Saturday, March 17, 2007
(Photo at left, young Cleve McDowell at the University of Mississippi in 1963)
By Susan Klopfer
Ten years have come and gone since former Mississippi NAACP leader Cleve McDowell was killed on March 17, 1997. Even though his slaying is too contemporary for investigation under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named after the 14-year-old African American from Chicago who was killed back in 1955, a second look is still justified since all official records of McDowell’s murder remain sealed and unanswered questions linger.
Ten years ago a black criminal lawyer was shot to death in his Mississippi Delta home.
On the morning of March 17, 1997 the naked lifeless body of Cleve McDowell was discovered propped up against an upstairs bathroom wall by his youngest sister.
Throughout his home, dozens of powerful handguns and rifles – “always one within his reach” – had been strategically placed by McDowell for self-protection. Why didn’t he use one of his guns to save his life?
On the tenth year anniversary questions still surround the death of an important but forgotten civil rights leader:
What happened to bullets taken from McDowell’s body during the state’s autopsy? Would such evidence show if more than one shooter was involved? What happened to McDowell’s guns? Why do county officials maintain a gag order on all investigation records of this murder? And what happened to all of McDowell’s investigative files?
For over forty years, McDowell studied hate crimes and murders taking place during the modern civil rights movement. Where is all of the information he collected about the murders of Emmet Till, Medgar Evers and so many others?
Learning of McDowell’s murder, the Associated Press first reported
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 with Rev. Jesse Jackson, campaigning in the cotton dust of the Delta
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 . . .
IN 1956, TWO YEARS AFTER Brown v. Topeka Board of Education and one year following the Delta murder of young Emmett Till, Mississippi legislators had installed a quiet and effective spy agency over their concerns of “forced integration” and related race issues. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission did not close its doors until 1977.
Only in 1998, after twenty-one years of legal wrangling, United States District Court Judge William H. Barbour, Jr. ordered all Commission records not involved in litigation to be opened to the public.
McDowell was killed exactly one year to the day before this first court-ordered release of secret records – records that had been gathered on private citizens by former FBI, CIA and military intelligence agents performing their clandestine work during some of Mississippi’s most tumultuous years of civil rights strife.
When these secret records were first handed over to the public, many of the Sovereignty Commission’s files were considered missing by investigative journalists and other longtime civil rights observers.
Hence, McDowell’s extensive private collection of his own criminal and civil rights investigations – papers stored in high stacks of cardboard boxes and in his office safe – could have filled in some of the gaps, had his files been available.
But McDowell’s investigation records officially disappeared between the time of his murder and the official release of Sovereignty Commission files when fire engulfed his old law office where all of his papers were stored. Family members later told reporters McDowell’s records were in his former office when the fire started – after McDowell’s death – because they wanted someday to turn the office into a civil rights museum.
McDowell’s records could have easily filled such a museum, say friends and colleagues who saw the mounds of boxes grow higher each successive year until McDowell’s life was ended by gunshot wounds.
AS THE CIVIL Rights Movement years waned, McDowell never quit looking into Mississippi’s race-based murders and other hate crimes. His interest in Till’s murder remained strong; coincidentally, he and Till were born two weeks apart in the summer of 1941 and young Till’s murder influenced McDowell’s decision to study law and then investigate Till’s and other hate crimes against blacks.
Till was kidnapped from a nearby Tallahatchie County relative’s home in the small cotton town of Money back in 1955 and taken to a Sunflower County plantation outside of Drew where he was beaten, tortured and slain. Till’s body was taken to a neighboring county and thrown into the Tallahatchie River from a bridge. Ironically, McDowell would be killed in his Drew home forty-two years later, less than five miles from Till’s murder site.
And over the years, stacked boxes of papers and files on the Till case grew high in McDowell’s office while other papers were stored in his locked office safe as well as at home, his former office manager said.
While he was busy writing down notes, McDowell “looked away and quietly said that people in this state would be surprised if they knew about all the politicians and their families who have murdered people.”
“Cleve never let me go through any of those papers. So I don’t know exactly what he had. But Cleve often spoke to Emmett’s mother and promised he would find out what happened to her son and who was involved in his murder,” Nettie Davis said.
“I know Cleve talked to her on the phone just a month before he was killed.” Davis was McDowell’s office manager and had known him since high school days in Drew.
Kwasi McDowell, McDowell’s godson, also knew about his uncle’s investigations and said his uncle was always very quiet about what he was working on but “it was evident that his investigations were serious.” McDowell’s nephew said he once worked on a civil rights paper for school that required his uncle’s help.
While he was busy writing down notes, McDowell “looked away and quietly said that people in this state would be surprised if they knew about all the politicians and their families who have murdered people.”
“He didn’t say anything else, but he looked upset,” Kwasi McDowell recalled. “Cleve may have been working with two lawyers in Texas at one time to track down civil rights murderers…. I think both of those lawyers died in car wrecks, but I don’t recall any specifics,” McDowell’s nephew said.
ONE OF CLEVE MCDOWELL’S CLIENTS was quickly arrested and charged with capital murder – those charges were reduced to manslaughter in return for Juarez Webb’s confession. Webb, a Delta black, later retracted his admission but was convicted of the lesser charges and remains locked up in a state maximum security prison.
Within several hours of discovering McDowell’s body, a county judge placed gag order on the ensuing investigation; one decade later the same order remains on all public records of McDowell’s slaying, including records on a fire that destroyed his office and criminal investigative papers.
The decision was to keep a local police chief from damaging the crime scene and from spreading inflammatory rumors, Davis said. “But I don’t understand why these records stayed closed.”
Davis remembered how unusual McDowell’s home appeared when she first entered it with his sister; together, they discovered his body:
“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. Everyone who knew him would remember that table. But this morning it looked like it had been cleaned up when we went into the house. Every paper was stacked neatly in 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.”
Even the dirty dishes that “usually filled the kitchen sink,” had been washed and this also struck Davis as odd.
Woodrow Jackson of nearby Tutwiler also finds it “intriguing” that his old friend’s coffee table was cleaned up and the dishes washed. Jackson, a retired funeral home employee, had embalmed Till’s body before it was returned to his mother in Chicago and knew McDowell through their shared interest in the murder.
“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 very 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.”
Still one more person who knew McDowell was surprised after hearing about the clean coffee table. “Now that means something,” Margaret Block said. The former SNCC activist was preparing to have McDowell do some legal work for her when she heard he was murdered. Block and her brother, Sam, had both known McDowell beginning in the early 1960s when they were all involved in voting rights activities throughout the Delta.
Davis also asks why the town police chief was allowed to disturb and even “tear up” the crime scene. “He came to the house and told us all to leave – 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 even get there."
Twenty minutes after the police chief’s departure, Sunflower County Circuit Judge Gray Evans filed an order to seal McDowell’s residence making discussions of any findings or evidence from the crime scene illegal for any officers and personnel working the crime scene, Davis said.
Evans’ gag order remains in effect, even though the investigation was closed years ago, asserts the Sunflower County assistant district attorney who 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 family would have to approve first," stated a Sunflower County judge who backed the ADA’s denial of a request for McDowell’s records.
"The police chief was saying awful things about Cleve when he came out of the house. I know that Judge Gray 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."
While McDowell’s records remain unavailable, Webb’s case files kept in the courthouse were accessible and indicated
--An autopsy performed in Jackson the night of March 17, 1997 on McDowell by Steven T. Hayne, M.D., the state’s deputy coroner, indicated "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.
The autopsy report did not give information regarding the range from which the gun was fired, but in 2004, a physician practicing forensic medicine was asked to read the report and give his opinion. The physician said that 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. But information about each of the bullets causing these wounds was not available in the report, making it difficult to reach a specific conclusion.
* * * * *
EARLY ON, MCDOWELL distinguished himself academically – as an outstanding Drew High School speech and debate competitor who continued his studies on a scholarship at Jackson State University in the state’s capital city of Jackson.
In the fall of 1963, McDowell was the first black student after James Meredith to be admitted to the University of Mississippi, and the first ever to study law at the James O. Eastland School of Law, named after the Delta’s late segregationist U.S. senator whose home was seven miles from Drew in the cotton town of Ruleville (also home to civil rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer, a friend of McDowell’s).
Soon after the murder of his mentor, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, McDowell learned that he and his college roommate James Meredith were next in line for assassination, he told Owen Brooks during an oral history interview in 1996.
Self defense became an issue for McDowell after the few U.S. marshals who had been living on the campus to protect Meredith left after his graduation in August. McDowell bought a mail order gun and applied for a permit to carry it, telling a school chaplain that he had purchased the gun because he was “scared” and “afraid somebody might kill him.”
"Most everybody else had one," McDowell told a civil rights historian in a 1996 oral history interview. "But when mine was discovered, I was expelled." (Sheriff Joe Ford who arrested McDowell also headed the Oxford, Mississippi White Citizens Council and was tipped off about McDowell’s pistol according to Sovereignty Commission records.)
Praised in a recommendation letter by the University of Mississippi’s liberal law school dean, who was upset over his student’s dismissal, McDowell transferred to the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Texas, a "better and safer" place to be,” where he was class president and an honors graduate. The University of Mississippi’s current law school dean refused to provide a copy of the letter for this report or acknowledge its existence -- but a staff member said she had seen the letter.
It was a good move since the Texas law school was emphasizing civil rights law while the University of Mississippi was far behind, McDowell told interviewer Owen Brooks. Transcripts of this interview are not available according to state archive officials.
McDowell was not a radical reformer; there are few Sovereignty Commission records mentioning him except for his short time spent at the University of Mississippi and later as a civil rights movement participant and a Headstart coordinator. He was not a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but remained an active member of the more conservative NAACP, serving in later years as state field director of the Mississippi Conference. McDowell also represented clients in various social justice and civil rights cases over three decades.
But the Drew attorney and community leader quietly set records for black achievement: he was named to the state Penitentiary Board from 1971 until 1976 and named by the governor as state director for Head Start from 1972 to 1976. No other black Mississippians had held such influential state positions for over 100 years, since Reconstruction. In his own community, McDowell was elected vice-mayor to the town council and served on the school board.
Cleveland McDowell also served as a Sunflower County judge from 1978 to 1982 and ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 1978 and 1987. His friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, appeared in the Delta to help with the campaign. For a short time, McDowell was a legislative aide to conservative U. S. Senator Trent Lott. He later became a minister and organized a small church in Drew where he spent most of his days in the last three years of his life.
* * * * *
ON AUGUST 21, 1997 nineteen-year-old Juarez Webb of Indianola was indicted by Sunflower County grand jurors on charges of capital murder and robbery of McDowell. Recently, McDowell had been Webb’s court-appointed attorney on 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 says.
Five months later, Webb filed a petition to reduce his plea from capital murder to manslaughter, claiming he "shot and killed Cleve McDowell, without malice, in the heat of passion" and "not in necessary self-defense." At Webb’s preliminary hearing Drew Police Chief Burner Smith had testified that Webb told police "McDowell had thrown him on the floor and tried to pull his pants down to sexually assault him," reported the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
Webb’s plea was accepted and charges were reduced. "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," the Clarion-Ledger reported.
But then in July, Webb reversed himself again and filed a jailhouse petition to withdraw the manslaughter 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 … 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 that 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."
And 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."
Webb 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 pleas was made unwillingly, involuntarily and [he] was coerced to give his plea to avoid a big trial and publicity on his family."
Webb asked to withdraw his plea of guilty and to prove his innocence "so that the real suspect can be caught."
Webb asserted that he was "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,” Webb stated in his petition.
On July 9, 1999 Circuit Judge Gray Evans denied and dismissed Webb’s motion writing 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.
MEANWHILE, SIX MONTHS after McDowell’s murder, a fire occurred in downtown Drew, devastating the town’s largest department store and the lawyer’s vacant office next door. All of McDowell’s records collected for years on unsolved race-based murders, lynching and related crimes were reportedly destroyed.
Flames were so high that some Cleveland residents could see the "lighted sky" eleven miles away from Drew, according to news accounts. Some Drew residents reported hearing an "explosion" in Drew at the beginning of the fire.
Drew police chief Burner Smith refused to release the records of the fire asserting they are at the Sunflower County Courthouse in Indianola. Smith has since retired.
Hailey Gail Bridges, the Sunflower County assistant district attorney, stated the records, “if they are at the courthouse,” were not available to the public.
Bridges, a graduate of the University of Mississippi, 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," Nettie Davis said.
Like so many other blacks working for voting rights (and pro-integration whites, as well), McDowell was a Sovereignty Commission target and a moderate number of records remain in the commission’s files on him. McDowell had received advance copies of his Sovereignty Commission files “to look over before they were made public” – just one week before he was murdered. McDowell did not appear disturbed over what he saw, Davis said.
One record gave the name of a possible Jackson "homosexual partner" of McDowell’s while him as a young black man on the rise – someone who impressed the Governor. Another record placed him with James Meredith in a homosexual encounter.
* * * * *
SOMEHOW, MCDOWELL KNEW OF his preeminent death; he told his Drew minister, Rev. Jesse Gresham that he expected to die and asked Gresham to conduct the funeral service.
The minister believes McDowell’s murder could have been 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.”
McDowell had had invited Gresham and his wife 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 much of anything about this case, but I did hear that no attorney in Memphis would take it. Some say there might have been mob involvement."
But Gresham offered another story adding further mystery to McDowell’s murder. Two of McDowell’s close friends independently recalled this same incident that occurred several years before his death:
McDowell learned that a close friend, Henry S. Mims, an Alabama lawyer who also grew up in Drew, was dead – that he “committed suicide.” But McDowell did not believe Mims would kill himself – this was not in his personality.
McDowell and friends decided to drive to Alabama for the funeral, but McDowell said 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.
When McDowell arrived, Mims’ widow would not let him view his friend’s body and he 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, Gresham believes. "Cleve would have worked to find out what happened to Mims and he would never take ‘no’ for an answer."
By telephone, McDowell reported 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 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.
When McDowell and his minister got together back in Drew, McDowell again asserted there was no evidence of a suicide and 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."
And then McDowell said something strange, something "out of character."
“He asked me to promise I would conduct his funeral when the time should come – and he meant it,” Gresham said.
"I thought he was kidding at first, and I told him I would be dying before he would since I’m quite a bit older. But he was serious and he looked scared. I asked him if he knew what happened to Mims and if he knew who did it. He said yes, and then looked down and said nothing else."
For the next several years, McDowell – also a Baptist minister – rigorously decreased 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," recounted Davis, who with her husband, now deceased, confirmed the Mims story.
"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 office 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."
Mims had visited friends and family in Drew only a few weeks before he died. "He looked fine. He was happy then and I remember we all had dinner together," Davis’ husband said, adding he could not imagine Mims committing suicide.
Mims’ relatives in Drew all refused interviews. One family member said they were afraid to talk, adding “….but don’t give my name.”
Most of McDowell’s friends contacted asked not to be named if they talked about his murder. A former Parchman prison guard explained: "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" approached him 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."
* * * * *
CLEVE MCDOWELL BEGAN his public life as the quieter of two black students breaking grounds at the University of Mississippi. James Meredith in 1972 became the school’s first black student during a pivotal moment in civil rights leading to violence that left two dead and dozens of soldiers and federal marshals wounded. Then 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.
McDowell never made such a splash on the civil rights scene. He was “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, his entrance to the University of Mississippi’s law school was quiet and uninterrupted; the 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 files.
But 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. Evers, his 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 once visited him in Drew. Rev. Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and a host of others also stopped by McDowell’s office when coming into the region.
McDowell gave countless 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 did not elaborate, but stacked in the corner of his Drew office was a growing mound of boxes filled with files holding notes and reports. The same was true of his coffee table at home: between the two sites were every piece of paper McDowell had collected that had to do with a murder, lynching or some other civil rights-based crime, Davis said.
McDowell and two other lawyers (“…. perhaps Texans who went to school with Cleve,” Kwasi McDowell said), 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.
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. Appearing 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’ 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.
THERE IS NO QUESTION that McDowell and several other "well-known" civil rights veterans were quietly gay. It 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). And yet long-established rumors still circulate throughout Mississippi that Governor Ross Barnett, white and a Citizens Council member, was 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 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 was not surprised that any of McDowell’s family or friends would share knowledge of McDowell’s secret gay life, and did not question his murder because of their embarrassment.
“A deep-rooted and longstanding homosexual homicide mythology associates gay men with dangerous lifestyles and disgraceful deaths.” 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 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.]
But McDowell’s ghost is fading – helpful for the state of Mississippi and for many of his old friends and family members who appear embarrassed over aspects of his life. 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 several state positions by former governor Winters) and curators said they had never heard of him.
Officials from the James O. Eastland School of Law at the University of Mississippi refused to share any records about his short attendance there. When asked for a copy of a letter praising McDowell (its existence acknowledged by a staff member), the school’s dean said the letter did not exist.
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 Drew 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 did not want to give her name.
A young man from McDowell’s home town 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 gave no details.
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." Slaughter refused to be interviewed for this story, though.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, told Stringfellow 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.
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.
* * * * *
THE FAMILIAR SMELL of pan-fried catfish and steamy greens float into the air as an old friend of McDowell’s talked about the man he’d known for so many years.
"The streets are quieter now in Drew. Cleve was so bright and he was a true character.”
Walter Scurlock stopped preparing lunch for a moment at his restaurant on the center block of Drew’s Main Street near McDowell’s former law office and chuckle 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.”
Scurlock’s voice warmed when remembering how the small town lawyer would ‘fire’ his secretary every so often. “Oh, she’d stomp home, carrying her pink purse. I can see it now. Sometimes Cleve called out after her, saying he was really sorry and asking her to come back. Other times he walked to her house – sort of like he was crawling there – begging her to come back to the office.”
"Old Cleve was a special kind of guy," Scurlock said with a smile as he set out the day’s fare of deep-fried catfish, collard greens, fried okra and sweet tea.
"I sure miss him – We all do."
Copyright 2007--Susan Klopfer ("Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisisted," )