Racist Murder of Clifton Walker Could Still Be Solved after 59 Years
Near midnight on February 28, 1964, a mob of whites ambushed Clifton Earl Walker, Jr. on a dirt road in Southwest Mississippi. They stopped his car, gathered around it with shotguns and fired in at close range. It was possibly the first organized lynching of a Black man by the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. No arrests have ever been made. The murder could still be solved.
It is hard to overstate the viciousness of the white killing frenzy. They shot out all of the windows in Walker’s car. Multiple bullet holes were observed in at least one door. The steering wheel was shot off. Walker’s face was blown apart. “I can remember running under the tape, looking at the car,” after the body was removed, said Walker’s daughter Catherine. “The carpet was saturated with blood…. They removed me from under there, and everything else was just a blur.” She was 14.
The Mississippi Highway Patrol wanted to arrest two suspects in 1964, but the DA would not charge them. The FBI was also investigating—but by the end of the year state and federal authorities both dropped the case. In 2009, the Department Of Justice returned to the case as part of a federal effort to grapple with America’s legacy of racist killings through the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act (PDF) was authored by US Representative John Lewis. To date, the FBI has examined cases of 151 victims of racist crimes. And the Justice Department has closed at least 128 of these cases without a single prosecution.
The same year the FBI returned to the case, in 2009, I spoke to Rex Armistead—a retired Mississippi Highway Patrolman who led the state investigation in 1964. He told me the case could still be solved. He named a woman who had “all the information.” In 1964, at 21, she was the girlfriend of a notoriously violent Klansman named Ed Fuller, one of the men Armistead wanted to arrest. Fuller was long dead, but “she’s got all I think anybody would need,” Armistead said, and could easily still be alive.
Two years later, in 2011, I spoke on the phone with a Black man named Richard Joe Butler. On April 5, 1964, he was shot 3-4 times by a gang of hooded white men on the farm where he was a laborer, just 25 miles north of where Walker was murdered. Ed Fuller was also allegedly one of the men who shot Butler. In 2011, there were two other suspects in the Butler shooting who were still alive. One of them died in 2014, but the other is still alive in eastern Louisiana at 89.
Another lead involved a Black woman, named Mary Emma Sims (aka Emma Beasely). According to 1964 Highway Patrol documents, “she has knowledge of certain facts that would aid greatly in breaking this case.” I interviewed Sims twice in her Centreville, Miss. home. She was fearful and did not open up, even when Walker’s daughter Catherine was with me on the second interview. Sims died in 2013 and took whatever she knew about the murder to her grave.
I had begun hearing from FBI agents assigned to re-investigate the Walker case in 2010. In 2011, I got a call from SA Bradley Hentchel, who was the third agent on the case since 2009. Hentchel wanted me to give him Emma Sims and my reporting notes, which included unpublished leads. When I refused, Hentschel told me it would be my fault if Justice Department closed the case.
“I do not want to close this case,” Hentschel said, “but if I can’t develop any further leads… it’s going to be a hard sell to the DOJ, to even my supervisor, that I need to be running around two, two and a half hours away from the [Jackson] office with the gas budget the way that it is and everything else, beating down leads on this case or on any other case where we don’t have any active information coming in.”
The Justice Department closed the Walker murder in 2013. Judging from the department’s closing memo on the case, the FBI did not try to Ed Fuller’s girlfriend. They did not speak with the known living suspects in the Butler case who could be directly implicated in or have knowledge of the Walker murder. The bureau also ignored a number of other significant leads that I reported on while the Walker case was still under review and in the years since it was closed again.
When I first started hearing from the FBI in 2010, it was just five days after I reported on my blog that the Walkers had not been contacted as part of the investigation. The agent on the phone asked me to help him set up a meeting with the family. But before the meeting could be arranged, he was transferred off the case, and Hentschel was brought on. Hentschel said he wanted “a substantive meeting with the family.” But the first time the Walkers heard from the FBI was in November 2013, when an agent appeared at Catherine’s home to hand deliver a letter from the Justice Department, notifying her that the case was again closed.
“To get that letter in November, on my mother’s birthday, November 21, 2013, to get that letter saying they closed the case, that was really a blow,” Catherine said. “They only reported what was already done. There was nothing new.”
The next month, Catherine and two of her siblings, Shirley and Clifton, Jr., joined me back at the murder scene for an interview with Al Jazeera America. “We lost our father here. Our mother lost her husband here,” Catherine said, looking into the camera. “This place where Daddy was murdered has held all the secrets. Daddy, we are still seeking the truth. We want the world to know we will never stop.”
Clifton Walker murder
- A Deep South Cold Case Goes Frigid (Narratively)
- Decades after slaying, Mississippi family seeks justice (USA Today)
Attempted murder of Richard Joe Butler
The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act
- Un(re)solved (Frontline PBS)