“I still think about Cleve McDowell, how brave he was and how he remains a forgotten civil rights hero, and wish that his murder would be reinvestigated,”
Klopfer, a graduate of Hanover College, is the author of Who Killed Emmett Till, The Emmett Till Story, and Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited. She is a former acquisitions and development editor for Prentice Hall, and has won journalist awards in Missouri for her investigative work.
McDowell, a small-town civil rights leader who investigated the murder of Emmett Till and so many others killed in the civil rights movement has been “pretty much” forgotten, Klopfer said.
“Go to Mississippi’
Klopfer said she learned of McDowell only because she asked a simple question about a gate protecting an unfinished home on the outskirts of Drew, Miss., where McDowell was born and later murdered.
“I was riding in a car with one of the matrons of this small Delta town. I saw the rusted gate and several large stakes driven into the ground. It looked like a construction project that was halted a number of years ago – and it turned out this was a home McDowell was building for himself at the time he was killed.”
Klopfer said she asked the driver of the car, a woman she was interviewing at the time on what happened – who abandoned the construction, and why.
“She would not look at me, but said a ‘bad’ lawyer was murdered, and was building this house at the time. That caught my attention and I started asking people about the ‘bad’ lawyer, and soon I began to piece together his story.
“He was an important person who set several state records for African Americans. His short stay at the University of Mississippi was controversial – he was kicked out for carrying a gun in self-defense. He had been chased by students with guns back to his car, and even when driving home.
"Nothing happened to the white students, but McDowell was booted out. His law professor helped him get into a Texas law school where he finished, and returned to Mississippi to practice law.
“But years later, when I approached the dean of the law school, asking for the letter of recommendation that was written for McDowell, back then, he refused to hand it over. Several years later, I received a copy of the letter from an archivist at the school. She personally pulled it from law school files so that it would be saved from destruction.”
Klopfer said she became even more intrigued with the story, when learning that another black lawyer, McDowell’s protégé and investigative partner, was killed in Alabama (“committed suicide”) several years before McDowell was murdered.
“I learned that McDowell went to Alabama and investigated his friend’s “suicide.”
“When McDowell returned home from Montgomery, he told a best friend this was not a suicide, but a murder – and there were signs of torture. He also told this friend, he would be next…”
Klopfer believes that McDowell and his friend were very likely investigating the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Many signs point in this direction. McDowell was a friend of King. He worked for the SCLC right out of law school, and on several occasions, Dr. King visited his office in the tiny town of Drew. After learning as much as I could about McDowell, I know that he was a dedicated and strong man, who investigated many murders in the Delta, and would not have left King’s assassination for others to solve.”
McDowell also had papers in his office from various investigations over the years, including the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago visitor to the Delta who was murdered in 1955.
“Those papers all disappeared soon after McDowell’s murder. Later on, his entire office ‘caught’ on fire.”
A young man was arrested for McDowell’s murder, and remains in prison.
“In his court records that I found in the basement of the Sunflower County Courthouse, I learned that he tried to commit suicide in jail, and that after confessing, he later said he did not kill McDowell, that he admitted guilt, because he was threatened he would be charged with a capital crime if he did not plead guilty.”
The autopsy leaves some real questions “after learning how McDowell’s murder was described in court.”
“Some pieces don’t fit the puzzle, and I believe that this murder is far more complex than what meets the eye. I never met McDowell, of course, because I did my research in 2004 and 2005. But every time I tried to interview family members and some friends or relatives about him, and about his murder, I ran into a brick wall.
“Cleve McDowell’s story may be further complicated, because he was gay (as were several other iconic civil rights figures, at the time) and he kept this secret. It has made it more difficult to find his true friends, and often when I do, they simply won’t talk because they are either afraid or embarrassed.”
Klopfer adds that “so little” is still reported and understood about the entire modern civil rights movement in Mississippi. “This is a small piece of the story, but I would really like to know some more truth – for now, this case is not closed.”
Autopsy Report - https://docs.google.com/