MURDER IN THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA

Marco McMillian was a strong contender in the upcoming Clarksdale mayoral race.

Twenty-year-old Lawrence Reed is expected to make his first court appearance this morning in Memphis, Tennessee.  Reed has been charged with murder in the death of Marco McMillian, the 34-year-old fundraising executive who was considered a “rising star” in Mississippi Democratic politics and running for mayor of Clarksdale.

“This is a tragedy," Assistant Professor of Political Science at Mississippi State University Ravi K. Perry told EBONY.com. Perry was a friend of McMillian and adviser to his campaign. “Marco McMillian had so much potential."

McMillian’s body was discovered near a Mississippi River levee on Wednesday, February 27. He had been missing since his car was involved in an accident on Tuesday. Police say Reed was driving McMillian’s SUV and “collided head-on with another vehicle,” reports The Clarion Ledger. Reed was airlifted to the Regional Medical Center in Memphis.

UPDATE: A statement from McMillian's family reveals that he was "beaten, dragged and set afire."

The aspiring politician was formerly the International Executive Director of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated and worked as a consultant to non-profit organizations. In January he announced his candidacy for the mayoralty of Clarksdale, the majority Black city of 21,000 on the banks of the Mississippi River where he grew up. The Mississippi Delta town is known for as the “home of the Mississippi Blues” music—and was the birthplace of Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters and Nate Dogg. Coahama County is majority Black and voted three-to-one for President Obama in 2012, according to Politico.

He was the epitome of the prodigal son. The Jackson State University graduate formerly was a development executive at Alabama A&M and Jackson State University,  helping to raise "$38 million and more than $16 million"  respectivelyfor each school, according to his biography. McMillian was recognized by EBONY in 2004 as one of the nation’s top 30 leaders under the age of 30.

Marco McMillian was also gay.

He has been described as "one of the 1st viable openly #LGBT candidates in Mississippi" by the Victory Fund, which helps elect openly LGBT candidates.  "Jarod Keith, a spokesman for his campaign, said he was believed [McMillian] was the first openly gay candidate to run for office in the state," reported the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

McMillian’s murder has threatened to become a tabloid-style case in this rural Delta town. Police investigators and several of the suspects' friends have said that Reed is claiming a "gay panic" defense.  But friends of McMillian “say the two men were romantically involved and quarreled immediately before the slaying,” reported the Clarion-Ledger.

Marco’s family and friends knew. But he wasn’t talking about his sexuality in press releases. He was talking about jobs, crime, housing—issues that were important to everyone.

“Marco’s family and friends knew. But he wasn’t talking about his sexuality in press releases,” Perry told EBONY.com. “He was talking about jobs, crime, housing—issues that were important to everyone.  He could have been successful in the mold of Charles Pugh,” he added, referring to the Black former newscaster who made history as Detroit’s first openly gay city council president in 2009.

“I live in Starkville, a college town, so it’s less of an issue. But being gay is still an issue for many people in Mississippi,” said Perry, who's own wedding to Paris Prince received national attention after it was featured in EBONY’s sister publication JET.  “It’s still a very complicated issue for many people—especially the many Black gay men and lesbians who live here.”

Mississippi boasts the highest percentage of Blacks of any state in the union—nearly 38 percent. “The state boasts the largest number of black elected officials. [Mississippi] is the poorest [and] places dead last in median household income,” reported TheGrio.com.

The state's socioeconomic disparities and history of racial intolerance and polarization are quite well known. What many people do not know: The state is also home to the nation’s largest number of Black same-sex households with children, according to census data reported in Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships and Motherhood Among Black Women by UCLA Associate Professor of Sociology Mignon Moore. Mississippi is also one of 29 states that have no statewide protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons.

“We have always been in our communities,” Moore—who married her wife last March in New York state—told EBONY.com. “The South has about 55 percent of the nation’s Black population.  These are also the places where Black same-sex households are mostly likely to raise children.“

One of the most notable examples: James C. Anderson, the 48-year-old Jackson man who was killed in a racially motivated hit and run murder by a group of racist, white Mississippi teenagers in June 2011. Anderson was gay and raising a child with his long term partner of two decades. After the New York Times reported Anderson’s sexuality,  reporting and interest nosedived across Black media.”

“There are many gay men and lesbians here—but we are often invisible,” says film director Patrik-Ian Polk, a native of Hattiesburg.