Friday, February 16, 2007
Slain sttorney Cleve McDowell and Rev. Jesse Jackson campaign in the Mississippi Delta (as the cotton dust flies through the air). McDowell was murdered in 1997 and questions remain.
With February’s announcement of a second attempt by the U.S. Congress to open civil rights cold case files, questions re-surface over the more recent murder of a Mississippi Delta lawyer and civil rights warrior.
Cleve McDowell was killed just ten years ago – an act too recent to be investigated under the pretext of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named after the 14-year-old African American from Chicago who was killed in 1955. Investigation and court records of McDowell’s death remain sealed.
Ten years ago on March 17 friends and family of a Mississippi attorney and civil rights veteran discovered his dead body slumped against the bathroom wall.
Cleve McDowell had been shot to death in his own home.
A Sunflower County judge slapped a gag order on the ensuing investigation and a decade later the same order remains on all public records of McDowell’s slaying – even though McDowell’s murderer was caught and convicted before the year was over.
McDowell was the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi law school. And once a lawyer, he never gave up investigating Emmett Till’s racially motivated murder that took place only several miles away from McDowell’s childhood home – plus the murders of countless others caught up in Mississippi’s civil rights battles of the 1950s and beyond.
The Drew, Mississippi native’s body was surrounded by dozens of guns – powerful handguns and rifles – all purchased over the years by McDowell for self-protection.
Initial news reports of McDowell’s murder from the Associated Press indicated
McDowell, 56, was found dead in an upstairs bathroom early that morning 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 for two days before discovering it in a small, nearby town.
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.
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Yet no journalists’ stories have ever revealed that McDowell was killed one week before the first public release of Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files, secret government records kept on private citizens officially spied on by state officials from 1954 until 1972.
After losing a 21-year battle with the American Civil Liberties Union, Mississippi was forced into turning over thousands of Commission records that would eventually aid in solving the murders of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and others who’d worked for social justice during those turbulent years, including Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
Many of the Sovereignty Commission’s most secret records are believed to be missing, however, and McDowell’s private collection of his own investigations might have helped to fill in some of the blanks. McDowell had looked into a number of murders and other crimes over the past thirty years and stored these personal records in his Drew office.
Six months after McDowell’s death, those papers disappeared at the time of an office fire in downtown Drew.
McDowell’s former office manager states that files on the Emmett Till case were undoubtedly included in her boss’s collection of stacked boxes and in his locked office safe.
“He never let me go through any of those papers. So I don’t really know what he had. But he often spoke to Emmett’s mother and promised he would find out what happened to her son and who was involved in his murder. I know Cleve talked to her just a month before he was killed,” Nettie Davis said.
Here are some old McDowell links. Of course, there are more for you to discover. sk
Link 2/news story of entry to U of Miss.