was a matter of making the attempt to address old injustices.
Three years before McDowell was murdered, he spoke to The Philadelphia Inquirer's Washington Bureau reporter Donna St. George, shortly after prosecutors opened their third trial in the Evers case -- attempting for the third time to prove that Byron De La Beckwith was the midnight sniper who killed Evers.
Two earlier trials had been a "sham," McDowell told St. George.
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THERE WAS ANOTHER, quieter side to McDowell’s life. He and several other more well-known" civil rights veterans were gay, perhaps giving family members and some close friends reason “reason” not to talk.
The civil rights period was a time of forced anonymity since gays were considered immoral if not communistic. Their lives would have been in peril had they practiced homosexuality in the open, a London researcher from Queen's College explained.
Sovereignty Commission files show that agents reported by name any alleged gay behavior of blacks (including a brief mention of McDowell as well as records on Meredith and Aaron Henry).
And yet long-established rumors still circulate throughout Mississippi that Governor Ross Barnett, white and a Citizens Council member, was also a closet gay and "slept with at least one well-known black activist."
Barnett was governor at the time of Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi, and the name usually associated with the late governor is Aaron Henry, a well-known black activist who died in 1996.
But no Sovereignty Commission reports regarding Barnett's sexual behavior -- if such records exist -- have seen the light of day, though Commission records alleging Henry's and Meredith’s gay sexual behavior are easily found.
Professor John Howard offered an insight to gay activities in the Mississippi Delta during the Civil Rights Movement in his thesis on "[T]he love that dare not speak its name in the Bible belt."
"Generally speaking, before the 1960s, [gay] Southerners, black and white, participated in similar practices and networks. But they were doing so in two parallel, segregated worlds."
Howard said he was not surprised that any of McDowell's family or friends would share knowledge of McDowell's secret gay life, and was not surprised family members did not question his murder because of their embarrassment. (When I attempted to speak to one of McDowell’s sisters about his gay life, she asked me to leave her home and halted the interview.)
"A deep-rooted and longstanding homosexual homicide mythology associates gay men with dangerous lifestyles and disgraceful deaths," Howard said.
Up until the late 1960s, homosexuality in the South was "largely accommodated with pretence of ignorance, a system of mutual discretion in which much was understood but left unsaid," Howard said. "....many .... [prefer] silence or subtlety over open confrontation, despite all the whooping and hollering of evangelical ministers."
Howard questioned rumors occasionally surfacing that McDowell was a pedophile.
"Of course, his enemies would have wanted that sort of idea to circulate. But do you have proof that he had sexual intercourse with children? With pre-pubescent youth? It's worth mentioning that the legal age of consent here in Great Britain is sixteen for both heterosexual and homosexual sex."
The professor questioned if McDowell's partners were ".... incapable of consenting? I mention this because such accusations are a classic form of intimidation by white supremacists.
"Bill Higgs [a well-known, white Mississippi civil rights attorney], as you know, was accused of having sex with a sixteen-year-old. This may have been true. But it also may have involved what I would refer to as a set of consensual acts. You need only look back several decades to find a time when the age of consent in Southern states was what would now be seen as shockingly low.”
The statutory age of sexual consent was increased from 14 to 16 in Mississippi as of January 1, 2000.
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WHAT INFORMATION MCDOWELL took to the grave and how he will be remembered, if he is remembered at all, rests on whether or not McDowell’s friends and family will ever talk and advocate for him and if official files will be found and released, -- helpful for the state of Mississippi that wants to avoid most issues of the civil rights era, and for many of McDowell’s old friends and family members who appear still embarrassed over sexual aspects of his life.
McDowell’s ghost is fast fading
--The Mississippi civil rights collection housed at the William Winters Library in Jackson shows no records on file for McDowell (even though he was appointed to state positions by former Governor WilliamWinters) and some library assistants say they had “never heard of him”. It has been impossible to access any papers on McDowell at the library. There do no appear to be any records of his existence or contributions to the state.
--Officials from the law school at the University of Mississippi refused to share any records about his short attendance there or to even answer phone calls about him. There is no indication he ever attended the school.
Some old friends and colleagues won’t talk about him.
--Charles McLauren of Indianola, an active civil rights advocate and SNCC member who knew McDowell well, said he did not want to talk about him and deferred questions to McDowell's family. Conceding that family members would not talk about McDowell either, McLaurin offered, "They think it's better to let a sleeping dog lie," before quickly ending the phone call.
--One friend of McDowell's confirmed that she often accompanied the attorney to statewide events, serving as his female companion for appearance sake -- "so people wouldn't know he was gay." She would only talk to me if she did not have to give her name.
--A young man from McDowell's hometown claimed he was "molested" by McDowell "for years" and "wish I'd shot him, myself." But the Drew native who did not want to state his name said that an attempt in later years to "make [McDowell] look like a pedophile" was a "set-up."
Cleveland parents of a young child made the accusation, he said, "but no charges were ever filed.” He remembered the day McDowell was murdered. FBI personnel were in Drew "by noon" after McDowell's body was discovered. "They had been watching him," he said, but said he did not know why.
--Mississippi attorney Constance Slaughter, who'd known McDowell professionally and personally over the years, told Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger reporter Eric Stringfellow that "[Cleve McDowell] has a place in history. I thought he was a person who felt that he had paid his dues and one who knew that he made quite a few sacrifices to try to achieve equality for everybody. He stood up when it was crucial."
But Slaughter refused to be interviewed for this story.
Kind remarks come from Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who told a Clarion Ledger reporter that she first met McDowell when he studied at Jackson State University and was involved in the NAACP; the long-time friend was described as speechless when told of McDowell's death, Stringfellow reported.
Her strongest memories of McDowell were "when [Cleve] applied to Ole Miss and the difficulties and the harassment and how proud I think the entire community was.
"He was one of the few who would mention Medgar as a role model, and he did it during a time when others wouldn't mention Medgar -- either they had forgotten or chose to forget. Whenever Cleve would speak, he would always mention something about Medgar," she said.
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THE FAMILIAR SMELL of pan-fried catfish and steamy greens soaked in lard float into the air as an old friend of McDowell's talked about the man he'd known for so many years.
Walter Scurlock stopped preparing lunch for a moment at his restaurant on the center block of Drew's Main Street, a couple of building's away from McDowell's former law office, and chuckled about his old friend as he recounted several stories of this small town's first black city councilman and former Masonic leader.
"He would always make sure that everyone's Masonic dues were paid every year. He would pay them himself just to see that no one lost their membership. He was a conscientious leader."
"Yeh, Cleve was a special kind of guy," Scurlock said as he set out the deep-fried catfish, collard greens, fried okra and sweet tea.
"I sure miss Cleve – We all do."
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Drew school attended by Cleve McDowell, theLil’ Red Rosenwald School, was built in 1928 and served to educate African American children in the decades before desegregation. Under restoration, it serves as a community center for Drew and the surrounding area. Photo by Susan Klopfer
NEXT: More on Cleve McDowell and the murder of high school senior Jo Etha Collier of Drew.
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Copyright 2009 Susan Klopfer, all rights reserved.